Looking to lose weight or start an exercise program this year? Good for you. But be aware that even the best of intentions can be waylaid by stress.
Stress prompts the release of cortisol. Normally, this hormone regulates blood pressure and performs other vital tasks. Under stressful conditions, though, cortisol makes energy reserves available for quick action by stimulating fat and carbohydrate metabolism and by promoting the release of insulin, which results in higher blood sugar levels (the “flight or fight” response).
If the source of stress is a true emergency—swerving to avoid a crash, for example—cortisol levels return to normal when the crisis is over. But in the kinds of chronic everyday frustration most people experience, cortisol levels never go back down. The result can be an increase in body fat, especially the “belly fat” that tends to have dire cardiovascular consequences over the long term. Trying to lose weight under such conditions is like trying to accelerate with your foot on the brake; despite your best efforts, you don’t get anywhere.
Stress makes it difficult to stick to an exercise program, too. That’s because the physiological changes induced by stress lead to emotional exhaustion. As opposed to the normal, natural fatigue you experience after, say, a vigorous weight lifting session, stress exhaustion makes it difficult to do anything—such as getting off the couch and going to the gym.
So if you’re going to finally lose those 15 pounds or achieve the toned body of your dreams, you’ll need to get stress under control. Try the following suggestions and you just might reach your goals.
Get Out and Exercise
“Imagine a drug that improved sleep, reduced stress and lifted mood,” says Henry Emmons, MD, consulting psychiatrist at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis. It’s called exercise, and you can go on it at any time. “Midlife may be the key period for reaping the long-term benefits from exercise,” says Emmons, author of The Chemistry of Calm (Fireside). Consult with a practitioner first if you’re out of shape; for achy joints, try glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM, black cherry and esterfied fatty acid carbons.
Cut Your Media Consumption
A 24/7 news environment featuring murders, disasters and wars can make anyone jittery, to say nothing of graphic violence on TV and in movies and video games. “The media loves drama based on conflicts,” says Kathi Kemper, MD, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health and author of Mental Health, Naturally (American Academy of Pediatrics). Kemper
suggests getting TV out of the bedroom, especially children’s rooms, and carefully considering what you watch and for how long; the same goes for movies and video games.
Turn to Time Management
Much of the stress in life comes from a sense that there’s never enough time, that you’re always trying to catch up with an endless list of chores. One of the most basic, yet most helpful, ways to reduce that feeling of urgency is to create daily, weekly and monthly to-do lists at work and at home. Prioritize tasks so that you work on the most important items first. (Software such as Microsoft Outlook’s calendar function can help you schedule activities.) Once you have your lists in place, keep a daily activity log for a week or two so you can cut down on time-wasters—do you really need to check Facebook a dozen times a day?
Become a Laughter Yogi
Whether you prefer going to comedy clubs, watching Three Stooges reruns or viewing cat antics on YouTube, doing something that makes you laugh on a regular basis feels good—and is good for you. “The potential benefits of giggling include improvements in immune function, a better tolerance for pain and fewer responses to stress,” says Malissa Wood, MD, co-director of the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center and author of Smart at Heart (Celestial Arts). You can even sign up for a laughter yoga class, in which laughing is combined with yogic breathing (www.laughteryoga.org).
Employ Supplemental Help
Specific nutrients make it easier for your body to handle stress. Kemper suggests omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in krill oil, along with rhodiola, a Siberian herb found to fight anxiety, depression and fatigue. Emmons recommends vitamins B and D, and says “magnesium is
king where stress and anxiety are concerned.” He also recommends L-theanine, an amino acid that promotes focus and calm, along with herbs such as mildly sedating passionflower and valerian,depression-fighting St. John’s wort and anxiety-easing ginkgo.
One way to cut down on the dissatisfaction and irritation that breeds stress is to show gratitude for the good things in life. Kemper says, “Make a list of the people, experiences, places, events or things for which you genuinely feel grateful.” Then focus on a part of your body that feels comfortable or neutral and notice your breath. In this aware state, think about one of the items on your list and consciously feel grateful for it. Kemper says putting yourself in a state of gratitude helps to lower stress hormone levels and enhance nervous system function.
Take a Deep Breath
One sign of stress is shallow breathing, which can result in lower blood oxygen levels. Breaking this pattern by consciously attending to your breath helps deflect your thoughts away from worry while telling your body to relax. To practice deep breathing, first lie or sit with your back straight and your eyes closed. Then inhale; imagine that the air is slowly filling your torso from the bottom to the top. Hold for a few seconds and then slowly exhale, feeling your breath descend back down to the bottom of your torso. Do this for about five minutes at least twice a day.
Improve Your Communication Skills
For many people, one major source of stress is conflict in their relationships with partners, children, coworkers and friends, often as the result of poor communication that leads to misunderstandings. In conversations, actively listen by concentrating on what the other party is saying without automatically thinking about how you’ll respond. Let them finish without cutting in, then restate their position as you perceive it. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but learning how to communicate more effectively will not only strengthen your bonds to those you care for but also make life—yours and theirs—less stressful.
Invoke the Relaxation Response
Herbert Benson, MD, was once a young cardiologist trying to help patients reduce high blood pressure without drugs. His studies revealed that “the body is imbued with what I termed the Relaxation Response—an inducible, physiological state of quietude,” says Benson, now a Harvard Medical School faculty member. As described in The Relaxation Response (HarperCollins), you can enter this state by sitting quietly with your eyes closed. Deeply relax all of your muscles, working from your feet to your face. Then, as you exhale, say the word “one” (or any other neutral one-syllable word) silently; repeat with each in-breath and out-breath. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes, sitting quietly for several minutes afterwards.
Sleep Away Stress
It’s no coincidence that both stress and insomnia are hallmarks of modern life. “Adults get about 10% less sleep every night than our great-grandparents,” says Kemper. To promote sound shuteye, she suggests going to bed at the same time every night; using lavender or chamomile essential oils as aromatherapy; and taking a warm shower within an hour of bedtime. Helpful supplements include melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep/wake cycle; lactium, a protein that helps ease tension; and 5-HTP, an amino acid the body uses to create the mood regulator serotonin.
Declutter Your Life
Cutting clutter can help reduce stress—think of how you feel when trying to pay bills at a desk overflowing with papers. Work your way through each room and ask yourself: Do I need to keep this? If not, when was the last time I used this? If I haven’t touched it for the last six months, why is it here? Designate spaces for each type of item, and try to keep flat surfaces and floors
as clear as possible.
Start a Stress Journal
Journaling can help provide mental clarity; an artfully bound notebook might be nice, but a plain writing pad will do. Set aside 15 to 20 minutes a day and simply let the words come. Once you’ve vented, try solving specific problems. For example, if you’re always late to work, examine what keeps you from getting there on time (“I hate feeling rushed”) and brainstorm things you can change (“I should lay out my clothes the night before”). Keep your journal private to avoid self-censorship.
Let Your Stream of Consciousness Flow
Part of the agitation that stress invokes is the sense of being driven by negative thoughts and emotions. One solution is to get in touch with “the part of us that remains above the fray,” says Emmons. To access this place of repose, Emmons suggests seeing yourself on a riverbank, watching the water—your stream of consciousness—flow by. Individual thoughts are like objects in the stream. Concentrate on one, observing it until it disappears downstream without getting lured in by it; do the same thing as other thoughts arise.
Find Time to Pray
One way to ease stress is to seek connection to a divine presence greater than yourself. “There are numerous scientific studies showing that in general, people who pray regularly enjoy better mental health than those who do not,” says Kemper, citing research showing a link between a steady prayer life and reductions in stress, anxiety and depression. What’s more, praying for
others fosters a sense of connection and an ability to see beyond one’s own concerns.
Let Music Soothe the Savage Stress
Favorite tunes can help drain the strain out of your day. Kemper says, “Listening to music affects a variety of chemical messengers in the brain.” But you need to “choose your musical intake as carefully as you choose your food and friends,” avoiding music that produces a jittery effect. Recorded nature sounds such as birdsong or ocean waves can also provide a sense of calm.