By Elizabeth Harrison, Grace Cottage Health Coach
as originally appeared in the Brattleboro Reformer’s Graceful Health column, April 7, 2017
You probably know already that too much stress can make you sick. Chronic stress puts a tremendous load on our bodies, increasing our risk of getting a whole host of diseases, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and digestive troubles, to name a few.
And no doubt, you have direct experience with stress. We all lead busy lives, and it can be challenging to take time for self-care. It’s important, though, and I would like to offer a few simple stress reduction techniques that can make a huge difference. None of these are time-consuming or costly, and they don’t require any special equipment.
One of the fastest ways to reduce stress is simply to stand up and stretch tall. When I do this, I immediately feel the difference. It’s free and easy, and I can do it a dozen times a day!
It’s also helpful to remember that not all stress is inherently dangerous. Our bodies are made to adapt to a changing environment. The key is to develop a baseline of good health, so that we can adapt more easily to the everyday stresses, like unpredictable weather, schedule adjustments, driving on a busy highway, or planning for a new baby.
Dr. Hans Selye, the father of modern stress research, explains this well in his book, The Stress of Life. He writes, “Stress is not even necessarily bad for you; it is also the spice of life, for any emotion, any activity causes stress. But, of course, your system must be prepared to take it.”
So the same things that make for good general health—adequate sleep, good nutrition, and regular exercise—are the same essential elements that help us reduce stress.
Do you have trouble falling asleep? That’s a pretty good indication that your stress level is too high. Your body is like a battery or a cell phone, in that it needs regular times of rest to recharge itself. Sleep is a way of plugging your body into its power source, which will help you keep your stress levels manageable. Doing some gentle stretches before you go to bed can help you relax. Also, it doesn’t cost anything to read an uplifting book or to listen to soothing music for a while before bedtime.
Whenever my clients tell me they are stressed out, one of the first questions I ask them is, “What are you eating?” The body needs good nutrition as well as sleep, in order to deal with stress. It may be tempting to use alcohol, tobacco, sugar, or other substances to calm down, but these will not help you in the long run. Better to give your body good fuel, including lots of fruits and vegetables each day. And remember to chew everything slowly and until mushy! These are easy ways to help you be prepared for handling stress.
Any kind of physical activity, from yoga to running, can also help. Yoga is especially popular because it combines stretching and poses with deep breathing, and it can lead to a meditative state of mind. Whether you do this in a class, or in the convenience of your own home, yoga-like movements can calm your mind and help you sleep better.
Here’s another tip I offer to my clients, perhaps the hardest of all, but highly beneficial: take time to sit still and quietly every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Yes, it’s true, the mind will naturally wander when we try to meditate. That’s okay. You can use a guided meditation tape, or prayer, or controlled breathing, or some other practice to help bring you back to the present moment and away from your to-do list for a little while.
Other helpful stress reducing techniques that some people use include journaling, playing music, visiting with friends, gardening and other hobbies, watching comedies, or hanging out with friends. Social connections and a healthy dose of self-acceptance—all of these can do wonders, with little cost in time or money, and with great reward, bringing back joy and vitality to your life.
We may know these things already, but it always helps to be reminded. Here’s hoping that these tips will lighten up your day!
Bio: Elizabeth Harrison is a board certified clinical nutritionist. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Western College for Women (now Miami University of Ohio). Her board certification is through the International & American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists. As a member of the Grace Cottage Community Health Team, Harrison provides resources and skills to develop healthy habits, and runs monthly support groups. The Grace Cottage Community Health Team services are free for all Grace Cottage patients and local community members.