Are You Dealing with the Ugly STRESS Culprit?
By Kymberly Breckenridge (Recycled from October/November 2015, Edition 13)
Illustrated by Tatyana Starikova
Feeling irritable? Has your insomnia gotten worse? Do you have a nagging headache that you can’t seem to shake? The culprit might be stress, an unseen killer affecting mind, body and spirit. A “killer” might seem a tad dramatic, but as science and medicine continue to learn about stress, the more health risks are becoming linked to this deadly state of mind.
According to the Mayo Clinic, recent research has shown that “stress left unchecked can contribute to health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes” (www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987. Written by Mayo Clinic staff, July 19, 2013). Less-deadly symptoms may include muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, change in sex drive and stomach upset leading to ulcers, IBT and other abdominal issues.
Why do we experience stress in the first place? Back when we lived in caves and our lives were in constant danger, the stress response—a biological and psychological reaction to a perceived threat—was activated to give us the energy to fight the threat or run away—fast. Cortisol, the main factor in the stress response, kicks in this fight-or-flight response at the expense of processes that are not required for immediate survival.
Those of us living with high stress flood our bodies with cortisol on a daily, if not hourly, basis. This flood of cortisol increases the amount of glucose in our blood stream, which can lead to diabetes. Dartmouth studies maintain that increased levels of cortisol results in “prolonged healing times, reduction in ability to cope with vaccinations, and heightened vulnerability to viral infection. The long-term, constant cortisol exposure associated with chronic stress produces further symptoms, including impaired cognition, decreased thyroid function, and accumulation of abdominal fat, which itself has implications for cardiovascular health” (Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, Michael Randall, February 3, 2011).
As a response to modern-day Herculean stress amounts, Organic Hudson Valley magazine created the Mind Retreat department, offering readers suggestions for decreasing the flood of cortisol in our lives. Our lovely Hudson Valley is awash with yogic practices and zen-like spas, but what do we do in between the all-too-brief visits to these mind retreats? What can you and I do to tame the mind and practice mindfulness?
Let’s start with me. My lineage is decidedly from the Emerald Isle, and our mind retreat of choice was and is…alcohol. Some of my sweetest moments growing up have been watching my rambunctious family work their way through a six-pack, laughing and banging their fists on the table in the sheer joy of a good joke. But I get nervous when my mind reassures me that comfort will come at five o’clock.
Others turn to food as a way of shutting down their mind. They retreat into the comfort of the intense rush of sugar a doughnut can provide, or the soothing grease from the French fry. Their minds are temporarily distracted by the pleasure provided by food and the flood of comfort it can provide the racing brain. Again, increased consumption of sugar comingles with the increased levels of cortisol-induced glucose to ensure that someday daily insulin shots will add to our stress levels.
Many people reach for cigarettes to calm their nerves, or the sweet relaxing shutter of marijuana. I once had a boyfriend who (rather dramatically) made me swear a blood oath that I would never try cocaine because he knew that I would love the effects too much.
The statistics of drug use, including the terrifying heroin, is on the rise in our idyllic valley. Its solution to stress is swift and complete, but it is not sustainable and will eventually strip the body of any defense against life’s ills.
To lead a healthy and vital life, it is imperative that we relieve stress on a daily basis. Although using food or alcohol is easier, these simple practices will do more for the whole you than ladies’ night.
1) Think positively. Recognize negative thoughts as they enter your mind and either immediately release them or try spinning them into a positive. A negative outlook on life will more readily embrace stress, while positivity will flood your brain with serotonin and other life-giving hormones.
2) Unplug from media. There is a place and time for media, work and the constant communication it demands, but unchecked, it can be as demanding of our precious energy as a sickly infant. Promise yourself to turn off the screens and turn your attentions to an unruly garden or even the dirty dishes, giving your mind a chance to stop spinning.
3) Learn to say no. We do not need to say yes to every request. Our ability to satisfy everyone in our lives does not make us a better person. In fact, a stressed-out you will be far worse to live with than hearing the word “no.” Moreover, saying no will help you prioritize your obligations, thus relieving you of both mental and physical stress. Take a cue from a teenager and learn how to say no without remorse.
4) Eat right and exercise. Research proves that certain dietary components help relieve stress on a daily basis. These include fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains and lean proteins. Limiting the intake of caffeine, fat, sugar and alcohol plays a big role in stress management. Engaging in even a small amount of movement in our daily lives will ease physical pain and facilitate the release of pent-up stress. As a bonus, daily exercise will reduce the risk of heart disease and increase the body’s immunity against various viral and bacterial respiratory diseases.
5) Practice relaxation techniques. Tense your major muscle groups starting with your feet, hold for a count of five, and release. This will remind your body to liberate itself of stress locked in the muscles. Or practice simple breath awareness: Let out a big sigh, imagining tension leaving your body, and then become very aware of the experience of breathing. Become aware of how the air moves into your nose, how your lungs and abdomen expand; the pause between inhale and exhale; the exhale and the relaxation that comes with the exhale…and so on. Just a few minutes of listening to your breath will relax you tremendously. █