Stress. Between struggling to meet work and family demands and worrying about the state of the world, most of us deal with it occasionally. But what if it’s relentless? As I explain here, the persistent exposure to stress over a long period of time is known as chronic stress, and it can lead to health problems like anxiety, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Chronic stress can also contribute to the development of serious illnesses like heart disease and depression—particularly if you’re already genetically predisposed to these issues. Research suggests the overeating of “comfort foods” in an attempt to manage chronic stress may even be partially responsible for the current obesity epidemic. Lately, I’ve been taking a bit of a “news diet;” trying to find a balance between staying informed while minimizing the barrage of negative and frustrating news. But, short of going off the grid completely, what can you do to be less stressed? Try this one week stress management plan.
Start your week strong by making time to work out. You’ve probably heard me talk before about the stress-busting power of exercise, but that’s because it works! I’ve experienced this benefit countless times, and there’s tons of science out there to back me up. In one study, the brains of mice who were allowed access to an exercise wheel for six weeks actually adapted to better handle stress. Think you don’t have time to work out? Instead of wasting time online over lunch, try taking a quick walk around the block, which some research has shown to have the same effect as a mild tranquilizer (since exercise also improves your focus as well as concentration, you’ll be more relaxed AND super sharp for that afternoon meeting).
Ever take a deep breath during a stressful moment and immediately feel better? According to a New York Times article on the power of controlled breathing, experts believe taking slow and steady breaths activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for slowing heart rate and promoting calm feelings. Aside from how well they work, the beauty of breathing techniques is that they require no special equipment and can be done anytime, anywhere.
This is another one I talk about a lot because it works so well. Mindfulness meditation is a scientifically proven stress reliever. In one study, people with generalized anxiety who followed a stress-reduction program based on mindfulness were considerably less anxious than those in a control group who were taught other stress management techniques. Like breathing exercises, meditation doesn’t require any gear—simply carve out a few minutes and close your office door or find a nice, quiet place in a park. There are even meditation apps to help you get started, and you can read about some of my favorites here.
Thursday: Go Outside
Can’t seem to make it to the gym? Take a walk instead. According to Tieraona Low Dog, MD, spending time outdoors can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, relax your muscles, and bolster your immune system. She points to a 1984 study where hospital patients with a view of nature through their windows had shorter stays, needed less pain medications, and generally felt better than those facing a brick wall. In Japan, a form of preventative medicine called Shinrin-yoku, or “forest-bathing,” involves simply walking in the woods and has been proven to relieve stress, improve mood, increase focus, and more. Even if you don’t live anywhere near a forest, you can harness the healing power of nature just by going outside.
This relaxation exercise couldn’t be easier since it involves nothing more than visualizing a peaceful environment. Whether it’s the beach, the woods, or the comfy chair in your living room, mentally visiting your happy place can help calm you when you’re feeling stressed out. Need inspiration? You can find tons of guided imagery videos on YouTube.
Saturday & Sunday: Rock Out
If you’ve ever cranked some tunes REALLY LOUD after a hard day at the office, you know the stress-relieving power of music. Not only can music amp you up (powering you through that last quarter mile of a run, for example), it can also calm you down. In a study where college students gave a presentation with either classical music or no music playing in the background, those in the music group had less anxiety, slower heart rates, and lower blood pressure than those who presented in silence. To lower your stress levels, spend some time over the weekend listening to music you love.
Wondering what others areas of your health could use your attention? Consider taking my Optimal Men’s Health quiz. It’s designed to help you determine your next best step to getting healthier and closer to winning.
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.