I have generally been resilient by nature and able to perform well and thrive under stress ever since I can remember. While brief periods of stress are beneficial for the body by stimulating an immune response, chronic stress can be highly devastating to the body and mind. Life recently tested me.
Just a year ago, I found myself at a place in my life where everything I worked so hard to build was falling apart; most importantly, my family.
Over the span of 7 years, my wife and I poured countless hours, a lot of pain, heartache, sweat, struggles, and several relocations as we followed career paths that were challenging. But we were determined to see things through, and there was no obstacle big enough to deter our commitment. Our baby girl was born in the midst of this journey, and even though this event made us roll up our sleeves farther, she brought us an immense joy that can not be described.
I earned my Masters as a Nurse Anesthetist in 2014 and in the summer of 2016, and my wife finally graduated with her Doctoral degree in Pharmacy. I breathed a sigh of relief as I could finally see, feel, and smell my long-desired dream of getting settled together and enjoying the fruits of our hard work; of finally being able to spend quality time as a family.
The joy and excitement we shared started to dwindle in the fall of 2016 when my wife began to express her dissatisfaction with her job and career because Pharmacology was incongruent with her spiritual beliefs. She said she had discovered that she was meant to be an energy healer and was going to dedicate all of her time to it. The months that followed were gut wrenching for me as she became more and more distant, living in her own bubble of daily spiritual practice and ritual. I supported her all I could, allowing her time to get clarity about the direction she wanted for her life. Unfortunately, the rift between us only got worse as her outings and daily spiritual observances became her focus, causing us to become increasingly isolated from each other, and she finally announced that she was moving on with her life without us, ending our marriage and leaving me to care for our 3 year old daughter.
The next few months were by far the roughest I have ever experienced. My emotional meter was constantly in the red. Anger, pain, hurt, and frustration filled my daily life. The constant chatter of my “monkey mind” ran the show 24/7. I could have filled a whole book with all of the “why” questions running though my mind. I constantly pushed myself to handle the stress “better.” Daily struggles wore me down, like trying to figure out how I would get my daughter to daycare and be at work on time, who was going to pick her up at the end of the day when I worked late, and where would she spend the night when I worked my 24 hour shifts? I quickly found myself at the bottom of the emotion barrel and my health started to suffer. I was only “getting through life,” and not very well. I wanted some life again, and energy to enjoy time with my daughter. That is when I decided “I will live life by choice, according to my design, and craft a body and mind that is resistant to stress.”
Some of the negative effects of chronic stress on the body:
- It reduces your ability to control your emotions.
- It shrinks the part of the brain that is responsible for focus, emotional self regulation, and complex planning (the dorsolateral pre frontal cortex), making one more prone to depression, anxiety, and some confusion and disorganization.
- It stimulates the release of stress hormones, mainly cortisol. As the level of cortisol rises, so does the level of blood glucose. Abnormally high glucose levels increase the insulin released into the bloodstream, which leads to inflammation and weight gain.
- It weakens the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable.
Actions I took to begin changing my life:
I Raised my level of awareness:
This is the single most powerful action I took to begin flipping the stress switch off, and regaining a calmer life. I separated myself from my mind, and started noticing my feelings. I knew I was more than my mind. I understood one fact: “What is mine cannot be me, by definition.” My car is mine, because I own it, but my hand is part of me. I am not things (or feelings), and they are not me. Once I was able to make that separation, I started to establish a new relationship with the constant anxiety and stress that was running though me. I felt it, acknowledged it, redirected it, and created an outlet for the feeling to pass through me.
I meditated regularly:
This helped me develop the ability to exercise self control and redirect negative emotions. The emotional brain is the “center-point through which the emotional response is triggered.” Once it was triggered, it began a chain reaction that resulted in my response to the stressor. By making meditation an essential part of my daily routine, things that would normally evoke a negative response, now barely affect my mood. (If you are new to mediation, don’t begin by forcing yourself to be still for 30 minutes. Start with small increments of as little as 5 minutes. Meditation should be effortless, not torture. Start by focusing your attention on your breathing; in and out. Get used to it. Let it become easy. Then build onto that. )
I listened to high vibrational music every day:
Theta binaural high vibrational music (relaxing meditation-style music with a binaural beat) increases the ability to relax, meditate, and release creativity. I used this a lot at the beginning when I felt myself in a dark hole. I found it to be highly effective. As I think back at the ordeal, this music represented my life line. I was transported into another world once I start listening to it. My mind finally agreed to quiet down.
I learned to reframe stressful situations into opportunities:
In scientific terms this is called “cognitive reappraisal.” For instance, there were several times that I reported to work late because the childcare center my daughter attended, didn’t open early enough. This caused a tremendous amount of stress for me because patients and surgeons depended on my timely presence to get the job done. I reframed that situation by reminding myself that it was out of my control, so it offered me an opportunity to learn how to surrender, practice deep breathing, and talk myself into relaxation. While at work, whenever I found myself in a stressful situation while caring for a patient under anesthesia, I looked at the work as an opportunity to get into a state of flow, learn something new, and challenge myself.
I fed my body clean nutrient dense food only:
I can not stress this enough. It is one of the cornerstones that helped me turn the corner. My body is the vehicle that allows me to navigate my environment. I had to give it the best fuel available to ensure it runs very efficiently. Chronic stress promotes chronic inflammation, and poor eating habits undermine a healthy mind. Knowing this, I switched my eating style to one that is scientifically proven to minimize systemic inflammation in the body. I started a daily regimen of green smoothie packed with some of the most antioxidant rich leafy greens (watercress, chard, kale, cilantro). I also reduced my carbohydrate intake to the minimum possible and increased my daily intake of healthy fats. I capped this lifestyle change by fasting regularly. The overall effect has been very powerful and surprisingly unexpected for me: clarity of mind, increased energy, better mood, better sleep, and joint pain and aches are gone.
I Exercised regularly:
Overwhelming scientific evidence points to the fact that regular exercise promotes the release of feel-good hormones (endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin). I was already spending time the gym a few times a week, so I had a head start in my plan to dig myself out of the stress pit.
We are beings of emotion. Emotions affect a great deal of our daily actions. For the rest of my life, I will encounter situations that evoke stress in my mind and body. How I react to those moments depends on how I prepare myself everyday before I step out into the world. These are some of the tools I use to build a resilient mind and body for myself and my clients.