Monday, November 2, 2015

Enjoy a Stress-Managed Life

It's November, the end of the year is approaching, final project due dates are coming up, and the holiday planning is just around the corner. Nothing ruins the most wonderful time of year like stress.

We know you're working hard so you can enjoy the upcoming celebrations with friends and family, that's why we created this post on Stress: What it is and How to Manage it.

Why is managing small stress factors so important? Cortisol.

Psychology Today tells us that: the stress hormone, cortisol, is public health enemy number one. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease... The list goes on and on. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience—especially in adolescence.

There are many areas in our lives which create small levels of stress. These can build up over time and cause emotional outbursts to relieve emotions. Learning to deal with these smaller stresses as they come will decrease stress levels and allow you to more fully enjoy the holidays, protect your relationships with others, and maintain productivity.

Now that we know how stress impacts the body, it's time to use that knowledge as motivation to implement some stress coping mechanisms. Each person has the ability to choose to change, and it's amazing the effect even two minutes of positive action can have (just ask your pearly whites!).

What actions can be taken? 

Let's go back to the great advice from Psychology Today.

You can make some simple lifestyle choices that will reduce stress, anxiety and lower your cortisol levels. Below are 4 tips for reducing your cortisol levels everyday:

1. Regular Physical Activity: Any aerobic activity, like walking, jogging, swimming, biking, riding the elliptical... are great ways to recreate the ‘flight’ outlet and burn-up cortisol.  A little bit of cardio goes a long way. Just 20-30 minutes of activity most days of the week pays huge dividends by lowering cortisol every day and in the long-run. Fear increases cortisol. Regular physical activity will decrease fear by increasing your self-confidence, resilience, and fortitude—which will reduce cortisol. Yoga will have similar benefits with added benefits of mindfulness training.

2. Mindfulness and Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM): Any type of meditation will reduce anxiety and lower cortisol levels. Simply taking a few deep breaths engages the Vagus nerve which triggers a signal within your nervous system to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and decreases cortisol. The next time you feel yourself in a stressful situation that activates your ‘Fight-or-Flight’ response take 10 deep breaths and feel your entire body relax and decompress.

3. Social Connectivity: Close knit human bonds—whether it be family, friendship or a romantic partner—are vital for your physical and mental health at any age.  Recent studies have shown that the Vagus nerve also responds to human connectivity and physical touch to relax your parasympathetic nervous system. The “tend-and-befriend” response is the exact opposite to “fight-or-flight”. The "tend-and-befriend" response increases oxytocin and reduces cortisol. Make an effort to spend real face-to-face time with loved ones whenever you can, but phone calls and even Facebook can reduce cortisol if they foster a feeling of genuine connectivity.

4. Laughter and Levity: Having fun and laughing reduces cortisol levels. Dr. William Fry is an American psychiatrist who has been studying the benefits of laughter for the past 30 years and has found links to laughter and lowered levels of stress hormones. Many studies have shown the benefits of having a sense of humor, laughter and levity. 

In addition, Elizabeth Scott, M.S. recommends journaling as a way to manage stress, emphasizing the need to put aside roughly 20 minutes to record your thoughts and feelings: As you write, don'’t just vent negative emotions or catalog events; write about your feelings, but also your thoughts surrounding emotional events. (Research shows much greater benefits from journaling when participants write about emotional issues from a mental and emotional framework.) Relive events emotionally, and try to construct solutions and ‘find the lesson’. Using both aspects of yourself helps you process the event and find solutions to problems. 

As we've discussed stress, it's impact on the body, and ways to manage stress effectively, we hope you were able to find something to change in your life. Implementing some of these ideas as healthy coping mechanisms will increase mental and emotional health, therefore increasing individual quality of life and enable us to reach our goals and better our relationships with others in all areas of life. Here's to a stress-free winter wherever you are, Aggies. 

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