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This week’s post is an update to the original posted on January 23, 2019.
You are definitely not alone.
In my home country (United States), stress levels have remained high for the past several years. Our nail-biting, ulcer-inducing issues include things like work, money, and lack of emotional support.
But that’s not all. Over half of us are also worried about
issues in general society, like mass violence, health care, terrorism, and
To state the obvious: it’s not usually the stress
that you and I feel we can do something about that brings on the ulcers.
It’s the stuff we feel we can’t control.
This type of stress quickly becomes toxic to the body and brain.
It makes us feel helpless and hopeless.
It leads to the most common mental disorders in the world today: depression and anxiety.
But while it’s true that we all face a lot of stress, it’s also true that we can control our response to that stress.
Five Steps to Reduce Stress
Let’s break down five steps we can all take to deal with stress.
Yup, you heard me right. The first thing on our list is to start doing more of…nothing.
And the reason is, poor rest leads to poor concentration and increased chances of stupid, stress-inducing mistakes.
In a recent study of firefighter paramedics, sleep was found to impact their ability to deal with traumatic events. More specifically, sleep was one of the factors that determined whether they remained resilient or developed symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
So, one way to avoid at least some types of physical or
emotional stress is to relax more and get better quality rest.
Easier said than done, right?
Some of us are wound up so tight that relaxation seems an
impossible pipe dream.
If you’re not getting the rest and relaxation you need, try
- Use progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing exercises to fight off stress during the day.
- Get exposed to bright, outdoor light for at least 30 to 60 minutes per day. This helps boost “feel good” brain chemicals brain that help us deal with stress and lighten our mood.
- Getting enough exercise every day will also boost these chemicals and help us get a better nights’ sleep.
- Limit your exposure to blue-light emitting devices (laptops, smartphones, etc.) for at least 2 hours before bedtime.
- Start a bedtime ritual that includes winding down work projects and turning off media devices. This puts your brain into “Now it’s time to rest” mode.
- Try this nightly relaxation technique by the National Sleep Foundation
2. Spend some time every day doing something that brings you joy.
The first obvious benefit is that this will help relax you.
But joy-filled projects or hobbies also provide a much-needed mental vacation.
This mental oasis helps reduce feelings of distress. Recreational
activities like painting, singing, dancing, and just spending more time in
green spaces, have all been shown to improve mental health.
In clinical populations, recreational therapy successfully
reduces symptoms of depression.
So, go ahead – take a walk or bike ride through the local
park, join a community club, indulge in your favorite hobby.
You’re doing your brain some good.
3. Eat Healthy.
includes drinking more water.
Here’s a short, science nerd explanation for why this is important: dehydration causes our blood to become more concentrated. To correct this, water is leached from nearby cells in the body and returned to the bloodstream.
When this happens in the brain, it can change brain
structure and function.
Just like your favorite houseplant, your brain also perks up when it’s well hydrated. It will feel less tired, sad, depressed and anxious.
Eat a little more fruit and vegetables.
A large study of almost 300,000 people recently confirmed
what we kind of already suspected: the more fruit and vegetables you and I eat,
the less risk we have for depression.
This makes sense because fruit and vegetables have high
payloads of vitamins, minerals, and other substances used to make important brain
chemicals that affect our mood.
So, there you go: more fruit and vegetables: more vitamins
and minerals: more brain chemicals: better mood.
But there was something in particular that struck me about
this study: even a little more can make a difference. An average serving of
vegetables is 75 grams; a serving of fruit is 100 grams. The researchers
reported that every 100 g of fruit or vegetables consumed decreases depression
risk by a small percentage.
My take-home point is this: just one more serving a day will
do your brain some good.
4. Use more stress-reducing beliefs.
There are lots of these, but a good one to start with is the Serenity Prayer.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
5. Talk nicely to yourself.
While we often respond to stress in a physical way, the more
important actions happen in the mind.
Instead of getting lost in a mire of negative thoughts, we
should, as quickly as possible, think of a positive path forward.
In a nutshell, positive self-talk involves:
- jumping to a positive conclusion first, not
- believing the best in others and oneself; and
- trusting that difficult situations are fixable
and that they won’t last forever.
Recent surveys show that Americans – and global citizens around the world – are dealing with some pretty heavy stress.
But feeling stressed does not always have to lead to feeling
anxious and depressed.
All five action steps listed above have proven their
stress-busting worth in scientific studies.
If you promise to do one or all of them, then so will I.
Best of luck and be well in 2020!
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Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.