Coping with our stress levels is an important part of ensuring our bodily and psychological health. Left unchecked, stress can wreak havoc on not only our mind and emotions, but also on our physiological health, in the form of heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease, and arthritis. With a demanding schedule that requires us to be in three places at once, finding time to manage stress can be easier said than done. The term “stress” was coined by Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist Dr. Hans Selye in 1936 to describe “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” So, in dealing with stress, our best option could be finding ways to help our mind and body deal with the ever-changing world around us by offering up some distractions. Here are five:
Stress originates in the brain and makes its way down to other parts of the body by way of cranial nerve endings. Through this point of origin, many experts believe the best way to relieve stress and anxiety is to start with the body and work your way back up to the brain. We can do this through many forms of light, moderate, or intense physical activity, depending on what your body can handle. Endorphins, natural painkillers produced by the brain, are generated at a high rate following any type of physical activity. Participating in physical activity can not only reduce tensions but also stabilize our mood, improve sleep, and expand our self-esteem.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends a healthy adult take in at least two and a half hours of moderate physical activity or one and a quarter hour of intense physical activity each week. In spite of these recommendations, you can start to feel the stress-reducing effects of weight training or a brisk walk within the first five minutes. Although a short walk around your block may only offer a couple of hours’ worth of stress relief, making a daily routine out of it could put an end to anxiety over time. For the best results, consider yoga. The combination of deep breathing and careful posing will wash away your concerns within 30 minutes.
2. Find a Hobby
Laying out on the couch enjoying some alone time may seem like a great way to release some tension, but let’s be honest: Being in our own head for too long isn’t good for anyone. That’s not to say we should glue ourselves to our work computers from sun up to sun down because for most of us that is precisely why we’re stressed. Instead, find something that interests you and devote a part of your day to it. Whether it’s picking up a musical instrument, starting a new sport, or finding new and inventive cooking recipes, a hobby can help focus our mind and diminish fatigue.
Just make sure your new hobby is something that engages your mind and body. If we don’t offer ourselves some type of challenge, we might as well head back to the couch. Our brain thrives on focusing in on a problem and solving that problem. When we devote around 30 minutes a day to an obstacle within our new interest, we free ourselves from cares and worries during that time and as we solve that obstacle we improve our self-esteem. Low self-esteem is a detriment to stress levels and can result in much bigger problems including depression.
3. Musical Therapy
You don’t have to know how to play or read music to enjoy its relaxing benefits. Simply listening to your favorite song or a soothing melody can be your greatest weapon in stress management. Music in this case is definitely up for interpretation. It can include the music of nature: water running down a brook, the songs of a bird, or a gentle breeze coming from the ocean. We all know a wandering mind can get us into trouble. Musical therapy can provide a positive distraction while at the same time offer us the best way to focus our attention. Particularly relaxing music can also balance our physiology by lowering stress hormone levels, slowing our heart rate, and decreasing blood pressure. For those of you with sleep troubles, listening to music before bed can help wash away whatever bothered you during the day, helping you sleep through the night. Lastly, a certain song or melody can stimulate your brain to think of a time when you were completely stress-free. The part of our brain that processes music is closely related to the part that controls memory. Be careful though. The wrong song can also drudge up some memories better left in the past.
4. Drink and Eat Right
Changing our diet to something that is both palatable and nutritious can help prevent the buildup of stress while relieving any anxiety we may already have. An unhealthy diet affects our stress in two ways. First, eating the wrong food can stimulate a negative response in our physiological makeup. This can include the addition of unwanted pounds and the release of stress hormones. One of the leading causes of stress is low self-esteem caused by body weight. Secondly, emotional eating or eating to suppress negative emotions can set up a vicious cycle by compounding feelings of stress, anger, sadness, and loneliness. Even if our new diet doesn’t result in our ideal physique, switching to certain types of food or drink can go a long way with improving our mindset.
What food options offer the best stress relief? The primary stress hormone in our body, cortisol, can damage our health in the form of high blood pressure, loss of immune function, more cholesterol, and trouble with learning or memory. To lower cortisol levels, many experts recommend tea, especially black, green, chamomile, mint, and barley. Food and drink rich in vitamin C can also reduce cortisol levels while giving the immune system a boost. Comfort foods such as oatmeal have been proven to reduce stress hormones while increasing serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter. Finally, dark chocolate can help improve our cognitive function and mood. Packed with antioxidants, cocoa supports the breakdown of gut bacteria while speeding up our metabolism.
5. Get in Touch with Nature
No need to plan a 10-mile run in the great outdoors. Simply taking your lunch to a park bench or a five-minute walk along the trees can help get rid of any stressful thoughts you may be harboring. This probably explains why big cities are the hubs for stressful people. Don’t be alarmed, city folk. The beautiful landscape of Central Park is enough to produce a calming effect. Surrounding yourself with nature in any form has been proven to reduce cortisol levels while improving a person’s overall mood. When it comes to nature, experiencing it for yourself is always better than seeing it through your TV.
A recent study conducted by the University of Washington asked 90 college students to complete a task while confined to an office setting. Thirty students completed the task in front of a window that overlooked a large fountain and trees. A second group of 30 students completed the task in front of a plasma screen that showed the same scenery. The final group of 30 students completed the task while facing a blank wall. Each student’s stress level was tested via heart recovery rate, and a camera displayed their eye movement toward the window. Findings revealed that students with the window view of lush scenery exhibited lower heart rates while spending as much time looking out the window as students with the plasma screen in front of them.