Stress is something that we all experience. Unfortunately, we sometimes experience it too often.
We typically think of stress in terms of mental stressors, such as getting stuck in traffic, studying for an exam, or pushing to meet a deadline at work.
However, stress cumulates from a variety of biochemical, mental-emotional, and physical factors. The food that we eat, our quality of sleep, our exercise routine, and our personal and professional lives are just a few things that have a tremendous impact on stress.
As a result, many people finding lowering stress levels to be challenging. These are often the individuals who “can’t sit still,” or who always feel the need to be doing something “productive.”
As difficult as it may seem, we all have the ability to destress. To help you do so, I have provided my top 4 tips for controlling stress, including a list of relaxing practices.
- Understand Stress
In order to manage our stress, it is vital that we have an understanding of what it is and what causes it.
When we experience stress, we are actually feeling the effects of a two hormones, cortisol and epinephrine, which our bodies release to help us react to the situation
Cortisol, also known as the “flight or flight” hormone, is essential for our everyday function. It’s produced by our adrenal glands and released into our bloodstream when we wake up, when we exercise, and during times of stress.
However, constant stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels, also known as hypercortisolism. Too much cortisol not only makes it difficult for our bodies to relax fully, but can have a number of negative health effects including widespread inflammation, weight gain, disrupted sleep, and hormonal changes.
Although we will never be able to remove ourselves from stress completely, there are many ways that we can control our cortisol levels and, consequently, control our stress.
As is mentioned by Dr. Kara Hannibal and Dr. Mark Bishop, “Stress may be unavoidable in life, and challenges are inherent to success; however, humans have the capability to modify what they perceive as stressful and how they respond to it.”
- Don’t Rely on Exercise to Destress
This is one is tricky.
Of course, exercise is fundamental in maintaining physical and mental health. Other physical stressors, like the sauna and cryotherapy, can also have significant health benefits.
However, if you recall from earlier, physical stress raises our cortisol levels and cumulates with our other daily stressors. Therefore, we cannot rely on exercise as a way to destress.
In fact, if we are to fully attain the number of untold health and fitness benefits that come from exercise, our bodies must have the opportunity to recover from stress.
As is argued by Dr. Phil Maffetone, “Exercise benefits are directly related to physiological recovery from stress…this [recovery] requires varying amounts of time depending on the volume and intensity of exercise, and one’s health.” In addition, “other non-exercise stressors,” like those previously mentioned, “can also affect the process of adaptation.”
Therefore, if we want to lower our cortisol levels and reap all of the benefits of exercise, it is important that we find other ways to cope with stress that do not involve strenuous physical activity.
- Commit to a Daily Practice(s)
In modern society, we are often on-the-go and our free time can be pretty limited.
However, consistently finding time to unwind and destress is vital for maintaining healthy cortisol levels and for our mental and physical health.
Nonetheless, destressing practices do not need to take up a large portion of our time. A 15-minute online yoga video here and 5-minutes of box breathing there can make a world of a difference.
It is important to that you listen to your body and experiment with different practices to find which best suit you and your schedule. Some practices that yield benefits for one person may not feel quite right to another.
But remember, many practices, like yoga and deep breathing, require time and consistent practice before we are able to experience the entirety of their benefits. So be patient!
See below a list of practices that traditionally help people destress.
- Yoga can be great for both the mind and the body. Stress can cause a great deal of tension to build-up in our muscles and joints, and yoga is a great way to loosen them up. Yoga also allows our minds to enter a “flow state,” which psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defines as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
In addition, if you don’t want to commit to a yoga studio (they can be quite expensive), there are a vast number of instructional videos online that can be accessed for free. Yoga with Adriene is among the most popular and is great for both beginners and advanced yogis!
- Meditation is often misunderstood. To meditate does not necessarily mean sitting on the ground in silence with your eyes closed (Although this may be appealing to some people). Rather, there are many other things that can be meditative. For instance, a quiet trail walk, listening to your favorite band, or painting a picture can all be meditative. If you’re not sure where to start, I would suggest trying a meditation application for your smart phone, like Headspace, or a reliable online meditation video.
- Breathing Exercises. There’s a reason why breathing exercises are included in elite military training – they work. The right exercises, like Box Breathing and Alternate Nostril Breathing, can be incredibly effective in lowering cortisol levels and, as a result, help calm both mind and body. Check out phone applications like Saagara’s Pranayama Universal Breathing or the online instructional videos in the hyperlinks above to help get you started.
- Reading allows our mind to escape and our physical bodies to relax. It also doesn’t have the negative effects of blue light that comes with watching television, playing with our smart phones, or staring at our laptops. Not only does blue light dry our eyes, but it increases our cortisol levels and stimulates our brains.
- Hobbies are a model example of individualization. We all have different hobbies that are unique to our interests and skills. For example, some people find working on a car to be relaxing, or practicing an instrument, or even cleaning! Others may find these activities boring and stressful.
Like yoga, many of our hobbies allow us to enter a flow state. As is described by Csíkszentmihályi, the mental state of flow involves “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought flows inevitably from the previous one…Your whole being is involved, and your using your skills to the utmost.”
- Get Enough Quality Sleep
There is a direct correlation between inadequate sleep and perceived stress levels. According to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, we “need to sleep adequately in order to manage stress.”
When we do not get enough sleep our “stress awareness” is elevated. In fact, insufficient sleep is itself “a chronic stressor” that increases our blood pressure as well as our evening cortisol and insulin levels.
The CDC recommends that adults get at least 7 hours of sleep and that teenagers get 8-10 hours. For a complete breakdown of recommended sleep by age group, see the hyperlink provided.
For more information on the importance of sleep, see Dr. Phil Maffetone’s article “Sleep Well and Prosper.”