Stress coping strategies. Don’t we all need them? Life can get really hectic. Mounting responsibilities, emerging priorities, and endless to-do-lists can wreak havoc on our health and well-being. Surely most people can relate: it’s a constant go, go, go.
Of course, stress is a normal part of life. Sometimes it can motivate and help you achieve your goals. But there is this other type of stress, the chronic kind, which can really wreak havoc on our bodies and mind in numerous ways.
Different Kinds of Stress
Acute stress, like stressing your body and bumping up your heart rate during one hour of exercise is good for us. It releases hormones that help blood flowing to the brain and can lead to better focus and concentration.
We are equipped with a “flight or fight response” which is useful when being chased by a wild animal or needing a quick reflex to swerve when getting cut off on the highway. But we are not chased by tigers all day long, day after day. Such chronic stress can be detrimental to our overall health and well-being.
How Does Stress Impact Our Lives
- It weakens the immune system.
- It reduces energy levels.
- It encourages over-eating.
- It disrupts sleep.
- It can cause hair to fall out.
- It can exacerbate skin issues (think acne, psoriasis, rosacea, and eczema, hives, rashes).
- It increases addictive behaviors and aggravates depression.
- It impacts hormone levels and can potentially increase infertility in women.
- It can trigger digestive issues (heartburn, ulcers, IBS).
- It lowers sex drive.
Easily said, but how to best do it? We still have to work, commute, prepare family meals, and keep the house clean. We will still be bombarded by bad news, bad weather, and issues in our community from time to time. But with a few key strategies, it is possible to lower the stress level and go learn to cope with it better. (Read here about the specific case of emotional rollercoaster following a health scare/challenge)
My Top 5 Stress Coping Strategies
1. A Daily Meditation Practice
When I first visited my naturopathic doctor upon my cancer diagnosis, he gave me a lengthy prescription for crucial supplements and diet recommendations. He also wrote a prescription for a daily meditation practice which turned out to be the hardest one for me to implement.
I have never meditated before, I’m not a praying type in an usual sense, up to that point I had never had time for journaling or gratitude exercises. It took me a long time to implement some mindful practices into my life – full of stress exacerbated by the worry about my prognosis – but I’m glad I took the time and had the patience to start and stick with it.
“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”
“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.A. A. Milne
It would be best to start your day with mindful meditation as it would set the tone for what’s coming down the pike. There are some great apps out there to help you implement mindful meditation (I use Calm).
You can start with a guided meditation practice such as Loving Kindness and eventually move on to less guided ones when the goal will be the focus and quieting of the restless mind.
I personally am not very good at meditating in the morning, especially not on the days I have to commute to work. I usually meditate in the afternoon or right before bedtime. I find it to be a perfect time for a gratitude meditation when I can really step back and appreciate all the great people and things in my life and learn not to sweat the little things, no matter how annoying they might have seemed throughout the day.
Numerous studies have shown that exercise promotes stress relief and reduces anxiety. Moreover, it can ward off illness and halt disease progression.
“Regular physical activity is associated with reduced risk of recurrence and mortality in patients with nonmetastatic colorectal cancer.”Breandan J.Guarcio, MD, et al., Associations of Physical Activity With Survival and Progression in Metastatic Colorectal Cancer
You don’t have to join CrossFit training in order to reap the stress-reducing benefits of exercise. Dance while cooking, clean the house with your favorite song on, take the dog for a run, or do some gardening. If you exercise outdoors, you’ll get additional benefits of being in nature. Also, we can’t overestimate how helpful some moderate sun exposure can be for relieving stress and anxiety.
Before I got sick, I was not much of an exerciser, just up to the last two years prior to diagnosis. I started to enjoy indoor cycling then (spinning) and doing some yoga on the off days. I had to put a stop to this while undergoing treatment but as soon as I was able to rejoin my gym I did it and never looked back. I will post separately about how I got my groove back later on.
The ritual of writing down all that bothers or annoys you can help you direct all that mental energy out of your mind, and onto the paper so that you can finally let it go. Journaling gives us an opportunity for emotional catharsis and helps the brain regulate emotions. It can also provide a greater sense of confidence and self-identity.
Even in the darkest moments of my cancer journey I felt I could always turn to my journal and jot down my fear, anxiety, and worry. It also became a daily habit for me to write down at least three things I am grateful for, what my hopes for the future are, and what I want to accomplish the next day. It might seem silly at first, a bit forced, but believe me, it becomes a nice habit to have that will alleviate stress in the long run.
Recently I’ve read about another interesting stress coping strategy: a stress-relieving writing exercise called the brain dump. I have not practiced it myself, but basically it entails writing everything that’s on your mind to unburden yourself. It doesn’t even have to be incomplete sentences – just dump those nasties onto paper or word document, and walk away. Supposedly, it will make you feel lighter as if a load was taken off your shoulders.
4. Self Care Rituals
I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a relaxing spa treatment or massage. I have loved skincare and body rituals since the first time I had a DIY yogurt and honey mask on my face. Nothing de-stresses me more than a long, warm bath with Epsom and sea salts or milk and herbs sachet in the water, a nice body scrub and face mask, and a luxurious self-massage afterward with nourishing body lotion smelling of wonderful essential oils.
Whatever rocks your boat – infrared sauna, a day at the spa, hot stone massage, or a home spa treatment – these can help reduce the perception of stress, increase happiness, and decrease levels of the “stress hormone” (cortisol) in your body.
Last, but not least, it is important to stay away from screens and electronic devices once in a while. Of course, this is not easy, since much of our work and, indeed, life relies on connectivity and online presence. However, having an online presence makes us less present and in the moment. We are “there”, rather than “here” and “now”.
Generally, nearly one-fifth of Americans (18 percent) identify the use of technology as a very or somewhat significant source of stress. The most stressful aspect? Americans say technology causes the most stress when it doesn’t work (20 percent).American Psychological Association
One of the things screens hurt the most is our sleep patterns. A full night’s rest is important not only to give you the energy you need to get through and enjoy the next day but also to relieve the stress that comes from being tired and cranky.
I’m trying to turn off all screens at least a half-hour before going to bed. At least one hour before turning them off, I’d wear the blue-light-blocking glasses, so that my circadian rhythm doesn’t get too much out of whack.
BTW, fewer media also means less bad news, scary information, and gruesome stories that the nightmares are made of.
These five stress coping strategies – meditation, exercise, journaling, self-care rituals, and unplugging – work for me pretty well. Even during the darkest times of my illness, I was able to not completely succumb to depression. Of course, I cried, I was worried about the future, about my kids growing up without me. But, knowing that I can either write about it or sweat it out was very helpful. I hope it can be helpful to you as well.