By Jim Hein
We, as humans, are gifted with an amazing ability to generate worry. We worry about things we have no control over (past events and thoughts of the future) as well as things that we can actually change (relationships, work projects, and social schedules). Worry is a major cause of stress which results in a spike in the hormone cortisol. A little cortisol goes a long way to enhancing performance, but a lot will put us in the grave early.
Cortisol is absolutely necessary to daily functioning. It wakes us up in the morning, bumps up our performance in the presence of danger, and energizes us when we’re up against a deadline. Unfortunately, our unique ability to worry triggers higher levels of cortisol in our bodies for extended periods of time, also known as chronic stress. Because we don’t have great ways of dealing with stress we end up swimming in cortisol, much to our detriment. This opens up a Pandora’s box of nasty issues related to chronically elevated cortisol such as:
- Increased blood pressure
- Weakened connective tissue
- Wrinkled skin
- Decreased sex drive
- Decreased insulin sensitivity
- Suppressed thyroid function
- Decreased bone density
- Decreased muscle density
- Decreased immune function and increased inflammatory response resulting in slow wound healing
- Increased abdominal fat
While all of this sounds really fun I’m pretty sure you’d prefer to skip it. If you identify with any of the symptoms in the list above, or don’t now and want to keep it that way, here are a few tips for getting a hold on stress and drastically improving your life.
- Build family and social support: People who lack social support have the same risk of developing heart disease and diabetes as smokers just due to increased demands of coping with stress. It’s easy to avoid or neglect actual human contact in our age of advanced social media. Online friendships aren’t enough. Learn to switch off the phone and computer and go do something with your friends.
- Get out and move: Exercise is one of the most effective ways to manage stress. Exercise provides an outlet to rid our bodies of the extra cortisol that builds up through stress and worry. Getting rid of it makes us stronger and healthier.
- Eat real food: If we want to change the way we look, feel, and perform we must get a handle on what we put in our mouths. Consuming organic grass fed meats and vegetables limits our exposure to chemicals, pesticides and other environmental toxins that cause a variety of problems, including systemic inflammation and elevated cortisol levels.
- Explore (anything) and do something new: Taking the time to learn new skills, explore, and play helps shut down the worry center of our brain and also helps our creative side grow. Plus, finding a new, fun, physical activity will give you another way to decrease stress, get exercise, and simply enjoy life. Ditch the stress and corresponding cortisol, and switch on that part of our wiring that allows us to be happy and healthy.
- Be grateful: Being grateful insulates us in a variety of ways, offering improved health, happiness, cognitive function and decreased levels of stress. Start with something small, such as being sure to say, “thank you” to your morning barista (whether it’s at Starbucks or to your spouse at home), or writing a list every night of five things you’re grateful for. Focusing on the good in your life, being humble, and being grateful greatly decreases the odds you’ll stress and worry about things you cannot control or that are simply not worth worrying about.
- Get more sleep: Our bodies and brains repair themselves while we sleep, and we also solidify our thoughts and lessons from the day. That means that if you are stressed out all day, your sleep will reflect it, preventing your body from fully recovering. Doing simple things, like establishing a set sleep schedule, ensuring deep sleep with a dark and quiet room, and avoiding all bright lights and electronic devices before bed can help you both shut off the worry from the day and allow your body to get the sleep it needs to be healthy and functional.
All in all, these tips are pretty simple; both simple to do and simple to forget. Try to pick one tip a week and add it into your life. Once you have integrated it more or less, add in another. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel, look, and perform by the end of the month.