STRESS! It’s not always bad. I’ve had good stress: being super busy finishing up school and opening my own studio, all the while still working as a free-lance Personal Trainer and Group Ex instructor Despite my sleepless nights, I still viewed this as good stress: I was growing professionally and embarking on a new chapter in my career. Then there’s bad stress: a job you hate, a stalled marriage, or a horrible boss. The pain of making a change in this situation is real and the fear of making the wrong change even worse. Then there’s the super bad stress: a sick spouse, dying parent or God forbid a terminally ill child. The latter stress is the absolute worst and will probably require mental health therapy, but the following self-care and stress management techniques might still prove valuable.
Mindset is an important variable in your reaction to stress. Some people manage stress better than others. An interesting theory by Dr. Charles Raison is that high levels of inflammation lead to increased stress responses. If you are consistently depressed and anxious, one of those people who ALWAYS see’s the glass half-empty, you might be interested in Dr. Charles Raison’s study on using hyperthermia (i.e. heat exposure) to alleviate depression. His work goes beyond the scope of this blog post, but suffice it to say, if you’re suffering from depression and feel achy and inflamed (depression and pain pathways are similar), Hot Yoga might be an excellent protocol for you. Please check with your doctor before embarking on any strenuous activities.
Studies have shown that exercise can be as effective as anti-depressants in reducing moderate stress. This makes total sense as when you are stressed your body is in “flight or fight mode”. Our ancestors usually got into this mode only when they were faced with physical challenges, e.g. running from a lion or fighting an unfriendly clan. Unfortunately, we go into this mode today because of a traffic tie up or work deadline. Not exactly a life or death situation. Your best course of action is to get in some activity. Quickly walk the length of the parking lot, do squats (go to the bathroom and do them over a toilet seat if you don’t have any privacy). Just. Get. Moving.!!!
It’s also a good idea to incorporate several formal workouts a week. Mode matters less than frequency. Mix things up to avoid injury: spin, Zumba, Cross Fit. Many studies also suggest there are huge benefits to mind body modalities like Yoga and Tai Chi as they incorporate meditation into their practice. I’ll discuss these modalities in more detail below.
There’s a reason we say, “take a deep breath” when you’re stressed. Studies have shown breath focus can be especially helpful for people with eating disorders. Note: breath work may not be appropriate for those with health problems such as respiratory ailments (even allergies and a common cold can make some of these modalities difficult) or heart failure as they can make breathing difficult. Here are several breath work techniques. My personal favorite is box breathing, but you do what works best for you. Take at least six deep breaths when faced with a stressful situation.
This is the basis for the other two breaths I’ll be sharing with you. When we are stressed and anxious, our breathing becomes shallow. In order to relax and activate our para-sympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), change your breath as follows:
- Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Take an inhale and feel the breath go into your belly.
- Let your shoulders and the muscles of your upper body relax down as you exhale.
- Pause for a few seconds before you begin the next inhale.
- Keep your mouth closed and inhale again gently pushing out your tummy. The movement of the belly precedes the inhale by a fraction of a second. When you’ve inhaled as much as you can (without shrugging your shoulders), stop.
- Slowly exhale, through nose or mouth as you draw your belly in and allow the air to leave your body.
In this simple, powerful technique, you take long, slow, deep belly breaths as outlined above.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to the count of four. Feel the air fill your lungs, one section at a time, until your lungs are completely full and the air moves into your abdomen. (Feel free to increase the count to five or six if needed, just match that count for steps 2-4)
- Hold your breath and slowly count to four.
- Exhale through your nose or mouth for the same slow count of four. Be conscious of the feeling of the air leaving your lungs.
- Hold your breath for the same slow count of four before repeating this process.
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)
A little more complicated than box breathing, but also more powerful in realigning the mind-body and bringing balance to scattered emotions. The instructions below are borrowed from Chopra Center Website, a great resource for meditation and yoga. If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s a You Tube Video demonstrating the technique.
The fingers you’ll be actively using are the thumb and ring finger.
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out through your nose.
- Close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril slowly and steadily.
- Close the left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed; retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause.
- Open your right nostril and release the breath slowly through the right side; pause briefly at the bottom of the exhale.
- Inhale through the right side slowly.
- Hold both nostrils closed (with ring finger and thumb).
- Open your left nostril and release breath slowly through the left side. Pause briefly at the bottom.
- Repeat 5-10 cycles, allowing your mind to follow your inhales and exhales.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to take a huge dive into meditation. It’s a complex, powerful modality with many formats, that can take years to perfect. The ones I’m outlining below are best for beginners or those struggling to quiet their mind while breathing.
I like to listen to an on-line guide or take a class for this technique, which blends breath focus with progressive muscle relaxation to boost your mind body connection. After a few minutes of deep breathing, you focus on one part of the body or group of muscles at a time and mentally release any physical tension you feel there. This technique might not be as effective for people with body image dysmorphia or those recovering from a painful injury or surgery.
For this technique, you conjure up soothing scenes, places, or experiences in your mind to help you relax and focus. There are lots of free on-line recordings. Make sure to find a scene that you find peaceful. If you have difficulty conjuring up mental images or have lots of intrusive thoughts, this format might not be the right for you.
For this technique, you silently repeat a short prayer or phrase from a prayer while practicing breath focus. This method may be especially appealing if religion or spirituality is meaningful to you.
This practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and bringing your mind’s attention to the present moment without drifting into concerns about the past or the future. This technique is often very difficult for people to master. Be kind to yourself and don’t strive for perfection. It’s okay to start with one minute bouts several times a day. The struggle is worth it as this form of meditation, and its more structured cousin, Transcendental Meditation, has been shown to be helpful for people experiencing pain, anxiety and depression. It’s also been linked to a longer healthier more productive life.
Yoga, tai chi, and qigong
These three ancient arts combine rhythmic breathing with a series of postures or flowing movements. The physical aspects of these practices offer a mental focus that can help distract you from racing thoughts. They can also enhance your flexibility and balance. There are many forms of these arts and some are definitely more physically challenging than others. If you are stressed from extreme physical activity, e.g. training for an Ironman Triathlon, use a gentle practice to release physical stress and help with recovery. On the other hand, if your stress is more mental, e.g. divorce, you might benefit form a more robust routine. Note: if you are not normally active, have health problems, or a painful or disabling condition, these relaxation techniques might be too challenging. Check with your doctor before starting them.
It’s pretty reckless to start randomly supplementing with vitamins, minerals and herbs without a full workup by your Doctor. If you don’t have insurance, you can go to a site like WellnessFx for by mail blood work. (You go to Quest Labs to have the blood drawn).
Because most of the bodies serotonin is made in the gut, many folks take probiotics for a healthy microbiome and by extension, a stress-free mind. This sounds great, but what is the right probiotic for you? I think it’s worthwhile to have your poop analyzed. UBiome used to do it for free, but they might be charging a small fee now. It tells you if you have parasites and what bacteria are flourishing in your gut. This is useful information, as some bacteria have been linked to health risks such as obesity. It’s a one-time snapshot, and your gut can change hourly. If you want to take a deeper dive, try Viome. It costs about $399/year, but the report is more detailed and you can repeat the test multiple times to see how your diet, supplements and stress management techniques are effecting your gut microbiome. (Note: I have no affiliation with either site.)
Now that I’ve given all my disclaimers, here are a few stress management supplements that might have flown under the radar and have some clinical trials under their belt to prove effectiveness. These come from a listing found at Examine.com , my favorite site for unbiased reporting on nutrition.
- L-theanine: Naturally found in green tea, especially matcha. Easy to add to your diet by replacing your afternoon cup of coffee with matcha green tea.
- Ashwagandha: An adaptogenic herb used in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s often found in green super food powders. I put a scoop in my morning smoothie.
- Rhodiola: This plant grows naturally in the high altitudes of Europe and Asia. This might be good supplement to increase energy in the event of a stressful situation.
- Saffron: An expensive spice, that gives food a beautiful hue and also appears to confer antidepressive properties.
- Lavender or Rose Essential Oils: This isn’t really a supplement, but studies show putting these oils in a diffuser will reduce the stress of those in the room.
- Reishi Mushrooms: This didn’t come from Examine.com, but it’s an ingredient in my favorite nighttime de-stressing beverage Organifi Gold. I have no affiliation with this company, but it appears to be the cleanest “golden milk” product on the market.
Life is filled with stressful events. How you respond to these stressors is huge component to not only quality of life, but also longevity. If you find yourself having a hard time functioning through activities of daily living, get professional help. Try to find a functional practitioner who will help you incorporate movement, diet and mindfulness techniques as you journey to a calmer more centered person. Stay chill my friends.