The Most Effective Ways To Manage & Reduce Stress In Your Life
Imagine you were a visitor to our culture from another world. One of the first things you might notice is the ubiquity of chronic stress. You might well believe, from even a cursory observation of our busy, modern lives, that being stressed, anxious, depressed, irritable, addicted to caffeine, and constantly craving salty or sugary foods was normal human behavior. But just because something is common doesn’t make it normal.
The average person has approximately 60,000 thoughts every day, and although that seems like a lot, Stanford researcher Dr. Fred Luskin has found that a staggering 90% of those thoughts are repetitive. Think about that: 9 out of 10 of your thoughts are ones you have over and over again. How unoriginal! What’s worse, for many people, these thoughts are not only repetitive, but negative.
Repetitive, incessant, negative thoughts are stressful, no doubt about it, and over time they can trigger a prolonged cycle of chronic stress that can be seriously damaging to overall health. One study found that psychological stress actually suppresses immunity and increases inflammation. Stress can also be a trigger for autoimmune problems. Research (1) from 2001 revealed that patients with Graves’ disease had more stressful life events before their diagnosis compared to control groups.
Short version: Stress is bad for you! But for most of us, so much of our day is wrapped up in the sublime storm of unconscious, repetitive thought that we don’t even notice how actively we are keeping our own stress alive and thriving.
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Let’s take a look at nine ways stress can impact your body, according to research – not to stress you out further, but to give you nine critical reasons to finally take back your life by managing your stress.
9 Ways Stress Can Impact Your Health
1. Your brain on stress
Stress triggers a chain reaction in your brain, as your hypothalamus sends orders to your adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline. One study (2) published in the medical journal Molecular Psychiatry found that chronic stress can actually cause long-term changes in the structure and function of the brain that can contribute to mental health issues. Other research has shown an association between chronic stress and increased risk of depression, anxiety, insomnia, (3) and even dementia. (4)
2. Your weight on stress
When gaining weight keeps getting easier but losing it keeps getting harder, the culprit may be stress. A study (5) published in Biological Psychiatry found that chronic stress alone can slow your metabolism and increase cravings enough to make you gain 11 pounds every year! Plus, when you’re stressed, your body holds on to fat as an emergency resources, which can make weight loss feel nearly impossible.
3. Your immune system on stress
Many of my patients with autoimmune conditions have noticed their health declining or experience symptom flares during a stressful life event. Research has confirmed the stress-autoimmune connection. A 2012 study (6) published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that childhood traumatic stress increased the likelihood of being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease later in life.
4. Your thyroid on stress
The thyroid gland is particularly sensitive to stress in multiple ways. For example, some studies suggest (7) that stress decreases your conversion from T4 (inactive) to T3 (active) leading to low T3 syndrome, that stress can trigger autoimmune thyroid problems (Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease), and that stress can also cause or worsen thyroid resistance. (8) For more on this, read about some of the underlying thyroid problems that may not show up on your standard labs.
5. Your gastrointestinal system on stress
The gut is often called the second brain because of the direct connection between these two systems. For example, the gut contains 95% (9) of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. A 2011 study (10) published in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology suggests that stress is linked to gastrointestinal conditions like IBS, GERD, and ulcers, demonstrating another aspect of this connection.
6. Your heart on stress
One of the most stressful jobs is caretaker for an ailing partner, child, or parent, and a study (11) in Psychosomatic Medicine found that caregivers under chronic stress had an increased rate of heart disease, compared to non-caregivers. Work is another major source of stress for many, and a BMJ study (12) suggested that stress at work is an important risk factor for metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions – like high triglycerides (a fat found in the blood) and high blood sugar – that raise your risk of heart disease and other health problems.
7. Your eyes and ears on stress
Have you ever noticed your eyelid twitching? Chronic stress can lead to eyelid twitching and spasms, as well as being linked to ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and inner-ear-related vertigo, (13) both of which can be debilitating.
8. Your adrenal glands on stress
One University of California, Berkeley, study showed that while the brain is responsible for signaling the release of cortisol through the HPA (brain-adrenal) axis, it can sometimes damage itself by releasing excess cortisol because chronically high cortisol can create a domino effect that actually changes pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala. This can become a vicious cycle wherein the brain becomes hard-wired to remain in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Over time, this can also lead to a debilitating condition commonly called adrenal fatigue.
9. Your chromosomes on stress
Telomeres, the end-caps to your chromosomes, can be shortened by aging and disease, in turn shortening lifespan. In general, the longer your telomeres, the longer your life, and vice versa. But even chronic stress can shorten telomere length, accelerating aging, according to what some research has shown. Another study (14) found that women under chronic stress had shorter telomeres equivalent to a decade of aging compared with women who reported low stress.
But you can end the cycle of stress. Just as I help my patients detox and reset their physical bodies, I also help them detox their lives from the chronic stressors that raise their blood pressure and blood sugar and wreck their health.
Functional Medicine Tips To Reduce Stress
1. Create a family code word that means “Put down the device and be present”
When my kids say “screen free, daddy,” it pops me right back into the present moment, forcing me to put down my phone and return to the precious time I have with my kids. (They are wise!)
2. Enforce phone-free time
Next time you are out to eat with your family or friends, suggest that everyone put their cellphones in the middle of the table. Whoever grabs their phone first has to pay the bill!
3. You don’t need to respond this second
Resist the new (disturbing) cultural norm that pressures us to be always instantly available, at the expense of the actual people and world around us. You can answer that email or respond to that text later. They can wait.
4. Find a better way to start and end your day
What is the first thing you do in the morning, and the last thing you do at night? For many people, that has become mindlessly checking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, or checking for texts and emails. This trend is alarming because it sets the tone for the day and summarizes the day. Is that what your day was about? Instead, try bookending your day with a walk outside, yoga, or meditation. Or an actual book!
5. Try whole family electronics-cleanse days
No computers, no TV, no (yikes) cell phones. Nothing electronic. Live like the olden days and see what happens to your family relationships. It will probably be difficult at first and you may meet with some initial resistance, but who knows what miracles could transpire. And once everyone adjusts, you all just might like living fully in the real world for a day!
6. Declutter your clothes
If you haven’t worn it in a year or more (or every time you wear it, you regret it), send it along to someone else who could benefit from it more. You don’t have to limit this to clothes, either. Look around at what fills up your house. If it isn’t useful and you don’t love it, sell it on ebay or give it to a charity.
7. Indulge yourself with a social media-free week
Wait, wouldn’t that be more torture than indulgence? Hardly. When you give yourself a social media cleanse, you give yourself a great gift – the opportunity to see what you could do with your time when you don’t have to check the “Likes” on your witty status updates or your extremely flattering selfie. If you like how you feel after one week, maybe you need another! (If you need to be on social media for your job, try keeping it 100% at the office).
8. Leave your work at work
And speaking of your job, many of my patients say they found much more value than they every could have imagined by drawing the boundaries between work and home more firmly. When you’re home, refuel yourself by being present with the ones you love and don’t give work a thought until you get there the next morning. Your spouse, children, and friends will thank you.
9. End binge-watching
When you say you’re “getting behind on your shows” with the same conviction as “I need to get healthy” or “I need to spend more time with my family,” consider that you might just have a serious problem. When the DVR is filled and watching TV becomes another job to keep you with, maybe you need to rethink your priorities and go on a TV detox. Instead of taking your vacation days to catch up on your shows, try reducing the shows you “need” to watch that are cluttering your life and spending more time actually doing things instead of watching actors do things.
10. Take a nap
One great way to give your mind a rest is to quite literally take a rest. Studies have shown that 15-minute naps can help reduce stress and tension (15). Even if you lay down and shut your eyes for 20 minutes, you can ease a racing mind and give yourself a few minutes to breathe.
When it comes to mental health support, exercise is king. Just like meditation, studies have shown that exercise can lead to improvements in anxiety (16) and depression (17). If you’re looking to improve your mental health but can’t seem to get into meditation, taking a barre class, going for a run, or even doing a 10-minute at home HIIT workout is a great practice to adopt.
Writing down your thoughts can be an extremely effective way to reduce stress and support healing. Studies have shown (18) that writing, especially expressive writing, is a therapeutic tool for survivors of trauma. If you’re not sure where to start, grab a notebook and write a list of things in your life that you’re grateful for. Gratitude has also been shown to reduce stress (19) and improve mental health.
Laughing is therapeutic in and of itself, so listening to a comedy special or spending time with your funniest friend is a good way to support a positive mood and calm your mind. According to Mayo Clinic, (20) “Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.” Sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it?
14. Take a walk
Taking a walk, especially in nature, can be a game changer for your mental state. Research, like one study published in Frontiers in Public Health, showed that walking in a forest environment (21) for 15-minutes significantly lowered cortisol levels. So take a walk on the beach, in the park by your house, or around the neighborhood in honor of your stress levels.
Singing is one of the most underrated mindfulness practices. In fact, it’s a type of meditation in and of itself. Studies have shown (22) that singing can modulate stress, mood, and cortisol. So go ahead and blast your favorite playlist to and from the office!
16. Read a novel
Escaping in a book is a great way to ground yourself in the present moment. And it may help reduce stress significantly. According to independent research by the Mindlab International at the University of Sussex, reading for just six minutes a day can significantly reduce stress levels.
17. Reality-check your to-do list
To-do lists are great. But be real about it. Don’t make a list of a week’s worth of work. Just today’s. Start with the most urgent items so you can tick those off first, then add the work that is longer-term or lower priority. Really look at your list. Is it possible to do all those things today? If not, trim it down, then as you go through your day, check off or highlight the tasks as you complete them.
This approach will help you discard the mental clutter and organize the important things in a way that will best help you get things done without rushing or worrying you are forgetting something. This should make you more productive at your job, but even more importantly, it will help you work with a sense of calm, order, and confidence. But also remember, if it all doesn’t get done today, give yourself grace – there is always tomorrow.
18. Ditch multi-tasking
As you move through the day’s to-do list, focus on doing one thing at a time, because multi-tasking is hard on the brain. Choose what you are doing and remain present with that one task until you finish. When you notice you are getting preoccupied with thoughts on the future or the past, or on the other things you also need to do, you won’t work as efficiently and you will feel more stressed. But also don’t allow boring work to numb your brain. Work should be more than something to do while you watch the clock tick towards closing time.
However mundane your to-do list may be, honor it and do your best. Take pride in even the most menial task. Let the present moment of your work, no matter what it is be a meditation exercise, like the Zen monks who consider washing dishes to be a meditation. Fully accepting the task instead of mentally fighting against it decreases stress and can help bring you inner peace.
19. Breathe consciously throughout the day
Under stressful conditions, breathing get shallower, which only feeds anxiety. Observing your breath is a fundamental way to bring inner stillness to your day, so I recommend periodically practicing conscious breathing throughout your work day, to anchor you in the present moment.
Whenever you find yourself getting stressed at work, take a few moments to just breathe naturally and focus on those breaths, letting worries and anxieties diffuse and drift away. Some smart watches and phone apps will also remind you to do this throughout the day, for conscious breathing maintenance.
20. Step away from the gossip
Gossip is going to quench your inner thirst for calm. It’s easy to get caught up in complaining about a certain co-worker, client, or boss, or acquaintance, but negative chatter and gossiping has a way of eroding mindfulness. When you hear gossip, just walk away or try to change the subject, and certainly don’t add to it.
21. Don’t snack yourself into stress
Feed your brain well at lunch, and don’t undo all your good work by zapping your healthy brain function on your coffee break. Steer clear of sugar in particular, and also gluten, which can inflame your brain, along with other harmful items.
22. Don’t shortchange your sleep
You can get up earlier (see item #1) without losing sleep if you go to bed earlier, and chances are, you’ve been staying up too late anyway. Getting enough sleep ensures you will be recharged for the next day of work. Research (23) published in JAMA showed that optimal sleep for most people is around seven hours per night.
23. Give tai-chi or yoga a try
After you turn down the mental and social media chatter, fill the time gaps with exercises of silence. Tai-chi and yoga are two great ways to grow in inner stillness as well as gentle outer fitness.
24. Go positive
You can reverse negative and stressful thoughts just by reading, watching, or listening to positive things. For example, classical or meditation music, a happy podcast, a self-help book, or a funny or uplifting movie can all be effective paths to quieting the mind. Research confirms (24) that we can rewire our brains through practice. In other words, the more we do something, the more we actually change our brains to be more in line with that thing. Make positivity a habit and your brain will adapt.
25. Feed your brain
Everything you eat will either feed stress or feed health. Replenish your brain with the nutrients it needs for optimal function, like eggs, grass-fed meat, and some of my other favorite brain foods.
26. Practice in-the-moment awareness
Awareness is like a muscle – if you don’t use it, it gets weak, but if you use it regularly, it gets strong. Tools like mindfulness meditation will help you grow in awareness so you can come to see that you’re not your thoughts, but the observer of them. That can break the repetitive mind chatter and bring you into each present moment.
27. Face down your fears
Fear and dread can be debilitating to your health, not to mention your happiness and success. From fear of failure to fear of responsibility to fear of success (it’s a thing!), I see my patients struggling with common fears all the time. But you can’t face down a fear that you don’t acknowledge, so practice taking on your fears, bit by bit, and taking them apart so you understand them and can move past them into a better life.
28. Hang with positive people
The people you spend most of your time with will either build you up or feed into negative thoughts. That doesn’t mean you have to ditch your childhood buddy who just happens to be a Debbie Downer. Instead, think of it like this: You have three groups of friends 1) Your inner circle of positive friends who mutually support each other and life each other up. 2) The people you know you can have a positive influence on. They may not be great influences on you, but you know your influence on them is stronger and worth doing. 3) Your outer circle can be reserved for those who you know have a negative influence on you. Keep your distance from these “energy vampires,” who are constantly negative or make every conversation about themselves and drain you of your positivity. Love them from a healthy distance.
These simple tools, practiced regularly, can make a meaningful difference in your efforts to create a sense of calm that will carry you through your workday with less stress. When you are ready to take it to the next level, consider looking into healing your hormones from years of past job stress. Functional medicine can help uncover underlying problems like adrenal fatigue and hidden thyroid dysfunctions.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.