One of the most effective ways to manage stress is to develop resiliency, or the ability to bounce back from stressful situations. A key attribute of resilient people is that they are positive. Part of this positivity stems from surrounding themselves with positive people who provide an all-around sense of support. All it takes is one positive and supportive person in your life to help make your stressors feel more manageable. After reading these few sentences, you may be able to easily identify who that person is, or you may struggle to think about to whom you turn to most for support.
If you don’t have a support network currently in place, there are many people and resources from which you can pull to help add more positivity and support to your life. Support can take many forms – emotional, informational, companionship, or advocacy, to name a few – and it can come from a variety of people and places, including your family, friends, coworkers, online communities and chatrooms, places of worship, or professionals like your primary care doctor or a psychologist. It doesn’t matter to whom you turn for support – it just matters that you have someone with whom you can share your feelings.
It can be difficult to ask for help when you need it the most – you may be afraid, embarrassed, or concerned about burdening someone else – but you’ll be glad you did, as talking about your stressors and emotions can instantly make them seem more manageable. Without realizing it, you may also be helping your support person at the same time, as they will likely look to you as a source of support whenever they’re under stress.
In addition to the familiar sources of support discussed above, you may also want to consider taking advantage of other resources available to you, including your Employee Assistance Program (check with your health plan or www.mass.gov/gic for more information), the WellMASS portal, or books on stress management available at your local library. Whichever way you seek out information and support, know that it will help you on your journey to resiliency and more effective stress management.
If your first reaction to the title of this post is, “That’s impossible!,” you’re not alone. The holidays are a stressful time for many people, and they impact many aspects of our lives – financial, emotional, social, physical, and spiritual, to name a few. While I don’t have a magical solution to get rid of your holiday stressors, I do have some ideas on how to manage them – and your life in general – so they don’t seem like stressors at all.
My main solution to managing the stress that accompanies this time of year is to make my everyday life as happy as possible by enjoying everything good that comes along with the season. Since this is such a busy time, it’s also helpful for me to simplify my life and make time to take care of myself – because, after all, what fun will the holidays be (for me, and everyone around me) if I’m sick, tired, and all-around miserable? Below are a few strategies I’ve used to manage my stress around the holidays, as well as a few new ones that I’m planning on trying this year. Here’s to a happy, healthy holiday season!
- Aim for at least 30 minutes of low-impact exercise each day. Exercise produces endorphins, feel-good hormones that help counteract the negative effects of stress.
- Purchase – and use – a yoga DVD. Yoga is a great way to relieve stress, and you can do it in the comfort of your own home! If you’re new to the yoga world, try starting with the Hatha form of yoga, as it involves slow and controlled movements and is easy for beginners.
- Go to bed one hour earlier than normal. Not getting enough sleep can leave you tired (obviously), cranky, hungry, prone to emotional eating, and more likely to get sick.
- Make your beverages decaf – and non-alcoholic. Coffee and alcohol are stimulants, which means they can make you jittery and disrupt your sleep patterns, so you’re less likely to have a restful night’s sleep (see above).
- Take a relaxing hot shower or bath for 20 minutes. Hot showers relax your muscles, while in turn relaxing your mind.
- Spend time doing one fun activity or hobby that you enjoy. Remember to take care of yourself, too!
- Get a massage. See above. What better way to take care of yourself than by getting a relaxing massage?
- Shop smart – go to the mall during the week instead of the weekend to do holiday shopping. A trip to the mall is a lot less stressful when the stores aren’t crowded!
- Perform deep breathing exercises. Like yoga, deep breathing will help reduce your stress levels. All you need to do is take a few deep breaths from your belly (making sure that your belly goes OUT as you breathe in, and it goes back IN when you breathe out) to instantly lower your stress level.
- Make a list – and check it twice. This time of year can seem overwhelming. Make a weekly list of everything you want or need to do, no matter how quick or insignificant the task may seem. You’ll feel more organized and less frazzled once you start checking off all your accomplishments!
Have you ever thought about the foods you eat when you’re stressed? There’s a good chance your eating habits are different when you’re under stress as opposed to when you’re relaxed and calm. If you notice that stress triggers cravings for comfort foods that are high in sugar, salt, or fat, you’re not alone – and there is science to back up why you eat the foods you do.
Stress causes an increase in the production of cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone.” Cortisol sends signals to our brains that tell us we need three types of foods in order to feel better: foods that contain sugar, foods that contain salt, and foods that contain fat – in other words, junk foods. These cravings are hard to resist, and oftentimes we easily give into them in the hopes of reducing our stress levels, or at least feeling better temporarily. If you’re constantly under stress, you may notice that your eating habits are not the only aspect of your life that’s changing – these new, unhealthy food choices, along with other cortisol-induced mechanisms that are beyond your control, can lead to unwanted weight gain.
It goes without saying that eating too much junk food that’s high in (empty) calories can cause you to gain weight. It’s rare to see someone eat healthier when their stress levels are high, so many people under constant stress gain weight due to their poor eating habits alone. However, even if you’re able to control your cravings under stress, the excess cortisol in your bloodstream may still cause you to gain (or have a hard time losing) weight. Cortisol has been shown to slow metabolism, so even if you’re eating the same things you were before you were stressed, thanks to cortisol, you won’t be burning calories as efficiently as you used to. You may be surprised if you gain weight without changing your eating habits, but you can probably blame stress, and cortisol, for the unwanted extra pounds.
Cortisol is a sneaky hormone – not only does it change our metabolism, but it changes where excess fat and weight are accumulated. Studies show that cortisol leads to an increase in abdominal fat by diverting any extra pounds we gain to our midsections. Abdominal fat is bad news – having excess weight around your waistline puts you more at risk for developing heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes, regardless of how much you weigh. Women with a waist size greater than 35 inches, and men with a waist size greater than 40 inches are considered “high risk;” having too much stress in your life may make it difficult to meet these cutoffs.
So can you do anything to prevent stress-related weight gain? Yes you can, by practicing healthy diet and exercise habits. You can still give into your stress-related food cravings in a healthy way by choosing natural sources of sugar (low-fat dairy, fruits, veggies); eating salty foods in small quantities; and sticking to heart-healthy unsaturated fats (avocados, most nuts, peanut butter, oily fish). You can help speed up your metabolism by exercising regularly. Although exercise may seem like the last thing on your mind when you’re under stress, it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. Exercising for as little as ten minutes of a time (walking counts!) helps your body produce endorphins, feel-good hormones that directly counteract the effects of cortisol. Exercise also burns calories, so the more you move, the better.
Stress in life may be inevitable, but stress-related weight gain doesn’t have to be!
The Three-Step Approach to Achieving Life Balance, Part Three: Maintaining Your Commitment to Yourself
The last step toward achieving life balance may be the hardest, but it will certainly end up being the most fulfilling. Once you have mastered the art of making things easier on yourself, try and sustain all of the progress you’ve achieved by continuing to put yourself first.
Step 3: Maintain Your Commitment to Yourself
Hopefully you’ve already taken a few steps to simplify your life and reassert your commitment to yourself. Once you feel that you’ve made all the positive changes you need to achieve greater life balance, your goal will be to focus on maintaining your newfound sense of balance by:
- Continuing to take care of yourself. Make sure you continue to eat right, schedule regular exercise sessions, and get at least 7-9 hours of sleep each night in order to feel your best.
- Developing your social circle. Once you’ve cut out the negative people in your life, seek out more positive sources of support. Aim to have at least one family member, close friend, and coworker with whom you can share your feelings on a regular basis.
- Reassess periodically – what worked, and what didn’t? Sometimes, it’s obvious when we need to make a new plan. Other times, we need to take a step back and look at our priorities and the way we’re going about doing things. Take the time to check in with yourself to assess your sense of balance every few months. If you catch yourself feeling even slightly out of balance, you’ll be able to make small changes to get back on track.
Three weeks ago, you may have thought that achieving life balance was an impossible task. Hopefully you’re already on your way to a greater sense of balance – and a greater focus on what matters most to you.
The Three-Step Approach to Achieving Life Balance, Part Two: Reasserting Your Commitment to Yourself
Last week, I talked about some ways you can simplify your life to pave way to take back control of it and achieve greater balance. This week, your mission involves making a commitment you may have forgotten about amidst all the chaos in your life – the commitment to yourself.
Step 2: Reassert Your Commitment to Yourself
Once you’ve accepted the fact that you need to make your life easier, you’ll be ready to take the next step of actually starting to do so. The goal here is to put yourself first by:
- Taking care of yourself. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and getting regular exercise. If you don’t feel healthy, you’ll be less efficient and more likely to feel out of balance.
- Reprioritizing and making a new plan. One of the keys to achieving life balance involves making a list of priorities so that you can tackle tasks in order of importance, one at a time, without feeling overwhelmed by having to do too much at once. Oftentimes, your priorities will change, at which point it’s time to make a new list and change the way you do things to make your life easier and more efficient.
- Now that you’re okay with the fact that you can give up some control, do it! Ask your family members or coworkers to take on some of your workload where appropriate. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of hands-on training, or a little bit of faith, to enable someone else to get the job done for you.
- Learning to say no. It’s okay to say no when your family and friends ask you to do something, especially if your calendar is already pretty full. Trust me when I say that your friends will still like you if you have to pass on dinner every once in awhile.
- Avoiding emotionally draining relationships. We all have at least one of what I call a “toxic” friend, family member, or coworker in our lives. These people really zap our energy by wanting us to focus solely on them and their many problems. They rarely ask how we’re doing or how they can help us out, yet they want us to pay attention to them as much as possible. These are the people with whom you should limit your interactions. Instead, make plans with the positive people in your life.
Reasserting your commitment to yourself takes time, but once you do, you’ll notice a tremendous change in how you feel, both physically and mentally. Once you’ve taken back control of your life, it’s up to you to maintain your progress and continue to make yourself a priority.
Life balance seems to be an elusive goal for all of us who hold full-time jobs and have family and other responsibilities waiting when we get home. However, it’s not as difficult as you might think to meet this goal of being able to focus equally on all the areas of your life that demand attention. All it takes are three easy steps to help you better focus on yourself and the things you want and need to do. In the interest of making things as balanced as possible, I’ll be focusing on a different step each week for the next three weeks.
Step 1: Simplify Your Life
I look at simplifying as a way of preparing to make your life easier and more efficient. Simplifying your life involves:
- Giving up some control by allow someone else to take the lead once in awhile. You don’t have to immediately start delegating responsibilities – you just have to prepare yourself to be okay with the fact that it’s perfectly normal to ask family, friends, and coworkers to help you out.
- Sharing your priorities. Let those around you know what you need to get done. If your family members or coworkers know how busy you are, and what needs to get accomplished, they can either help you or leave you alone so you can get things done.
- Reducing your number of commitments. Clear out your calendar so you have several free nights each week.
- Redesigning your nights and weekends. Take back your free time by making it your own. Do what you want and need to do during the hours when you’re not at work.
Once you’ve become okay with making things easier on yourself, you’ll be ready to take the next step of reasserting your commitment to the person that matters most – YOU!
In my mind, one of the best ways to manage stress is to focus on the positive, rather than negative, aspects of a stressful situation, as well as your life in general. Few people realize that there are actually two forms of stress – distress is the chronic, negative, overwhelming form we most often associate with the term, while eustress is positive stress that we use to take positive action and make positive changes. Most stressful situations can be turned into something positive with a little bit of focus and determination. For example, if you are stressed about a tight deadline at work, you can turn the situation into something positive by challenging yourself to work more efficiently to get the job done. It’s also important to surround yourself with positive thoughts about both the stressful situation and the rest of your day. Two ways to do so are by following the Positivity Ratio and by keeping a positivity calendar.
The Positivity Ratio states that for every one negative thought you have about a person or situation, you should also think of three positive thoughts. If you have the unfortunate job of telling a coworker they did something wrong, follow that conversation up with three things that they’re doing right. You’ll shift your focus away from only thinking about the negatives and will help spread a little positivity to your coworker as well.
As for the positivity calendar, the premise behind it is simple – every day, challenge yourself to write down (on a calendar, journal, or a piece of paper) at least one good thing that happened to you. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event – your “positive” for the day could be something as basic as getting a seat on the subway or bus. The goal is to have a visual reminder of all the good things that happen to you, which will help take your mind off of anything negative that might be occurring. I’ve kept a positivity calendar, and have challenged my friends and family to do the same, so I can tell you first-hand that it’s easy to do, and it really works to help erase negative thoughts.
We don’t always have control over our stressors, but we do have control over our thoughts. It’s up to you to try and make the most out of a bad situation; remember, a little positivity can go a long way!
When we’re under stress, our brain tells us that we “need” three things: sugar, salt, and fat. It goes without saying that it’s probably not a good idea to give into stress-related cravings by pigging out on packaged foods that are high in one or more of these (and therefore, probably high in calories). Emotional eating is a big component of stress-related weight gain, but eating foods high in sugar, salt, or fat seems inevitable during stressful times – most of us can think of no better way to feel better and silence our cravings than by turning to less-than-healthy comfort foods.
While emotional eating can’t always be controlled as well as we’d like it to be, there are ways to lessen its impact on our waistlines and improve stress levels at the same time. Certain foods have been shown to actually help reduce stress, and shut off stress-related cravings. These foods work in one (or more) of four different ways to help reduce stress. Additionally, they all contain other health benefits, and are probably already in your house or part of your regular diet.
1. Foods that boost serotonin levels, to help relax you: Serotonin, a feel-food hormone that helps improve your mood while relaxing you at the same time, is produced from the amino acid tryptophan. Some of these stress-relieving foods contain tryptophan, and others help increase your body’s absorption of it.
- Low-fat dairy (milk, yogurt)
- Old-fashioned oatmeal
- Whole grain bread, pasta, cereal
- Spinach, other green, leafy veggies
2. Foods that trigger the production of melatonin, which help you sleep: Not getting your recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night can leave you stressed, and prone to emotional eating. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, reach for foods that help your body produce melatonin, a natural sleep aid.
3. Foods that reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels: Cortisol and adrenaline are known as “stress hormones,” meaning they are produced by the body in high quantities during times of overwhelming stress. They’re partially responsible for such negative stress-related consequences as a slow metabolism and high blood pressure. Certain foods that contain antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds actually help decrease the levels of these hormones in your bloodstream.
- Spinach, other green, leafy veggies
- Salmon, other fatty fish
- Black tea
4. Foods that keep blood sugar levels stable: A rapid rise or fall in blood sugar levels is almost guaranteed to make you more cranky, tired, and hungry throughout the day. Instead of reaching for the refined carbs you may be craving, try foods that are slower to digest and will keep your blood sugar stable in between meals.
- Whole grain bread, pasta, cereal
Even though the holiday season is behind us, everyday stressors still remain. For most of us, stress never really takes a break, so it’s important to incorporate stress reduction techniques into our everyday routines. An easy and effective way to do so is to practice the Relaxation Response – think of it as the exact opposite of the Stress Response – once or twice a day. The Relaxation Response has been shown to counteract the negative effects of the sympathetic nervous system that take hold during prolonged stress, including an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, when practiced on a regular basis, the Relaxation Response can decrease systolic blood pressure (that’s the top number) by 10 points!
The Relaxation Response is easy to perform and can be done at your desk, in your car (as long as it’s parked), at home, or anywhere else the need arises. Follow these simple steps to achieve stress reduction in just a few minutes:
- Select a positive word, short phrase, or prayer on which to focus.
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position, relax your muscles, and close your eyes.
- Breathe slowly through your nose, silently saying your focus word to yourself as you exhale.
- Do this for 10 minutes (or for as much time as you have).
- Sit quietly for a minute or so, clear your mind, then open your eyes.
It’s time to wrap up the Stress Less Challenge while preparing for the final push of the busy holiday season ahead. I have completed my Stress Less Challenge, during which I learned a few things about myself and how I let stress affect me. I found that, yes, I can control how I react in stressful situations. I went back and reviewed my previous posts. Two thoughts from week #1 stand out, especially this time of year: Don’t over commit yourself, and prioritize. Over the past few weeks, I have had to cancel or postpone some of my plans. By doing so, I have been able to take a moment to myself – and in some cases, delegate tasks to others – take those deep breaths, and feel the stress lifted off my shoulders. It is amazing how the challenge has helped me to do those two simple things, which I never would have done in the past.
I was not alone in this Challenge, as there were others from my worksite who participated. I asked them what they thought of the Challenge and what worked best for them. The majority thought the challenge was great and easy to follow. Only a few felt it was too much work. Overall though, the feedback has been positive. Some of the participants have said they will continue to practice the art of stress-less in their daily routines. The techniques that worked best for them were yoga, breathing exercises, physical activity, vacation, weekly pedicures, sleep, family time and making time for yourself. My personal favorite technique that I discovered was my positivity calendar. Yes, there were days when it was hard to find something positive to say, but I always managed to find something, no matter how small it might have seemed at the time.
You all know I did not part ways with my best friend, caffeine. I think that would have made my life more stressful knowing we could not hang out together every morning while we watched the news! Having a piece of dark chocolate every day was nice, too. I looked forward to that one piece after dinner. Just the thought of chocolate brings a smile to my face. Maybe I might introduce Mr. Coffee to Miss Dark Chocolate!
I hope you all enjoyed the Challenge as much as my co-workers and I have. I know the challenge helped me in so many different ways. I have found myself in some extremely stressful situations lately. In these situations I think back to the Challenge and what I can do to help alleviate some of the stress and tension. Thank you WellMASS for the wonderful and informative handouts provided to us in this Challenge. They are what have helped me get through my own daily stress challenges. Thank you all for listening to me during this Challenge. I had so much fun doing this. I found the saying below and it fits in perfectly with how I would like to close out my last Stress Less Challenge blog to you all.