Chill Out: A How-To Guide for Conquering Stress

If you have ever slammed on your car’s brakes to avoid smashing into another vehicle, you’ve felt the physical effects of acute stress. Your body releases hormones that cause your heart to pound, your muscles to tense and your breathing to accelerate whenever your safety is threatened.

This is a necessary survival mechanism that prepares you to take action. If you lived in an African jungle, you would want that reaction to fight or flee from an approaching leopard. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, these temporary stress reactions may actually boost your immune system.

These short bursts of hormones create a temporary state, and in normal situations, the body quickly recovers once the triggering event has ended. In the example of a near miss in traffic, usually a few minutes and some deep breathing are enough to restore the body to its normal state.

However, stress reactions may persist for weeks, or even months, following a traumatic life event. Restoring the body to its natural state may require therapy and medication. Events such as the death of a loved one, a job loss or a divorce and even welcome events, purchasing a new home or getting married create stresses that may need medical intervention.

When the “fight or flight” reaction becomes the daily norm

Outside of the jungle, your stressors are not leopards; they are demanding workloads, financial pressures, family obligations and a non-stop barrage of information from multiple media sources that don’t give you a chance to recover between stressful events. Shawn Talbott, PhD., author of “The Cortisol Connection,” calls this the “twenty-first century syndrome.” Chronic stress, stress that is unrelenting, has become so common in everyday life, Talbott writes, that people have begun to accept it as normal. It is not.

A chronically elevated stress response can lead to anxiety, muscle pain, insomnia, hypertension and a weakened immune system. Continual release of stress hormones contribute to the development of heart disease, depression and obesity. Short of quitting your job, abandoning responsibilities and taking up residence on a Caribbean beach, what can you do to manage your stress and keep those hormones in balance?

Is it real, or did you create that monster?

That phone call from the hospital telling you your child has been in an accident is a real event you must handle. However, if you begin to imagine car-crash scenarios each time your son picks up his keys and heads out the door, you are inducing a stress response. Why do we do this, imagine every worst possibility?

Dr. Joseph Luciani, author of Self-Coaching: Powerful Program to Beat Anxiety and Depression, writes that people who do not trust that they will be able to handle difficulties as they arise, try to take control of their lives by pre-planning for imagined future events. Whether a stressful event is real or manufactured, you can counter this tendency to worry and stress by using self-talk methods.

Talk to yourself

Self-talk is a cognitive therapy exercise to replace negative thoughts, “I can’t handle this situation,” with positive assertions, “I’ll do the best I can.” The American Heart Association recommends daily practice with positive self-talk. Whenever you feel negative thoughts dominating your mind, repeat these phrases to yourself:

  • “I’ve got this.”
  • “I can get help if I need it.”
  • “We can work it out.”
  • “I won’t let this problem get me down.”
  • “Things could be worse.”
  • “I’m human, and we all make mistakes.”
  • “Some day I’ll laugh about this.”
  • “I can deal with this situation.”

The doughnut is not your friend, and go easy on the coffee

For many, the first response to stress is comfort food – bowls of creamy mac and cheese, tubs of ice cream and boxes of doughnuts. While the initial surge of feel-good chemicals from all this fat and sugar can temporarily relieve stress, you are setting yourself up for a bad crash within a few hours. In the short-term, these foods can leave you lethargic and less able to deal with stressful situations. In the long run, you will suffer serious health problems from a steady diet of fat-and sugar-laden foods. This will only create more stress in your life.

This is not to say you should avoid carbohydrates. Carbohydrates produce the chemical serotonin, which can reduce stress and give your mood a lift.  Select healthy carbs — whole grains and nutrient, fiber-rich vegetables such as sweet potatoes.

A study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University found that Omega-3 fatty acids are effective in reducing stress. Omega-3s are found in fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, walnuts, flaxseeds, canola oil, olives, spinach, kale and Brussels sprouts. If a meal of kale and Brussels sprouts leaves you unsatisfied, eat a little dark chocolate for dessert. Dark chocolate has been shown to ease emotional stress.

If you depend on coffee to get you through the day, you may wish to consider alternatives. According to the Stress Management Society, a leading authority on stress management in the U.K., caffeine actually increases the effect of stress hormones, on the body. Tea, on the other hand, contains polyphenols and flavonoids that can have a soothing effect.

Take a walk or shoot some hoops

Physical activity increases the production of endorphins, a neurotransmitter that produces a sense of well-being. The American Heart Association recommends 30-minutes of moderate aerobic exercise five times a week for optimal health. Any activity that gets you moving and raises your heart rate will do. Consider playing a sport, swimming or dancing. Practicing meditative exercises, such as tai chi and yoga, will calm your mind as you strengthen your body.

Get in some time with your support network

Humans are social creatures, and social interaction is necessary for good emotional health. Make some time to connect with friends and family. Discussing the stressors in your life with another can help get you through difficult times. You may think your schedule is too full for social engagements, but even a coffee break with a co-worker or a phone call to an old friend can bring a sense of belonging, self-worth and security to your frazzled, stressed-out mind.

In Jamaica they say, “There are no problems, only situations, and situations can be solved.” Adopt this island attitude for your own life. When stress is depleting your mental and physical energy, don’t dwell on it. Clearly look at the situation and list actions you can take to turn things around.  Having trust in your ability to handle whatever comes will go a long way to relieving your stress.