|Bojana Jankovic Weatherly, MD FACP MSc IFMCP
Functional Medicine Doctor
Stress Management Expert
In our last article we talked about how stress affects gut health. We discussed how our bodies are unable to differentiate true danger from modern-day stress. The same fight or flight response is triggered when our ancestors were running from a saber tooth tiger or now when we are dealing with a grouchy boss. The stress response is designed to keep us safe, but when it happens too often, it can have a devastating impact on our health.
In fact, chronic stress is one of the most common and serious health challenges of our time. Multiple studies have clearly identified stress as a major risk factor for multiple chronic diseases. Humans are naturally programmed to seek security and control; with the fast pace and unpredictable nature of modern life, it can be very hard for us not to worry about things that are beyond our control. Stress can take over our lives, if we let it.
Luckily, research is also catching up in the area of stress management. There are a number of techniques that effective at relieving stress. So while we can’t always control stressful events, using some of these tools can help us manage how we respond to challenging situations.
6 Stress Management Activities & Tips to Transform Your Life
Here are a few of my favorite practices that I recommend to patients to build stress resiliency. They have helped me and many of my patients live a more mindful, healthier and happier life. You don’t have to do all of these at once, of course. Start with the ones you feel most connected to and do them regularly. It takes some trial-and-error to find the right fit practices that you like and that suit your lifestyle. Taking control of stress allows you to be in the driver’s seat of your life and well-being.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Looking for an all-natural, backed by science method to relieve stress, battle anxiety, calm the mind, improve mood, manage pain, and even reduce inflammation in your body?
Developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a molecular biologist and a Buddhist monk, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a program that brings traditional Buddhist spiritual and meditative practices into the Western healthcare setting to help people suffering from chronic disease and psychological distress.
There is an abundance of research on the benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction for psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic pain, eating disorders, gut disorders and even heart health. Just to give you an example, one study found that practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction improved symptoms and inflammatory markers in individuals with inflammatory bowel disease. MBSR is a powerful way to tap into the mind-body connection.[1,2]
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an ancient practice in which you focus your attention on the present moment, with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance, and without passing any judgement.
This state of awareness helps you watch your life from an observer’s point of view, rather than from a judging one. The human brain is designed to constantly observe and judge our surroundings and ourselves. How often do you tell yourself, “I could have done better, I should have done better. Why haven’t I done that?” Not surprisingly, we tend to judge other people as well.
The mindfulness-based stress reduction program gives you the tools to observe these natural human tendencies with curiosity, rather than to get caught up in them. This way, you have more control over your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
The practice includes several forms of meditation, such as walking, sitting or lying down meditation, and body scan meditations, which I find very helpful for people with physical or emotional pain. With body scan meditations, we increase our awareness of the parts of our body where we experience pain, rather than trying to run away from painful symptoms.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction courses are offered in several cities in the US and around the world. They are also available online. If you are looking for a natural way to manage stress and want to deep dive into these evidence-based meditative practices, I highly recommend taking the time and exploring this option.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is not the only way to enjoy the many benefits meditation has to offers to both our physical and emotional health.
Meditation practice, even if it is just a few minutes a day, can make a difference in how we perceive and respond to stress. Consistency is key!
Allow your mind and body to relax in the present moment, so you become more aware of stressful situations, negative thoughts, emotions or insecurities. This allows you to observe your thoughts with compassion and understanding, rather than trying to suppress or control your emotions or physical sensations. This ultimately results in less suffering.
We are only humans, and we all make mistakes. Forgiving ourselves and others is not always easy. Nevertheless, it can help us move forward and prevent being burdened by negative thoughts from our past that only lead to stress in our present.
There is extensive research about the benefits of meditation to manage stress and improve our state of well-being. If you are new to meditation or have a difficult time meditating by yourself, you may want to look into a guided meditation, which can help introduce mediation in your daily routine.
I have personally found that regular meditation allows me to gain a healthier perspective and a calmer state of mind. A regular practice helps me make daily decisions with more clarity and confidence.
Some of my favorite resources for meditation include:
Some of my favorite resources for meditation include:
4-7-8 Breathing Technique
One of my favorite breathing exercises that I do personally and regularly recommend to many of my patients is the 4-7-8 breathing method that was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil.
To do the 4-7-8 breathing technique:
- Keep your tongue in the yogic position, so the tip of the tongue touches behind your upper front teeth
- Breath in quietly through your nose for four seconds
- Hold your breath for seven seconds
- Blow air out forceful through your mouth for eight seconds, making a whoosh sound
- Repeat for four breath cycles
- Do this at least twice a day, ideally every morning and just before you go to sleep.
Rhythmic breathing exercises such as the 4-7-8 technique are a great way to naturally put your body into a state of deep relaxation, by sending a signal to your brain to reset the fight or flight response.
As you become more familiar with this practice, you may be able to use it intuitively as a tool to help you fall asleep quicker, relieve tension, have better control during stressful situations, or reduce and even eliminate anxiety and panic attacks.
Setting aside time in our busy schedule so we get enough sleep is not always the first thing people look for in regards to stress management activities. The connection between sleep and stress, however, is well documented. Sleep is essential for healthy brain function, it allows the body to heal, and it plays a key role in our ability to effectively handle stress.
Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep per night and try to keep your bedtime and wake times consistent to improve the quality of your sleep.
Another evidence-based method I have found to be helpful for patients with stress-related conditions and symptoms is a biofeedback tool called Heart Math.
Heart Math is an app you download to your smartphone that works with a sensor you place on your finger or ear that measures your heart rate.
Using the sensor data, the app can detect healthy breathing and heart rhythm patterns of a relaxed, focused state of mind that is often linked to gratitude. Additionally, the app recognizes unhealthy patterns that are linked to stress.
While using the app, you learn to train your mind-body connection and shift your mood to a calmer, focused healthier state.
Multiple studies have shown that Heart Math technology and training can improve mental and emotional well-being including symptoms of stress and insomnia.
Exercise & Movement
Exercise is a well-known natural stress reliever and mood booster that can distract you from the daily noise, and elevate feel-good, stress-relieving hormones.
Whether you love jogging, dancing, high intensity workouts, gentle yoga exercises, or walking, the best exercise for stress management is the one you enjoy doing that can fit into your daily lifestyle and work schedule.
Depending on your stress levels and lifestyle, stress management requires a daily commitment. The good news is that some of these activities and techniques only require a few minutes a day.
To fully reach our potential and thrive, it is essential that we turn down the constant fight or flight response modern life triggers in order to allow our bodies and minds to help us live the best life we all deserve.
If you are dealing with stress, anxiety or mood symptoms, please contact your qualified healthcare provider.
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