Give Stress A Rest
Tired of chronic worry? You can’t wish it away, but there are things you can do.
Stress, defined as a state of worry or mental tension about something, is a part of life that’s unavoidable, like taxes and aging. Because there are real situations we need to turn our minds to, stress serves a purpose—we’d be heedless beach balls without it. But when it becomes pervasive or too persistent—when we find ourselves locked in chronic stress even as situations change, or spending endless mental juice on situations we can’t change— then stress can become a threat to both mental and physical health. And according to the American Institute of Stress (yes, there is such an entity), 33 percent of people report feeling extreme stress. That’s not good.
No magic finger-snap can banish life’s issues: Your mortgage payment is late, your candidate’s losing, your child has unsavory friends. But managing stress is a skill at which you can improve, and if you’re handling it this week better than you did last week, you deserve a pat on the back—even if it’s only from you.
Below, you’ll read tips offered by two experts at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Services: Darian Eletto, director; and Shahan Sibtain, M.D., chief psychiatrist. Some of these ideas sound like common sense. But often, among the heavily stressed, common sense isn’t as common as it ought to be.
• Exercise more. We all know that working out can help us achieve weight-loss goals and improve cardiovascular health, but it can help minimize stress too by pumping up those feel-good endorphins. “I like to tell my patients to make it a small, measurable goal each day to be active for any amount of time they feel is manageable,” says Dr. Sibtain. “It could be five minutes, 20 to 30 minutes or even a full hour. So long as they are engaging in a movement they enjoy, it can help contribute to reducing stress.” Basically, anything is better than nothing.
• Eat healthier. What we consume affects how we function physically, mentally and even emotionally. Stick to a balanced diet full of nutrient-rich leafy greens, whole grains and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, and drink lots of water to minimize stress and anxiety and assist brain function. And though you think you may need caffeine to make it through your day, try to minimize it on high-stress days. “Caffeine consumption increases the risk of having panic attacks as well as associated side effects such as increased heart rate, racing thoughts and poor sleep patterns,” says Dr. Sibtain.
• Prioritize your Zs. Sleep decreases cortisol levels, which in turn can minimize stress. Therefore, maintaining good sleep hygiene plays a huge role in our mental health, says Dr. Sibtain; good sleep is an important form of self-care. He says adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night to avoid a rise in hormone levels and reduce feelings of stress.
• Consider talk therapy. Psychotherapy is more common today and isn’t as stigmatized as it was in the past. “What was once a taboo conversation only acceptable for those considered ‘mentally ill’ is now the new norm,” says Eletto. “‘My therapist said’ is the new ‘my mom said!’” And therapy isn’t just for super-hard times in your life. “Therapy is a great way to work on self-improvement, learn new skills, identify ways to manage day-to-day stress and work toward achieving our personal goals,” Eletto says. A mental health professional can make you more aware of your thoughts and emotions and help you find ways to manage the difficult ones. Old influences and old feelings may be closing certain doors that ought to be open to you, and therapy can help open them.
• Take some deep breaths. Slowly inhaling and then exhaling signals the nervous system to calm down; thus deep breathing can have a positive effect on mental health and stress levels. “Deep breathing is a great tool for stress relief because it allows us time to focus on our breath and our bodies,” says Dr. Sibtain. You can do one-off deep breathing as needed throughout your day, or engage in a more formal practice, the doc suggests, such as mindfulness meditations (in-person or via podcast) or yoga. “These tactics can be utilized multiple times a day or week to assist in reducing stress,” he says. How often you’ll need to use them will vary by person.
• Do something. Have you a hobby, something absorbing that you do for the fun and satisfaction of it? No one is saying you must suddenly take up piano lessons or sign up for a needlepoint class, but it’s important to take some “me time” to do whatever it is that you enjoy, even if it’s just five or 10 minutes a day. “Something as small as taking a walk outside or reading a page in a book you like can have a big impact on your stress levels,” says Eletto. “Little moments of self-care add up to big rewards in mental wellness. When you find a coping skill or activity you truly enjoy, you’ll be more likely to practice it.”
Finally, don’t stress over de-stressing. Our experts suggest setting small goals you can realistically accomplish; don’t expect to wake up tomorrow morning ready to lead a silent Buddhist retreat. “A day at a time” is a good approach, and a modicum of positive thinking isn’t against the law either. Hopefully, in handling stress, you’ll have success.