Let's talk about stress, baby. We all experience some degree of stress every day as part of being human. Without any stress, we would not have the motivation and nudging to get our 'To-Do List' done for the day. Cortisol (our stress hormone) naturally rises in the morning as we start our day and get out of bed; it boosts the energy we need to be mobile.
We often refer to our experience of stress as being the 'fight or flight' mode. This sympathetic nervous system response can be a massive full-body mobilization; however, it can also be just enough of a nudge to get us going. Some degree of stress helps us get things done, but too much stress can deplete us.
Let's explore some ways to master the stress in our lives and harness it to be helpful and not harmful. The stress response starts when our brain registers through our senses or thoughts that something may be a perceived threat to our safety and well-being. This information is transmitted to our emotional brain, or limbic system, to a structure called the amygdala, which helps us decide if something is threatening or not. When our amygdala decides that something is a threat, then a cascade of events starts to mobilize important neurotransmitters that jolt us into action. These brain chemicals ramp up our sympathetic nervous system's adrenaline production, and the pituitary gland signals the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. All this happens without much of our thinking brain's input; this automated protective action ensures our survival. This system works great if our amygdala is threatened by something that would cause us physical harm. Luckily for most of us, our stress and threat level usually does not come from a physical threat but rather from thoughts about future events or regrets from past actions that are uncomfortable but are not immediately harming us.
How can we live in harmony with modern life’s stressors? Movement is the key to stress management. Physical movement helps discharge pent up energy in our nervous system. It balances the activity between the active ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic branch and the more calming parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. We can literally “run away” from our problems by actively getting our blood pumping through our muscles, much like you would do if you were running away from actual physical danger. This use of our muscular system in any movement helps discharge the residual buildup of 'action chemicals' from this threat response. Nature also provides us with an additional bonus in releasing stress. If you can get moving in a natural environment, this increases your chance of experiencing a sense of 'awe' at the greatness of things. Research studies show that the 'awe' response to nature’s wonders reduces the stress hormone levels of cortisol in our saliva.
Getting enough magnesium in our diet helps buffer the effects of stress. Stress depletes our magnesium reserves, while adequate magnesium levels reduce our stress response in brain areas that signal the release of stress hormones. Magnesium is also a cofactor for many chemical reactions in our brain that produce messengers called neurotransmitters. They help balance our mood and give us clarity about the importance of perceived stressful events. One easy way to get more magnesium in your diet is eating dark green leafy vegetables. One cup of cooked greens has about 150 milligrams of magnesium. The daily requirement for women is 320 milligrams and men need about 400 milligrams. Thus, one cup of spinach is an excellent start. You can also increase the magnesium in your diet with whole grains like buckwheat or oat flour, and nuts like Brazil nuts and cashews in moderation. A relaxing non-dietary way to increase magnesium is by taking an Epsom salt bath since Epsom salts are a form of magnesium.
The most potent and straightforward way to gain mastery over stress is through harnessing the effects of diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing gives our body the signal to relax and reduce its fight or flight predisposition and move into a more relaxing mode. Diaphragmatic, or belly breathing, is the natural breathing pattern often seen in little children and infants. The diaphragm muscle brings air into the lungs. It is located between the lungs and the abdomen, and when it contracts to get air into the lungs, it pushes on the contents of the abdomen forcing the abdomen to expand during inhalation. We breathe out when the diaphragm relaxes, and the abdomen goes back to its resting position. We feel the rise of our abdomen when we breathe in, and the fall of our abdomen when we breathe out; this is how we know that we are breathing diaphragmatically.
Did you realize there is power in a smile? Humans are social creatures and are calmed by having safe face-to-face eye contact. Mother Teresa said, "Peace begins with a smile." Researchers have found that smiling can reduce stress and improve our mood. One study shows that smiling during brief stress episodes can reduce the body's stress response intensity, even if you don't feel happy. Be sure to get some face time every day! If you don't have a loved one nearby that you can look into their eyes, you always have yourself. Greeting yourself with a smile in the mirror is also useful in lowering stress. Smile!
Journaling is a way to empty out any "head-trash" that accumulates and may contribute to our constant low-level stress. Spending some time dumping our thoughts and concerns out on paper can help us release some of our attachments and help us gain clarity and important insights. Journaling about your concerns is a wonderful way to discharge them and learn from them, so remember to “take out your trash!” People in physical therapy for pain that journaled about a distressing event for about 10 minutes after their therapy session had reduced pain levels and improved objective measures. Their functional range of motion improved more than a control group who got the same therapy amount without the journaling.
A healthy level of stress helps us function, be effective, and get stuff done. Ongoing stress can drain and deplete us of vital resources and reserves. Being human and living a full life always involves some levels of normal stress. Learning stress-mastery techniques to handle stress increases our well-being, our vitality and prevents overwhelm. It can all begin with a smile, a stroll or a salad.
Dr. Theresa Oswald is an integrative medicine physician at the PureRejuv Wellness Center on the campus of the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. She has practiced holistic medicine for over 25 years.