Life is inherently filled with stress. Whether it’s a traffic jam making you late to an appointment, a big project looming heavily on your mind, or worries about money or health, our lives are filled with stressors.
Then, when you take all of these smaller daily stressors and layer on a big source of stress —such the coronavirus pandemic — your stress level can reach a dangerous tipping point.
Stress is more than an emotion — it affects your entire body
When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones—including cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine—which ramp up your sympathetic nervous system. This is an evolutionary response and would be helpful if you came across an imminent danger like a wild tiger since it would help you flee.
But chronic stress is a different story. When your sympathetic nervous system is in a frequent state of high alert, it’s like you’re being chased by a tiger all the time. This continual stress response puts you at risk for a whole host of unwanted conditions, varying from anxiety and depression to insomnia, heart disease and memory difficulties.
Start stress-proofing whenever possible
Don’t let this bad news about stress make you more stressed! There are many tactics you can use to put the brakes on stress and help your entire body regain its equilibrium.
Wake with morning meditation. One of the most important things I do each morning is to start the day with a 20-minute meditation where I quiet my mind and focus on my breathing. This has been a complete game-changer for me! It grounds me so I can take on the day and handle more stress directed at me without it adding to my worry or anxiety load.
The most important action during your meditation is breathing. You don’t want to breathe in shallowly but deeply from your diaphragm. To do it properly, put your hand on your belly button and feel your belly rise underneath your hand as you breathe in and exhale.
Practice “media distancing.” Watching the news 24-hours a day can ratchet up your stress level, especially with so much information to consume. The remedy to this is something I’ve termed “media distancing.” Just like we’re social distancing to avoid spreading COVID-19, I recommend distancing yourself from the constant 24-hour news cycle to avoid spreading constant panic.
Give yourself a limit on how often, and for how long, you’re going to consume news. Then, defuse! This means stepping back and giving yourself permission to relax and have a little fun—such as watching a movie or playing a family game.
Shut down social media notifications. There’s no question that emotions are highly charged right now. For many of us, our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds are filled with a host of differing opinions. Plus, many of us spend far more time on social media than we think we do.
Addiction to social media is real, in fact, that there’s a new condition called “phantom vibration syndrome.” This phenomenon occurs when people think that their phone is ringing or vibrating in their pocket when it’s not since we’re so conditioned to respond. The first step to reducing social media dependence is to turn off all notifications to social media platforms so they are not pinging you throughout the day. Then only go into the social media platforms when you want to spend time in them, versus when social media is trying to draw you in randomly throughout the day.
Adapt with adaptogenic herbs. When you’re stressed, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis—which is your body’s feedback loop—gets overworked. That’s where adaptogenic herbs can help. As the name suggests, adaptogens help your body to “adapt” to stress by keeping your HPA axis working efficiently and effectively, reducing the impact of stress on your body.
I often prescribe adaptogens for my patients who are suffering from chronic stress because they work so well. Some of the top adaptogenic herbs I recommend include ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Eleutherococcus and holy basil.
Surround yourself in nature. One of the best antidotes for stress is to get outside of your head and surround yourself in nature. I like to do something called a “sit spot meditation” where you sit quietly observing your surroundings—from the sound of the wind blowing through the trees to the smell of fresh rain.
Taking a brisk walk or bike ride are also excellent ways to defuse stress. Recently, I rode my bike up a mountain in California and when I reached the crest and looked out over the horizon, I got a chill down my spine. I could feel the freedom as I left my stressors behind, quite literally.
It seems like it should be simple, but reducing stress can be complicated because it requires a conscious decision every day to take self-care actions with ourselves. The starting point is to view self-care as a critical part of your day, required for not only reducing your stress but the stress of those around you.