7 steps to kick stress to the curb
“I’m so stressed out!” she cried.
Her words hit me with the pain of a thousand heart attacks. Her eyes were ringed with the dark circles of innumerable sleepless nights. Her skin was pallid, loose and prematurely blotched and wrinkled. Her voice was shaky and tweaked with caffeine.
“What the heck am I supposed to do? I never imagined practice would be like this,” she continued, nervously clenching her fists and fidgeting as I contemplated her question.
It’s like this—stress kills. Merely five and a half years post-graduation, this young veterinarian was knocking at death’s door. Financial pressure, workplace woes and the demands of clients had all taken their toll on a once bright and cheery soul. I was staring at the lifeless husk of a former blossoming beauty. And I was scared for her.
Recently published studies have demonstrated that people who report they’re stressed are at greater risk of succumbing to stress-related disorders such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and even type 2 diabetes mellitus. In a 35-year study conducted on 6,828 Swedish adult males, those who reported they were stressed all or most of the time were 45 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared with men who reported little or only periodic stress. Another study of 7,268 adults found individuals who stated they were “a lot” or “extremely” stressed were 2.12 times more likely to suffer (or die from) a heart attack.
As I continued my conversation with the young veterinarian, I quickly realized she had let life get in the way of taking care of herself. Her diet mainly came from a bag, can or box. Her exercise routine consisted of walking from her car to the nearest door. Her love of music was now limited to the radio (she hadn’t picked up her violin in ages).
Her workplace stress stemmed from an unhealthy—and unfairly demanding—relationship that required her to directly confront the issues with the person, in real life. Her stomach and mind remained knotted and twisted as she avoided the inevitable conversation. As a natural pleaser, she bent to increasingly unrealistic requests of a small audience of clients that sucked her time and energy, leaving little time for more rewarding—and realistic—clients and patients.
It was time to take action. It wouldn’t be easy, but within ten minutes we had sketched out a three-month action plan to turn her life around. Here are some tips I shared with her to quickly de-stress:
1. Breathe deeply.Too often we forget the simple pleasure of breathing. Without getting all “woo-woo” on you, the next time you feel stress creeping up on your psyche, step back and inhale deeply. Breathe in all the positive energy you can imagine—close your eyes and suck in a bright white light if that helps. Exhale all that positive energy into the space around you, filling it with good vibes. You’ll reset your vibe-o-meter and maybe lower your blood pressure. Bonus points for those feel-good endorphins that kick in after a few minutes of deep breathing.
2. Ground yourself. Earthing, grounding and ecotherapy are all the rage with progressive physicians these days. My advice to de-stress is get outside more often. Walk barefoot as frequently as possible. Roll in the grass, get dirty. Go for a swim in a lake or the ocean. There’s something energizing—and magical—about immersing yourself in nature. Let the earth absorb your stress as you take in her energy. Sound new age-y enough? Call it what you want, but playing outside is almost guaranteed to strip any stress from your mind.
3. Get quiet.Meditation, calmness, presence or mindfulness—all simply proven methods to retrain your brain. Take a few minutes each day to get quiet. No thoughts, worries or ideas. Just stillness. Breathe deeply and give your mind a break from the ten million issues you’ve got at work and home. For advanced users, consider resonance meditation—seriously.
4. Move. Walk, jog, swim or bike. I don’t care what you do, just move. Twenty minutes of continuous aerobic activity is usually enough to reset all three major neurotransmitters. Daily aerobic activity is better. Besides, your dog needs the exercise. (I walked over a mile writing this column. More on that in the future.)
5. Talk. This is why we all need intimacy in our lives—we need someone to download our problems with. I’m not talking about gossiping, but rather sharing your stress with someone who will listen and help—really listen and help. Cultivate connections that help you expunge daily tension—and help your partner do the same.
6. Eat clean. For one week commit to eating only fresh, whole foods. Avoid alcohol and caffeine (or at least minimize the java as much as possible), fast food and processed chow. Steer clear of simple sugars, wheat and oils. See how you feel. Chances are you’ll find yourself clear-headed and then the cravings kick in a day or two later. Those cravings are what you’re literally—and physically—addicted to. Assess what you’re dying (no pun intended) to eat or drink and why you feel the way you do. Listen to your body. Connect with your physicality. Discover what makes you better. Each year I undergo a couple of serious cleanses (fasts or detoxes—pick your preferred name) that leave me refreshed, reenergized and even a few pounds lighter. I do these cleanses not only for the potential health benefits, but also to practice self-control. I don’t like anything to have power over me (i.e. cravings, addictions and so on). These cleanses help me identify trouble behaviors and actions that have crept in over the past several months and correct them before they become deeply rooted.
7. Turn off. Power down those electronic devices that increasingly invade and populate our lives. No lighted screens in the bedroom. No TV after 9 pm. No email, texts or Facebook browsing after 7 p.m. Whatever boundaries you want to set, just set some—today. These devices and their instantaneous personal access are creating so much stress they’re literally changing the way our brains function. Enough is enough. Engage the “Do not disturb” feature on your phone. Take a vacation from technology every few weekends. I’ve gotten so good at ignoring phone calls, emails and text messages lately—and the world hasn’t ended. Plus, I feel fine.
So if you hear a friend or colleague remark that they’re stressed, take it seriously. That stress, however insignificant or trivial it may seem to you, may lead to eventual serious medical complications—and even death. If you’re feeling stressed as you read this, reach out to your healthcare provider. As healers, we often put others’ needs before our own and neglect to care for ourselves. If you ignore the symptoms of stress, before too long, you may be unable to care for anyone or anything else.