Living Mindfully with Stress
When we consider lifestyle practices that have the biggest impact on our health and eating habits, I don’t think any of them rank higher than stress. Our modern, fast-paced, western lifestyle is so ridden with stress it almost feels normal. The demands and responsibilities on each of us continually increases. This reality is as true for children today as much as it is for adults.
Sometimes stress can be a positive force, motivating us to perform well and make advances in our life. But more often than not it’s a negative force and when this negative stress is prolonged it becomes chronic and leads to health issues, both physically and mentally.
One of the most concerning physiological consequences of long-term stress is inflammation. Chronic inflammation is now thought to be a major contributer to many underlying chronic diseases, including overweight and obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, even anxiety and depression. The other physiological consequences from stress often come from the side effects of negative coping mechanisms, such as overeating, smoking, excess alcohol consumption, etc.
Identify Your Sources of Stress
So what do we do about all this stress? First we have to recognize that some of it is outside of our control and some of it can be modified. A really helpful exercise is to sit down and write out all the sources of stress in your life. Most of these will hopefully be obvious to you but it’s also possible that you’re feeling stressed during the day and not sure why. To help identify these unknown sources, every time you feel stressed, write down the cause, your thoughts, your mood.
Once you have a list put together the second phase to this exercise is to create two columns and divide the list into "stressors that can be changed" and "stressors that are not currently changeable", like caring for an ill family member or a work situation that you can’t immediately change. Hopefully more than you realize are actually changeable stressors that you can then come up with a plan to address. Here are some common stressors that you might be dealing with plus some possible solutions.
Stress #1: Always running late
Solution: Plan to arrive at least 15 minutes early to every appointment
Stress #2: Stressful morning routine with the kids
Solution: Have the kids pick out their clothes, make lunches, and pack their bags the night before
Stress #3: Coming home late from work and nothing’s planned for dinner
Solution: Plan the week’s meals on the weekend, go shopping, and cook in advance so there’s always something healthy and ready at home
Stress #4: Never getting through your to do list
Solution: Set more realistic expectations for yourself and delegate to others; prioritize your list and eliminate any remaining tasks that are not absolutely essential
Healthy Coping Strategies
There’s two parts to this plan. The first piece, as I just described, is to identify the stressors in your life and to start working on a plan to changing what you can. The second piece to this plan is to start incorporating more stress management tools into your life that can build your resilience and give you the capacity to better handle stress when it comes up.
Here are some examples:
Deep Breathing: There are many different breathing practices out there but you’ll be surprised to see how just 3 or 5 slow, belly breaths can immediately lower your stress and take you out of a fight-or-flight state and back into a calm, parasympathetic state.
Prayer: Having a spiritual practice can be very stress relieving for people.
Journaling: Taking the time to write out your feelings, frustrations, concerns, and thoughts can help you let go of what’s bothering you and allow you to start working on solutions. A journal is also a great tool for cultivating gratitude by including things in your life that are working, positive, and you are thankful for.
Gentle exercise or stretching: Any time we move we get out of our head and into our body. This can be a critical step when trying to unload stress. Certain practices like yoga, tai chi, or qi gong are especially helpful for stress relief.
Time in Nature: Being outdoors, in the sunshine, surrounded by nature are all incredibly healing modalities that can immediately dissipate stress and return you to a state of calm.
Mindful Activity: Focusing on one activity can also be helpful in letting go of what’s bothering you. This could include a breathing or guided imagery exercise, it could also include a focused activity like playing an instrument, making art, or even coloring.
Hot Bath: There’s just something about hot water that immediately feels good and helps the entire nervous system relax. Boost the calming and healing potential of a hot bath by adding some Epsom salts and essential oils.
Massage: Regular massage is also a great practice for releasing tension and moving the nervous system to a parasympathetic state.
Acupuncture: Much like massage but arguably even more powerful, acupuncture provides immediate stress relief and a therapeutic modality for managing chronic stress.
Laughter: There have been research studies to support the immune boosting and health benefits of laughing. Be with people that make you laugh, watch a funny movie, or even head to a local comedy club.
Social Support: We are social creatures and really thrive from engagement with others. That said sometimes our relationships are contributing to our stress. Seek out like-minded people and create a social community that will support you and enrich your life. Your community will be essential to your health in both good times and bad.
Seek Help: Sometimes the stress is simply more than we can manage on our own. There is nothing wrong with admitting this. A psychologist, therapist, or other mental health provider can be essential in helping you start to turn the tide in your favor.
Something that links all the above examples is being in the moment. When we’re present and focused on the now, what’s right in front of us, not lamenting over the past or anxious about the future, we create a space where calm and peace can reside. Much of our worry and stress comes from the past or the future. So how do we learn to live more in the now? Mindfulness is a practice that teaches us how to be more present. This doesn’t apply just when we’re happy and doing something fun, although ideally those moments are enjoyed fully in the present. It also applies to when we’re struggling, unhappy, in pain, or depressed. The goal is to notice and acknowledge our feelings, thoughts, and sensations without judgement. To breathe through them and with practice to come out the other side feeling lighter and less burdened by them. I emphasize the word practice because that’s truly what it is. It’s often hard to be present and to turn off our multi-tasking button. Only with practice can we really get better at it. Here are some ideas to help get you started with a mindfulness practice:
Mindful Breathing: set a timer for 1 minute, 5 minutes, 10 minutes (whatever you have time for), sit or lie in a comfortable position, close your eyes, focus on your breath; don’t try to control your breath just pay attention to your normal breathing
Mindful Movement: certain exercises like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are especially good at getting you to slow down and really pay attention to each of your movements but this activity can also be done just while walking; simply slow down your pace and really focus on every step you take, feel the earth beneath your feet, how your shoe feels on your foot, what the rest of your body is doing, how the air feels on your face, etc.
Mindful Activity: this can be applied to just about anything you do, simply take a minute or two and really pay attention to whatever it is you’re doing (washing the dishes, folding laundry, washing your hair, playing with your kids, etc), some activities more naturally force you to be mindful (playing an instrument, creating art, coloring, rock climbing, etc)
Mindful Eating: every time you eat you have an opportunity to be mindful, start your meal with 1 or 2 slow belly breaths, have gratitude for the meal in front of you, try to take at least one truly mindful bite of each item on your plate where you notice everything about what you’re about to put in your mouth (what it looks like, what it smells like, what it tastes like), chew slowly and savor the flavors on your tongue before swallowing. This can be a particularly helpful exercise when we’re eating something indulgent. If you’re truly savoring and enjoying the “treat” it will increase your satisfaction and decrease the chances of you overeating it.
There are also some fabulous books and websites out there on this exact topic that can really help you develop your practice. My first exposure to this concept was through Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book: Full Catastrophe Living. I also decided to take an 8-week course at the UCSF Osher Center on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction that further helped me practice and develop some of these techniques.
We can’t escape stress. Even monks probably deal with some level of stress. So rather than trying to deny or ignore it, let’s learn how to live with it in a positive way by keeping our stressors in check, using tools to help us better cope with the stressors we can’t change, and using mindfulness to help us live in the now.