The car that cut you off in traffic the other day is long gone, but did you know that the reaction your body had to that event may still be with you? Tell the story to a friend, complete with hand gestures, and you can double the impact. In fact, every time you recall a negative event, it is as if your body is experiencing it for the first time. Over time, that stress can build up into a ticking time bomb that can threaten your health by making you more vulnerable to high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.. Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? I have good news for you: you can reverse the effects of stress and learn how to change the way your body responds to it.
Many times we pin the label of “stressful” on events that happen to us, rather than on the way we respond. But the deadline, traffic, or argument at work is not necessarily what stresses our bodies. Rather, it is the way we react to those events that causes us stress. Managing stress doesn’t mean eliminating stressors from your life. It means developing positive strategies for dealing with stress. Here are a few ways to do that.
Look for the Positive.
Not everyone is a glass-half-full kind of person, but you can become one with intentional desire to look for the positive in life. It’s worth the extra work; studies show that optimistic people commonly enjoy greater health. Spend time in the evenings writing down what you are thankful for, or the best thing that happened each day. This intentional time to reflect on good things will help you begin to see them without looking.
Talk About It
We were not meant to shoulder life’s burdens alone, and simply talking about what is on our minds can ease stress. Talk with friends who share your viewpoint. Talk with folks who don’t. Talk to people about completely different subjects; laugh, appreciate the lighter side of life. Whether you connect with a friend or a therapist, talking about what you’re experiencing is a key step in relieving stress and moving beyond it.
Respect Your Own Boundaries. We often think of personal boundaries as being for others to respect, but how often do we ignore our own needs for balance? When we over-obligate ourselves, shortchange ourselves on sleep, or routinely put the minor needs of others ahead of our own self-care, we push our boundaries. Signs that you are approaching a boundary are headaches, chest pain, increased sweating, dry mouth, increased heart rate, or generally feeling overwhelmed. When you notice these things, recognize that you are approaching a boundary, and move to this next idea.
Use Meditation Techniques to Stay Calm.
There is a difference between being relaxed and being calm. You may feel physically relaxed after a glass of wine or time spent on the porch swing, but that physical state of relaxation can disappear as soon as the phone rings. Calm, on the other hand, is a mental state that enables you to process chaos differently. It lasts a lot longer than physical relaxation! Achieving and maintaining calm is a learned process, and proven strategies include meditation, breathing exercises, and regular yoga practice. Check out apps like Breathe2Relax or Headspace to be guided through breathing exercises, and set an alarm on your phone to do it throughout the day. Join a yoga class. Find a guided meditation video on YouTube to start or end your day.
Stay Active and Sleep Well
Even the most powerful, robust machines need maintenance. For our bodies, that maintenance is exercise and sleep. Healthy food helps, too! A brisk walk can clear a cluttered mind, and a good sweat-fest can fill you with energy. A good night’s sleep gives your body - and your busy mind - the time it needs to recover and embrace another day. It is worth the time it takes to make these things happen!
Negative events won’t go away after you implement these techniques, they just won’t bother you as much. If you’re not sure yet if you can imagine a day like that, just smile. You’re already on your way.
If you’ve read to a small child recently, you may be familiar with a certain very hungry caterpillar who ate lots of healthy fruits and vegetables all week long. He was so good!
Then, the weekend arrives, and our caterpillar friend does what many of us do on the weekend. He went off the plan. In the child’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, he eats through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon. And that night he has a stomachache!
The very hungry caterpillar had a cheat day. You know, that one day of the week when you cheat on your diet. You eat whatever you want and throw caution to the wind because you deserve it! You’ve worked so hard! You’ve been so good! You deserve….to cheat?
As a wellness coach, I hear a lot of stories of being “good” during the week and “bad” on the weekends, and plenty of justification for having a cheat day. I used to do the same thing, anticipating my day off from trying to be healthy all the time. But over time, I began to feel that when I stopped my healthy habits and went in reverse, the only one being cheated was me. Food became more central in my life than I wanted it to be. And, I began to believe that if I felt the need to cheat on myself, maybe I wasn’t managing my health in a very balanced way. So, I started to investigate why I felt the need to rebel.
Rebellion is human nature! We all rage against the machine at some point, and at times that machine is us. After all, everyone needs a break now and then, and rebellion can be a therapeutic release from the restrictions of polite society. But cheating is a little different from rebellion. While rebellion comes from a place of confident defiance, when we cheat, it is because we don’t think we can succeed on our own. If a student cheats on a test, it is because he is not prepared. When someone cheats in a relationship, it may be because they don’t think they can bring what needs to be brought. When we cheat on our nutrition, it is like telling ourselves, “I cannot do this on my own.”
Making the choice to choose to overindulge in food or eat something that is not healthful does not necessarily mean that you are cheating. It means you are human! You have the power and ability to make a healthy choice, and are simply choosing something else. That’s okay! When you are ready to get back into your healthy habits, you will. Consider it an open relationship; you’re allowed to see other habits.
You deserve better, and can give it to yourself by changing one little word. Turn “cheat” into “choice” and step into a positive place where it’s easy to see that your health is not a test, and you don’t need to cheat.
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!