We all know how unpleasant and uncomfortable stress can feel, but just how unhealthy is it? While studies have shown short-term stress can help boost the immune system, chronic stress can have significant negative effects that leave us susceptible to illness.
Let’s face it: we can’t eliminate stress completely. It’s part of being human. However, we don’t have to be helpless bystanders waiting for stress to strike; nor should we feel overpowered by the first indication that it’s moving in.
We can exert a certain level of control to help manage stress levels. With the proper tools—diet, sleep, and meditation—we can handle stress in a healthy, effective manner.
Ayurveda teaches us that body and mind are strongly interlaced; it’s important that you nourish them both through a proper diet, sleep, and meditation. These three steps will not only help you handle stress when it crops up, they should also lessen its intensity and frequency.
Adjust Your Diet
Diet can either help or hinder your ability to handle stress. High-nutrient foods provide you with energy and a productive mindset to effectively handle stress. Other foods and beverages can actually sabotage your efforts.
- Complex carbohydrates send a signal to the brain to increase production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter believed to play a key role in emotion and mood.
Found in: whole grain breads, green vegetables, beans, and legumes
- Vitamin C boosts the immune system and helps lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Found in: oranges, kiwi, and red/green bell peppers
- Magnesium regulates cortisol levels. Low magnesium can cause fatigue and headaches, making it difficult to manage stress.
Found in: spinach, avocados, and nuts
- Omega-3 fatty acids lower stress hormones and blood pressure as well as improve cardiovascular health.
Found in: salmon, nuts, and seeds
- Caffeine acts as a stimulant, causing the release of adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream.
- Simple carbohydrates, like sugar, digest quickly and temporarily spike serotonin levels. Instead, choose natural sources found in fruit, milk, and other dairy products.
Found in: candy, table sugar, and soft drinks, and have little if any nutritional value.
- Alcohol changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which can result in feelings of anxiety
- Processed foods. Choose produce over packaged items.
Develop Better Sleeping Habits
Restful, quality sleep is vital for combating stress. Unfortunately, stress can get in the way of achieving this. Stress can cause your mind to race, impacting the quality and quantity of your sleep. In a 2013 survey, adults who slept less than eight hours a night reported feeling more irritable, overwhelmed, and stressed than those who slept at least that much.
Developing better sleep habits can put the odds in your favor of hitting that eight-hour mark, despite feelings of stress. Here are a few suggestions of healthy sleep habits:
- Take a walk after dinner
- Eat a light dinner and avoid heavy snacks in the evening
- Turn off electronics (including cell phone) an hour or two before bed
- Take a warm bath (add essential oils such as lavender or rose)
- Read or journal to gear down
Start a Meditation Practice
You might find it difficult to control thoughts and emotions, let alone your body’s reaction to them, when you’re feeling stressed. Luckily, the practice of meditation can help slow racing thoughts, regulate emotions, and calm the body. The benefits of meditation include reduced stress, decreased muscle tension, and improved sleep quality.
Beginning a meditation practice is simple, requires little resources, and can be done just about anywhere. As few as 15 minutes a day of meditation, ideally in the morning and/or evening, can be beneficial.
Find a quiet, comfortable space to practice where you won’t be disturbed and remember to breathe naturally and easefully. Should thoughts arise, which will inevitably happen, try not to judge them, but rather focus your attention back to your breath or chosen mantra.
Remember, the purpose behind meditation is not to “empty” the mind but to find the quiet that already exists within it.