Stress Part 5: And sometimes its out of your hands….

ozatlasUntil now I’ve dedicated this series to managing the stress we can control, but the reality is that sometimes there is stress that is outside of our control. Maybe it’s the heartache of ending a relationship or the everyday strain of caring for a dying loved one.  Just living in this world and being somewhat aware of current events is enough to send us all hiding under the covers. Just the other day, my sweet little girl told me that she prefers lockdown drills (the drills they do at schools in case of a mass shooter) in her art class because the floor is more comfortable. I wanted to grab her and run home and hide for the rest of our lives. But I didn’t, and, no matter how heavy these external stressors are, we don’t. We all have to go about our lives with significant weights tied around our neck.

Our bodies are designed to react to stress so that we can survive things like wild animals attacking us. When our ancestors were being hunted by a saber-tooth tiger, their bodies would release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that shut down processes like digestion and the immune system and switched the body’s energy source to glucose (sugar). All of this was a way to divert the body’s energy to the task of getting away alive. But we aren’t dealing with a saber-tooth tiger that we can get away from and then allow our body to go back to normal. We are dealing with stressors that don’t let up, and so we experience chronic stress, meaning these hormones are being constantly released.

For those of us with chronic stress, we experience difficulty sleeping (your body won’t let you sleep if you need to be on guard against danger), inability to lose weight (our bodies burn sugar under chronic stress, which puts us in a cycle of burning and eating foods that can be easily converted into glucose while our fat stores stay untouched), and we have digestion problems (our body prioritize getting away over digesting when we are in danger).  With our bodies in a state of constant vigilance, it’s no surprise that so many of us are sick, overweight, and drained.

We can’t magically make someone love us or heal their broken body, and we can’t stop all the horrible things happening in the world. But we can do things to mitigate the impact of those things on our lives and on our bodies.

  1. Manage what you can. In part 1 through 4 of this series, I’ve provided several tips on how to reduce manageable stress. By adjusting those things you can control, you reduce your overall stress burden.
  2. Connect with others. Healthy friendships allow us to process things we are going through because we have someone to listen to us. Hanging out with a best friend has shown to actually reduce the stress hormone cortisol.
  3. Tap into your spirituality. For some of us, this might just mean getting more involved in our church, synagogue, or mosque. For others this might mean going for a hike, meditating, or some other practice that reminds us that our problems and the state of the world are just temporary.
  4. Breathe deeplyBy practicing deep breathing several times throughout your day, you give your body a break from the stress response and clear your head.  Find time to take a breath through your nose for a count of four, hold it for a count of seven, and then release it through your nose for count of eight, and then repeat for 5 to 10 cycles. 

Stress is a part of our lives no matter how privileged we are, but we don’t have to allow it to run our lives and ruin our health. I hope this series has motivated you to take control over your stress and has helped you create a more healthy life.

For more post in this series, check out  Stress Part 1: Stop letting stress steal your joyStress Part 2:What if it is your circus and those are your monkeysStress Part 3:Sometimes you have to rethink the whole thing.  Stress Part 4: Don’t feed the stress. 

Stress Part 4: Don’t feed the stress.

Pie_eating_contest_1923So far this series has dealt with stress in a very traditional way, but today we are going to switch gears and talk about something we don’t immediately associate with stress: the stress we put our body under when we overindulge.

Overindulging on food is part of our celebration culture. Our traditions mostly mean gathering with people we love and an abundance of delicious food. So we eat . . . and eat. We pile our plates with all sorts of celebratory delectables two or even two and a half times, and we eat way past the point of being full. Or as  Louis C. K. put it, “I don’t stop eating when I’m full. The meal isn’t over when I’m full. It’s over when I hate myself.”

We overindulge as a form of celebration, but the problem is, my friends, we can always find a reason to celebrate. And all this overindulging stresses our bodies out.

Overeating means the body has to work extra hard to digest all that food. Your blood supply is diverted to help your digestive system move the extra food leaving less blood for things like your brain. Your brain! And your pancreas has to produce loads of insulin to deal with all that extra sugar flooding in from things like rolls, sweet potato casserole,  and pie. Insulin produced under the stress of too much food means the pancreas does a fast and dirty job.  And it doesn’t stop until it clears the body of all sugar, which means we now have low blood sugar.

Low blood sugar can leave us confused, tired, and even depressed. Our body directs us to fix these problems by eat more sugar. Thus a horrible cycle that taxes our endocrine system and has us reaching for all the wrong foods is born. This cycle will not be done when the celebrating is over. In fact this is the cycle many of us struggle with on a daily basis. Our bodies are trying to find homeostasis, or balance and stability, but we haven’t given it the right fuel to do that. So we pack on the pounds and feel guilty that we can’t drop weight (causing even more stress), not realizing that a very real chemical battle is being waged which no low-calorie snack food is going to win.

So on this eve of Christmas Eve, I’m making a plea with you. Let’s stop that celebration = overindulgence madness and find some balance. Here are some tips I think will help.

  1. Set intentions- Before you even get to the table, set the intention to enjoy your food, to make the best choices you can, and to eat only until you are full (or just before).
  2. Breath– The first few minutes of a big meal can be chaos. We are rushing to get all the food on the table or to get the kids and elderly relatives situated. Once that’s all done, we just jump in and start grabbing and eating food in that same hurried state. So before you sit down to your own meal, calm yourself by take some good, deep breaths to bring yourself into the present.
  3. Slow down– Chewing is something we don’t do enough, which means we aren’t actually tasting much of all the food we are pushing down our throats. Chew slowly. Allow all the digestive enzymes in your mouth to do their job thereby taking pressure off the stomach and the intestines.
  4. Listen to your body– The truth is that we will hear our body at some point after the meal when we realize our pants are uncomfortable or we are so tired we can’t keep our eyes open. Why not try listening to your body before you get to that point? The first three steps will help you to do this, but getting good at hearing what your body says before it screams at you takes some practice.

The stress we put our body through when overindulging isn’t all that physiologically different from the stress we experience from taking on too many activities or being ruled by our phone. Overindulging releases the same stress hormones as all those outside stressors. The key is to eating in a way that will make you feel good after the meal by making the best choices available on the table, eat consciously, and eat only as much as you need.

Happy celebrating!

For more post in this series check out  Stress Part 1: Stop letting stress steal your joyStress Part 2:What if it is your circus and those are your monkeysStress Part 3:Sometimes you have to rethink the whole thing. 

Stress Part 3: Sometimes you just have to rethink the whole thing.

Christmas_tree_farm_fire

Stress is often caused by the clash between our expectations and our reality. This is especially true at this time of the year.  Sometime around Thanksgiving, I start to imagine all the Christmas magic I’m going to have with the kids. I’m going to read one of our Christmas books every night. We are going to listen to Christmas music, decorate, bake cookies, and do all that stuff that you see in Christmas montages on those Hallmark movies.

But bedtime is still kind of crazy, and the older one would rather read Star Wars while the younger one would rather just eat the Christmas book. The tree did get up and decorated, but I can’t really remember doing that, so it must not have been very picturesque. There has been no baking. And I’m stressed! I’m trying to cram the Christmas magic into an already full schedule, and those attempts are falling short of giving my kids the perfect Christmas. What’s going to happen when Mommy ruins Christmas!?!?!

Breathe!

Am I going to ruin Christmas, or am I just not getting my way? I’m afraid it is the latter. The reality is that my kids are happy. My oldest is totally excited about Christmas, and my youngest is enjoying eating her Christmas books. Everyone is happy. When I just stop and realize that and let go of those crazy expectations, I let go of that stress, too. For me, the key to this comes down to living in the moment.

Tips for living in the moment

  • Take a social media fast. Logout of all your social media networks for a few days or at least step away for a while. Social media tends to fuel our feeling of failure. We see our friends’ posts of perfect homemade Christmas magic, and we just see our own failings.
  • Do less. You heard me! In this crazy hustle and bustle season, I’m telling you to do less.  If you can’t get everything done on your to-do list, then it’s too long. Cut it down to the essentials and make peace with the things that fall off the list. The earth will not be thrown into chaos if the beds aren’t all made, those Christmas cards don’t go out, or those cookies never get baked.
  • Evaluate your expectations. This isn’t the first Christmas that I’ve had visions of a perfect Christmas season, and it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been sadly off.  Examining why we tend to follow the same cycle over and over again only to be disappointed gives us the power to stop the cycle. Are these really things I want or is it what I think I want?
  • Be present for that magic that does happens. I really do believe in Christmas magic, even if it’s just that the whole city has gotten together to string up lights and step outside the everyday world to celebrate for a few weeks. Things — good things — and opportunities do happen when we aren’t trying to make them. Be relaxed and present enough to enjoy these times.

As always, I hope these ideas inspire you to take control of your stress so that you can enjoy your life and take care of your body.

For more post in this series check out Stress Part 1: Stop letting stress steal your joy and Stress Part 2:What if it is your circus and those are your monkeys.  Stress Part 4: Don’t feed the stress.

Stress Part 2: What if it is your circus and those are your monkeys?

performing-monkeys-vintage-poster

 

Our first strategy for dealing with stress was to reduce unnecessary distractions. Step two in reducing stress is reining in an out of control schedule.

A significant source of stress comes from those things that we want to do but have gotten out of hand and started to take over our life. Many of us raise our hands whenever a call goes out for an extra project at work or volunteer organization. We do it because we want to help out or serve or just show our boss that we are invested in our job. But all too often, we get into the habit of raising our hand automatically. Eventually others start to rely on us as the one that will always bake the cookies or do the social media research or whatever is needed, and a horrible cycle of stress is born. So what do we do when we want to be involved and serve without it taking over our lives? Here are a few tricks that I try to employ.

Keep your calendar up-to-date: When it comes to committing to projects, I can be a gunslinger, a say-yes-now-ask-questions-later kind of gal. This means I can say yes to several things at once without realizing it.  A simple way to prevent this is to keep your calendar updated and on your person. When the call goes out for someone to lead/do/orchestrate something, you pause, look at your calendar, and, if you are legitimately unengaged, then you can consider it. If you are otherwise engage, the question of volunteering is already answered: No.

Schedule self-care: Now that you have your calendar all up-to-date, you need to start scheduling self-care. This could be your workouts, time to take a bath, or just time to sit in your room and stare at the wall. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s time for restoration. Make these appointments, and then keep them as diligently as you would a doctor’s appointment.

Say yes strategically: Say yes to those things that you have always wanted to do, things that are passion projects, or things that just really excite you. Do not say yes just because no one else has. If you are the only one saying yes in your group/job/family then either the group/job/family doesn’t actually prioritize that task or someone else needs to step up. Either way, you aren’t overloading yourself with things you’d rather not be doing.

As always, I hope these ideas inspire you to take control of your stress so that you can enjoy your life and take care of your body.

For more post in this series check out Stress Part 1: Stop letting stress steal your joy and Stress Part 3:Sometimes you have to rethink the whole thing. Stress Part 4: Don’t feed the stress.

 

Stress Part 1: Stop letting stress steal your joy

texting tooStress is a part of everyone’s life, but the high levels of stress we experience are extremely dangerous.  Chronic stress can lead to all kinds of diseases, negatively impacts our relationships, and taints even our best experiences. For example, many of us even dread the holidays because this season adds extra heartburn rather than being a time to relax and renew with family and friends and take joy in familiar rituals.

Stress is a killer of joy. So why do we make the choice every day to let joy be killed? Yes, there are times when stress is outside our control, but chronic stress is an accumulation of those things that we can control and those things that we can’t. When we work on reducing the things we can control, managing our overall stress is much easier. One easy way to do this is to stop letting your phone and email be your master.

Stress Reducer Tip #1: Turn off your notifications! Text and emails come in all day long, and, like Pavlov’s dog, we jump to respond.  Research shows that this type of multitasking makes us less productive, but more importantly it adds stress to our day. Go into your phone or email settings and turn those notifications off!  If you can’t figure out your setting find the nearest young person and set them to the task. Then start to manage expectations for yourself and others by letting it be known that you only check your messages at a set time each day, but if they have something urgent to tell you than they can call you or swing by your office.  By doing this we take control over our day and the stress we allow in our lives.

Let me know if this is something that resonates with you and, if you give it a whirl, how it worked for you. Good luck!

For more post in this series check out  Stress Part 2:What if it is your circus and those are your monkeysStress Part 3:Sometimes you have to rethink the whole thing.  Stress Part 4: Don’t feed the stress. 

photo credit: Texting on a Tractor via photopin (license)

Tis the season of stress!

335477_2357644107924_1886625969_o

Tis the season to travel, to purchase, to make food, eat food, and to feel the full impact of bad food choices. Tis the season of time with family or to miss family.  Tis the season for expectations that can and do often go south. Basically, we are entering the season of (even more) stress. Caveat: not all stress is bad, and sometimes stress can even be good for us, but most of us aren’t plagued by good stress.

Stress management is vital to our health, but we don’t often take it as seriously as our diet and exercise. This is because diet and exercise are concrete things, while managing our stress can feel very abstract — like it might involve leaving our jobs or growing a beard. When I look back over my years spent in various doctors offices, I can see the same scene play out. “Doctor I’m always exhausted and I can’t lose weight despite cutting calories and obsessively exercising.”  What would follow would be instructions to reduce my calories further and exercise more and to reduce my stress. To that last point (in my mind’s montage) we would look at each other and start laughing. Because stress isn’t a thing like diet that we can control, right? Wrong!

Yes, there are things that happen to us that we can’t control, like having a loved one get very ill or the world losing its ever-loving mind. But we can do things to mitigate the effects of those stressors on our health. There are also a lot of stressors that we unintentionally add to our life that aren’t necessary. Over the next month, I’ll be writing about how stress affects our health and ways we can gain control over it so that we can stop it from harming us further.  Stay tuned!