Stressed Out? Here’s What You Can Do About It.

By: Dr. Roger Landry, MD, MPH

An antelope will run from an attacking lion and do it with more speed and strength than he normally might have. This amazing “Fight or Flight” response is something that humans, and all mammals, share. It is hardwired into our very DNA. In this “do or die” scenario, our bodies will produce epinephrine, cortisol and norepinephrine, substances that will give us an immediate dose of energy and endurance – enough to, hopefully, outrun the proverbial lion.  But there’s a difference between us humans and the antelope. If the antelope gets away, you’ll find him grazing in the field minutes later as if the lion interaction never happened. However, we as humans also have something that animals don’t – the ability to set off this “do or die” reaction with our very thoughts!  

Yes, our worry and self-induced, chronic stress mimics that life-threatening situation: such common things as reliving past negative situations, worrying about the future and being in so much of a hurry that we hardly notice what is happening in THIS moment. Years of this self-induced chattering mind subjects or bodies to and all-or-none reaction we were never meant to experience and can lead to many negative effects including depression, heart disease, some cancers and even dementia. The mechanism for this is at yet unclear, but a suppressed immune system is clearly part of it. So, what can we do to reduce how we react to stressful situations?  

The Lion Within Us: It’s Fight or Flight  

DO… 

  1. Make the decision to fix it, accept it or walk away. When you are faced with a stressful situation, you have only one of three choices, fix it immediately (or plan a strategy for fixing it), accept it as part of your experience or walk away.  
  1. Quiet your mind. When our thoughts our swamped with grievances, regrets and worry, it is the equivalent of being stuck in a cage with a hungry lion. This is the beast within, causing chronic dis-ease. Whether it’s getting out in nature, meditating, exercising or enjoying a hobby, seek out activities that cause you to lose track of time and break the momentum of stress buildup.  
  1. Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to many stress-related disorders, depression and illness. Our bodies need time to repair and recharge after a long day, and getting a minimum of seven to eight hours a night can make you a virtual warrior against stress. Build a buffer zone of at least an hour from all things that stress you before you retire to sleep.   
  1. Laugh more. Laughter has been known to reduce the stress hormones that suppress our immune systems. Conversely, laughter activates T-cells, immunoglobulins and natural killer cells, which collectively play a roll in rejecting tumors and cells infected with viruses, as well as protecting us from infection. Laughter also increases beta-endorphins, which improve mood, reduce pain and increase relaxation.  
  1. Avoid building walls around your opinions. In other words, give up the need to be right all the time. This lowers the quality of relationships, mutes creativity and causes unnecessary stress. Learn to truly listen to other people’s opinions and allow for the possibility that you might be wrong.  

Don’t 

  1. Attempt to escape stress by self-medicating, alcohol, or even TV.  These “solutions” are only escapes that present more problems and do not get to the root cause. Seek out instead ways to unwind through mindful and meaningful activities. 
  1. Assume that stress is “just the way life is.” The stress response may be part of our genetic code, but we do not have to allow it to control us; and, we can learn to manage those triggers that cause the stress response.  
  1. Isolate yourself. Our society today is dramatically different from what our ancestors experienced. Within that ancient village environment, our ancestors were part of a whole, and in times of trouble, the village was there to help. Instead of retreating in solitude when stressed, try socializing and being around other people. And, consider a few close friends or family members with whom you can share your burden. Talking about what you are feeling goes a long way to reducing feelings of stress.  
  1. Become sedentary. At minimum, make the commitment to do some type of movement – be it walking, swimming or other low-impact activity for thirty minutes, three times per week. Physical activity increases the production of endorphins in our body, reducing stress and increasing feelings of wellbeing.  
  1. Resort to “comfort foods” loaded with processed sugar. There’s much more that can be said about the food-mood connection and the role the foods we eat have on the stress we feel. But if you were to pick one change in your diet, I would recommend cutting out the processed sugar. Sugar, except what is found naturally in foods, is a foreign substance, and our systems are not geared to handle it. Sugar increases cortisol levels in our bodies, which leads to stress and a variety of chronic illnesses.  

Remember, in the end, we’re responsible for our inner space. Feeding our stress demons by focusing our attention on them is a prescription for unrest and poor health. Quieting our mind and losing track of time will ensure you have more high quality time in your life. Live long; live well!  

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