By: Rorie Dunphey
I’m sure you have heard how chronic stress can be bad for your health and maybe you have thought to yourself, “I really need to reduce my stress, but how?”
There is solid evidence that chronic stress has a detrimental effect on both our physical and mental health, making stress management a vital to good health. With the frantic pace of our hyper-connected lives and the steady flow of information barraging us, it is easy to feel swept along as if someone else is in charge of your life. In addition, our culture feeds us messages that encourage constant stimulation and busyness, with leisure and relaxation judged as ‘lazy’. It may just seem easier to keep tumbling forward, never really taking the time to slow down and de-stress. We adapt by simply resetting to this low level of anxiety, which becomes our ‘new normal’.
Here are some examples of how stress affects the body;
- Brain: Difficulty concentrating, anxiety, depression, irritability, mood, mind fog.
- Heart and lungs: Higher cholesterol, higher blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Joints and muscles: Increased inflammation, tension, aches and pains, muscle tightness.
- Immune system: Decreased immune function, lowered immune defenses, increased risk of becoming ill, increase in recovery time.
- Skin: Hair loss, dull or brittle hair, brittle nails, dry skin, acne, delayed tissue repair.
- Stomach: Decreased nutrient absorption, diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, bloating, pain and discomfort.
- Reproductive system: Decreased libido, increase in PMS symptoms.
This is certainly not a very pleasant list of symptoms. Managing stress does not mean eliminating all the causes of the stress in our lives, which is usually impossible. What it does mean is that we can learn to better respond to stress and establish healthy practices to better manage our day to day responsibilities.
Here are some simple practices that you can try:
- Get moving: Get some exercise and fresh air daily. Take a walk, swim, dance, do yoga…Regular exercise helps us manage our mood, weight & energy level. Even a 10-minute stroll can help us feel less stressed and more grounded.
- Spend quiet time in nature: Go to a park, the beach or into the woods; or if you can’t get there put some pictures of nature where you will see them daily.
- Plan a weekly ‘fun’ activity: Invite a friend or family member to share in the fun and find free fun things to do around town. Host a game night!
- Practice gratitude: Think of 3 things that you feel grateful for every day upon waking or before bed. Notice how you feel when you appreciate the good things you already have.
- Body care: Try massage, acupuncture or a warm bath for relaxation.
- Pray: When you feel tempted to worry about a person or situation in your life, prayer may be helpful. This does not need to be ‘religious’ prayer, but rather a way of letting go and accepting what we cannot change. Focus on having compassion for the person or problem that is the focus of our stress, rather than building up difficult emotions like anger or fear.
- Help someone else: Volunteer, help a friend, show kindness to a stranger. Often the simple act of recognizing what we have to offer can help us feel more appreciative of what we do have.
- Ask for help and graciously receive it: This takes courage! We all sometimes have a hard time accepting help or recognizing when we need it. Give someone the gift of being able to help you. It usually feels good to the other person, gives us a boost and brings us a closer personal connection.
- Do something you love that makes you happy every day: It could be something different and simple every day; read a book, talk with a good friend, cook a meal you enjoy, buy a fancy coffee, work in your garden, play a game, listen to favorite music, take a nap.
- Honor yourself: We all have limitations and strengths. Notice what you are good at and what you like about yourself and focus on it a few minutes daily. Smile at yourself in the mirror!
- Express yourself: Write in a journal, draw, paint, sing, or do something creative to express your feelings and get the yucky stuff out of your system.
- Build community: Consider participating in a group that is meaningful to you, such as a church, support group, or a sports team. Spending time with people you enjoy and with whom you share values and interests helps us feel more connected and supported as we face life stressors.
While we often cannot change the cause of our stress, we can always change our reaction to it. Managing our stress is a commitment and a choice, and is central to good health.
Rorie Dunphey works under Vermont’s Blueprint for Health as the RN Chronic Care Coordinator at Family Practice Associates in Cambridge. She works one-on-one with people and also leads classes to promote health and help people better manage their chronic diseases. She also assists patients in accessing community and state resources to better coordinate their health and wellness needs. Rorie has a particular passion for promoting a healthy diet and exercise routine to inspire people to live their best life.