While stress is a normal part of life, the ways in which we perceive and respond to it can have a profound impact on our health. Feeling burdened with stress can easily lead to issues such as insomnia, recurrent viral infections, muscle tension, headaches, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, anxiety and poor concentration- to name just a few. The long term consequences are even more dire- such as stroke, heart disease, and depression. The silver lining is that it is never too late to reap benefits from changing the ways that you respond to stress. And like every other type of workout, it requires continual practice and maintenance to remain effective.
From my perspective as a naturopathic doctor, I would like to share some quick tips about stress management. They won’t cost you a dime, and they are appropriate for everyone to practice- these are simple ways to save your health. My goal in practice is to help you to thrive in your ability to work, play and handle your responsibilities, as well as to inspire you to maintain a healthier state of mind and body so that you can better participate in, and appreciate, all aspects of your life.
- Schedule personal time in your planner. Many of us feel “on call” all the time, and this can blur the boundaries between work and home, especially after hours. It is important to establish scheduled times when you are completely unplugged from work. This scheduled time deserves the same degree of respect you would reserve for a meeting with an important customer. (In this case, it’s you!) Taking a break and protecting your sanity will help you to be more efficient and productive when you are at work.
- Create some “wind down” rituals to help detach you from your workday in the evenings, and be consistent with bedtimes and waking times. Try getting a massage, taking a warm bath with Epson salts, listening to music, or enjoying essential oil scents such as lavender, evergreen, ylang ylang or vanilla. Easy, repetitive tasks to get you “out of your head” are helpful to reduce the background noise in your head when are feeling frazzled. Try jigsaw puzzles, knitting, cooking, or light reading. Avoid watching/reading the news before bed, or watching TV programs that are over stimulating and disturbing.
- Get outside for a walk every day. Even if you only have 10 minutes to get outside in the morning, or during a lunch break, moving your body can help you loosen up those tense muscles and refresh your abilities to focus. When your retinas are exposed to natural sunlight during breaks each day, it stimulates hormones that help to re-establish and maintain your natural circadian rhythm, and you will sleep better at night.
- Incorporate “relaxing” types of practice into your day. While aerobic activities and weightlifting are important ways to dispel stress and keep you healthy on many levels, it is just as important to introduce slower mind/body activities- Hatha yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, meditation and light stretching are all great ways to help your muscles release and to teach you the skills to quiet your mind on demand. If you are a high-powered person, it is all the more pertinent to learn how to slow down and create balance your life.
- Breathe! Taking multiple breaks each day to take in deep, slow belly breaths (4-6 seconds inhale, 8-12 seconds exhale) actually stimulates the parasympathetic system of your body, which has the opposite effect of the “fight or flight” system. Take advantage of this effect and use it whenever you feel like you need a mini break, or to improve your focus and clear mental fog instantly.
- Nutrition. Don’t grab that candy bar! Many of us gravitate to sweets and salty snacks when we feel tired and stressed out. (Hello, Dunkin’ Donuts!) In addition to the fact that this is just not a healthy way to feed your body, it is important to realize that the instant gratification of the sugar rush and feel-good hormone release will only send you to crash a few hours later- when you will be even more hungry, tired and cranky. The best advice is to keep the junk food completely out of the house, and out of the office. Instead, keep some high protein snacks such as mixed nuts and seeds, yogurt, slices of cheese and whole grain crackers, or apples with peanut butter within easy reach to keep your mood and energy levels more consistent- and to help avoid that afternoon slump.
It is important to pay attention to the unique ways that stress can affect you. If you can learn the first signs, whether it is a tightening sensation in the neck or shoulders, or feeling the heart pound or flutter, or just feeling a bit irritable, this is the time to take a break, breathe slowly and deeply, and count to 10. The sooner that you learn to defuse a stressful internal response, the better you will feel later in the day- and later in life!
Cora Rivard, N.D., is a licensed family naturopathic doctor and owner of Seasons Natural Healthcare, LLC- north of Boston.