How to Thrive Under Stress
By Kristy A. Harvell, DC
Master Nutrition Response Testing™ Practitioner
Stress. Friend or Foe?
We all compare our stressors in daily small talk; how to balance work life with home life, how there aren’t enough hours in a day, how we are stretched too thin. The most common answer to “How Are You?” is “Busy.” Headlines commonly reference research that reports stress is harmful to our health. The CDC, World Health Organization, Yale and several leaders in the medical and alternative health fields now agree that 95% of all diseases are caused by stress. So what do we do about it?
Update March 2020: With COVID-19 it is more important than ever to manage your stress and protect your health.
Even though it has become common knowledge that stress kills, we continue to sweep the topic under the rug. It might be partly due to the fact that stress has become inevitable in today’s fast paced world. Without a reliable gauge as to how well our bodies are dealing with stress, we are left to compare ourselves to our stressed-out peers. Maybe we seem to be tolerating stress better than they are. We might tell ourselves that someone else has it worse off than we do. Certain go-getters might even lead themselves to believe that they work better under pressure, that stress makes them stronger.
The truth is that our bodies are under way more stress than our ancestors were. We take work home with us. Technology makes it so that we can be reached 24-7. We never really ‘shut it off’. Additionally, our diets and self-care are often the first things to take a back seat to our never ending To Do lists. Even when we are trying to make healthy choices, the odds aren’t stacked in our favor. The standard American diet is full of empty calories and void of any real nutrients. Air and water quality is poor and toxins are all around us. Dr. Google leads us down a rabbit trail of conflicting information about what is healthy. How many of us have been willing to put the time, money and effort into getting healthy to get minimal results at best?
The good news is that busy people can be healthy too! Put all of your self discipline, Type A mannerisms, structure, prioritization and multi-tasking to work in your own self care department. Most Boss Women don’t just do something because they take someone else’s word for it so let’s make sure you understand the physiology of stress so that you are better equipped to thrive and not merely survive. Stress only becomes a problem when we allow it to become imbalanced. If stressor after stressor occurs and we don’t spend the time to recover in between episodes, our bodies become imbalanced and depleted. The danger is that this often occurs silently behind the scenes. You can’t accurately judge the cumulative effects that stress is causing by your symptoms alone. The reason for this is that the body is always adapting. In fact, your body can compensate for high levels of stress for really long periods of time….until it can’t. This is often described as the straw that broke the camel’s back. If you missed all the subtle warning signs along the way that your body wasn’t happy, it will no longer whisper to get your attention. This time, it will resort to shouting, refusing to perform, sending more alarming symptoms to try to get you to pay attention. This scenario usually plays out as some kind of health crisis that sidelines you from your day-to-day and requires time and money to fix, leading to more stress and taking you full circle back to your old ways.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to get to this point! Have you ever heard the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” This quote was originally given by Benjamin Franklin regarding fire prevention, but there is relevance here. In our homes, we make sure our electrical system is to code, unplug unnecessary appliances and keep lighters and matches away from getting into the wrong hands.
We do this to protect our investment and prevent a major crisis or loss. When it comes to taking care of our homes, we have adopted an attitude of prevention and protection as normal routine. Shouldn’t we do the same for our bodies? Afterall, you only get one body to live in for an entire lifetime whereas a home can be rebuilt.
So what can you do?
This might initially require a change in our thinking. We have become used to relying on what insurance covers as a standard of healthcare. This has led us to a societal norm of waiting until something is broken before we try to do something about it. Insurance coverage doesn’t cover preventative or wellness care, that is up to you. Out of pocket healthcare expenditures are on the rise because people want more. The great majority are turning more and more to alternative medicine, mind-body practices and self-help materials. With some small shifts in your spending behaviors and reprioritizing your self-care, this doesn’t have to be outside of your reach. I have heard Money Coach, April Caldwell say, “You spend money on what your value most.”
Start with small incremental changes to your diet. If you are like people who burn the candle at both ends, you have most likely fallen victim to carbs, stimulants and convenience foods. While this might seem like an uphill battle, don’t let yourself be defeated. Know that every positive change that you make will yield cumulative improvements to your health. You don’t have to change everything at once and you don’t have to quit coffee and carbs cold turkey. Just know that the sugar and caffeine are compounding the problem and contributing to more stress chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline.
Watch your self-talk. There is power in the words that you repeatedly speak over yourself. Are you speaking negativity and defeat? It might seem harmless to carelessly say something like, “What was I thinking? That was stupid.” If you repeat something enough times, your body starts to believe it. Speak words of affirmation, turn negative statements into the positive and say what you want to happen rather than what you don’t want to happen. Make a list of uplifting statements and read them out loud every morning before you start your day. Whether you believe them at first or not, know that every cell in your body is listening and you are forming a new habit of speaking life rather than death.
Schedule down-time. If it is on your calendar, it is more likely to happen. You plan for everything else, so make a plan to recharge your batteries. By scheduling activities of rest, you are more likely to enjoy them when the time arrives because it was built into your week rather than wedged in the middle of everything else you overpacked your schedule with. You can even make a game of creating healthy boundaries between work and play. Set a goal to end your work-related tasks by a certain time or if work seeps into your weekend, block out the time and don’t run over.
Get enough rest. This can mean different things to different personality types. For example, meditation might not be the best fit for Type A’s. Some people need more active forms of rest, as counterproductive as that might sound. For example, an active yoga routine might be more restorative than trying to sit still and force thoughts out of your brain because you are moving. For some people, they can simply take a stroll outdoors, take in the sights and practice gratitude. Whatever it is for you, do it regularly.
Exercise is an important routine to burn off stress hormones but an act of balance is important. Your exercise should leave you feeling energized and recharged rather than depleted.
While each of the above strategies are equally important in their own right, the biggest gift of implementing a self-care routine is the self-awareness that will develop. When you give the body what it needs and loves, it rewards you with more peace, improved vitality and enhanced performance. This practice will serve as a reset. When you get in the habit of giving the body what it needs, it will more clearly communicate with you when it is unhappy. You will become better at listening to the subtle signs that something is starting to be out of balance rather than waiting for the alarm sirens. In time, you will reign victorious over stress and will learn to make it work for you rather than against you!