Stress is America’s epidemic—our busy lives are a constant juggling act between home, career and social calendars. Couple those demands with the pressures that come with raising a family or parents who need caregiving, and you can see why.
“Stress is the body’s natural response to difficult or dangerous situations,” explains Denise White-Perkins, M.D., Ph.D., a family practice physician with Henry Ford Health. So whether you’re bringing home a new baby or facing a stack of bills you can’t pay, your body and mind respond by going on high alert, preparing you to fight or flee. This flood of hormones and other chemicals can help you meet a deadline or care for an ill spouse, but it can also distract you, keep you up at night and wreak havoc on your appetite.
While our bodies are remarkably capable of bouncing back from short bouts of chaos, according to White-Perkins, chronic stress triggers a negative domino effect that leads to poor habits. When you’re stressed, you may sleep less, reach for a triple espresso to get started in the morning and wolf down takeout at lunch because you’re strapped for time. The good news? Managing stress is often as simple as remembering skills you learned in kindergarten and using modern-day tools to bring relief. Here’s how:
- Stick to a schedule. Wake up and go to bed at the same time each day, eat healthy meals at regular intervals and squeeze in a nap when you can. When you know a stressful situation is on the horizon, keeping a healthy schedule helps build up your energy reserve and prepares your mind and body for the hit. You should also work on taking even better care of yourself during times of stress, too. “This is not the time to skip meals and workouts,” says White-Perkins. And don’t forget the power of a healthy snack (remember the days of graham crackers and milk?).
Modern-day tip: Whether you’re using a calendar app, your phone or simply paper and pen, schedule time in your calendar for stress breaks.
- Get sufficient sleep. Over time, stress affects your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to every cootie you encounter. So staying up late to check items off your to-do list will likely backfire. More than ‘rest and recharge,’ sleep actually promotes productivity and boosts brain power. Aim for 7 to 9 hours each night, and engage in a soothing bedtime routine an hour before turning in.
Modern-day tip: There are a variety of apps available to help you track and improve your sleep patterns. But avoid keeping a device by your bedside since it can interfere with your ability to rest. The ultimate goal: To wake and go to bed at the same time each day, even on weekends, and to achieve deep restorative sleep.
- Break out a coloring book. Sure, coloring is a playful childhood activity, but it has adult benefits, too. “Whether you’re an adult or a child, coloring requires your mind to slow down, so you can focus on the task at hand,” says White-Perkins. It’s almost like meditation. The practice helps participants replace negative thoughts with positive images, unlock creativity and focus on choosing colors to create something beautiful.
Modern-day tip: Adult coloring books are increasing in popularity as a modern way to relieve stress, so you can now find them for sale online, at most large retailers or even your local grocery store.
- Take a recess. Give yourself permission to take a break. Play fetch with the dog, shoot hoops in your backyard or go for a walk during your lunch break. While it’s tempting to squeeze work into every minute of the day, the reality is, you’ll be more productive if you schedule regular breaks. Don’t have time for a 10-minute recess? Stop periodically throughout the day to simply take 3 deep breaths.
Modern-day tip: Download your favorite workout tunes and have a 10-minute dance party during one of your pre-set stress breaks!
- Get moving. “Physical activity stimulates chemicals that counteract the effects of stress,” says White-Perkins. Running, cycling, swimming and skiing are great ways to relieve stress while also promoting fitness. Even a 20-minute walk can work wonders on your well-being. But be sure to choose something you enjoy, not something that just makes you sweat. Participating in enjoyable activities reduces stress even more because your body releases a burst of feel-good chemicals when you’re having a good time.
Modern-day tip: Select a fitness app to stay on track. MyFitnessPal, Cyclemeter and SworkItPro are just a few examples.
- Make friends. A huge body of research suggests that people with strong social ties thrive. Cuddles, hugs and kisses release mood-boosting chemicals that help lower stress levels and boost the body’s natural repair functions. The key, says White-Perkins, is partnering with people who are positive and share your goals. After all, if your friends are eating fast food every day for lunch, it’s harder to avoid unhealthy eating.
Modern-day tip: Social media sites make establishing new friendships and reconnecting with old friends a snap. Just make sure to set limits to your usage. Otherwise, you could get trapped in a Facebook time-suck.
While some stress is unavoidable, you can take steps to restore calm. White-Perkins’ advice: “Think about your own unique style of coping with issues and build a system to support yourself,” she says. “Build up your body to better manage stress, almost like making deposits into a health savings account. Then, hold yourself accountable by tracking your progress in a self-care journal or on your electronic device, recording 1 or 2 things you did each day to nourish yourself.”
Having trouble identifying ways to care for yourself? Think back to your kindergarten days when you took time to color, rest or have a snack with a friend. Think of ways to have some adult “playtime” or connect with a loved one. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Dr. Denise White-Perkins is a family medicine doctor seeing patients of all ages at Henry Ford Medical Center – Detroit Northwest. To make an appointment, call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936) or visit henryford.com.