Rethinking Stress: The Best Offense is a Good Defense
We all deal with stress on a daily basis. It's a topic we are all aware of, one we have all experienced in some way, and definitely one that we have all received advice about. I just looked up "how to reduce stress" on good old Dr. Google and discovered an overwhelming number of techniques to address stress. The suggestions ranged from natural tea remedies, meditation, aromatherapy, massage, writing, drawing/painting, reading, and diaphragmatic breathing to my personal favorite: exercise.
With so many options out there for reducing stress, I decided to tackle the problem from a preemptive standpoint. Rather than “attacking stress”, I want to promote “defending against stress”.
A change to a healthy lifestyle can moderate one's overall stress level. It's about keeping the mind and body healthy to be able to handle any unforeseen stressors that come our way. We should approach our mental health much like we do our physical. Similar to boosting our immune system to before the onset of flu, a daily mental health routine can act as defensive preparation.
How can we manage this?
To be honest, the tools in the toolbox are pretty similar to those of stress reduction. I wanted to shift the mindset of "we should do x-y-and-z when we are stressed" to "we should live optimally with healthy, mindful habits". We should be talking about living a lifestyle to minimize the deleterious effects of stress. After all, the wise Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
These are my top three habits I've implemented for a healthy mind:
Diaphragmatic Breathing: This type of breathing is a way to be mindful and stay grounded in the present state by honing in on the breath and how it enters and exits the body. It actually works! It’s scientifically proven!1 I perform my deep inhales of 3 seconds and exhales of 4-6 seconds first thing in the morning. 2 Since it only requires a few minutes to implement throughout the day, I schedule at least once in the morning, afternoon, then evening/night for minimum of 3 times per day. If you haven’t already, read the eloquently written blog post by Alexandra Roark, be sure to take the time to read the multiple benefits of deep breathing here:
Regular Exercise: Have we stressed this enough? (Hah). As a Student Doctor of Physical Therapy, I am an avid believer that exercise is medicine. There is an abundant amount of scientific evidence that exercise plays a protective role for the brain.3 Several lines of research also show that exercise releases the chemicals in the brain that are directly correlated with our happy mood.4 What a deal! The current recommendation for exercise to benefit our health is 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week. A great way to get involved in the community (and thereby have a chance to also increase your social well-being) is to join a fun fitness class!
Make time for sleep: Sleep may help you prevent colds and the flu as Brianna Bacich mentioned in her informative post (read here for tips:). Not only that, sleep is essential for clearing away the potentially neurotoxic waste products that accumulate in CNS during awakefulness.5 It literally keeps your mind clean (and healthy)! I try to keep a consistent schedule for bedtime and wake up call. A routine to may help you optimize your daily sleep habits and increase your mood and focus during the day.
In summary, I’ve ingrained these essential habits in my daily life that I found to be effective “Stress Guards” throughout graduate school. However, please don't hesitate to contact psychologist, physician, or physical therapist for more specific advice and/or referral if you are dealing with stress that seems overwhelming. Your healthcare provider can best serve your individual concerns and needs: reach out, be proactive and achieve the healthier life you want!
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1: Fried, R.(1993). The role of Respiration in Stress control. In: Lehrer P. H. WoolFork, R. L.(eds). Principle of Practice of Stress management. 2nded. NewYork. The Guilford press, 301-331. 2: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-4386/A-Simple-Breathing-Exercise-to-Calm-Your-Mind-Body.html 3: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/#r61-1
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