Whether it’s a demanding job, strained relationship, financial concern, medical or mental health diagnosis, family drama, monumental life event, even a traffic jam—it’s pretty common knowledge that Americans are under stress.
It seems like everyone is go-go-going, desperately wishing they had more time to get everything done, spending their days on autopilot before collapsing into bed at night—completely spent and exhausted.
In 2013, the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey found that Millennials, those 18-33, were the country’s most-stressed generation. Within the past two years, the baton has (unfortunately) been passed to teenagers. Researchers believe it’s a combination of too much screen time, too little sleep, stressed-out parents, and overall poor coping mechanisms.
Teens and adults can manage their stress levels by modeling healthy stress management behaviors: getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well, being mindful, investing in much-needed “me” time, and seeking professional support if necessary.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Different people may feel [the effects of stress] in different ways. For example, some people experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, depressed mood, anger and irritability. People under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold, and vaccines, such as the flu shot, are less effective for them. Over time, continued strain on your body from routine stress may lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety disorder, and other illnesses.”
Our bodies weren’t wired to withstand constant “fight or flight” responses without periods of relief. For many people, stress is taking a serious toll.
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Stress and sleep (or lack of sleep) often go hand-in-hand. Overthinking the demands of a chaotic day, over-scheduling your day in the name of productivity, feeling anxious/worrying about worst-case scenarios when you close your eyes, and too much caffeine are all stress-related factors that can disrupt sleep. You might think you can function just fine on a few hours of sleep, but the truth is, your body needs to catch z’s. According to the National Institutes of Health, the average adult sleeps less than seven hours per night. Sleep requirements vary from adult to adult, but most healthy adults need between 7.5 and nine hours of sleep per night to function at their best.
“Sleep is the time when both our body and mind are in a state of rest, repair, and rejuvenation,” says Dr. Inell Rosario, owner of Andros ENT & Sleep Center in Inver Grove Heights. Board-certified in Sleep Medicine, Dr. Rosario wishes more people rated the importance of sleep higher on their list of priorities. “Just the act of not moving is restorative—like putting your feet up after standing all day.”
When we sleep, our stress hormones are reduced, our blood pressure and heart rate are lowered, and good hormones such as growth factors, erythropoietin and testosterone are released— important for cellular repair, improve stamina and oxygenation, and a boost in immunity, energy, and sex drive.
DIET & EXERCISE
Exercise improves health, reduces stress, helps you get a better night’s sleep, and releases “feel good” endorphins into your bloodstream, ultimately making you feel happy.
“Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem,” explains Shannon Fable, Director of Exercise Programming at Anytime Fitness, LLC. “Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.”
In addition, exercise increases the flow of oxygen to your brain, helping you think more clearly, and the repetitive motion of exercise helps move your focus away from whatever might be bothering you as your mind is preoccupied with organizing your movements.
“Exercise may also help reduce stress indirectly as your self-esteem tends to improve over time through increased satisfaction with meeting goals and ‘sticking’ to a healthier way of
life,” she says.
Taka – Fotolia
Another way people can cope with stress and achieve greater clarity is through learning mindfulness techniques. For 23 years, Judith Lies has been teaching courses as a Mindfulness Based Stress Instructor (MBSR) through her business, Seeds of Mindfulness.
“We practice awareness of breath/sitting meditation, walking meditation, and mindfulness in activities of daily living, like eating,” explains Lies, who is also an experienced licensed marriage and family therapist and ordained clergy. “We start to notice we are reacting in the moment in a well-developed habit from a past experience, or from a story we are writing in our head about what will happen, rather than responding in this moment to what is actually happening.”
Mindfulness is a way of acknowledging and paying attention to your thoughts and emotions—without assigning strong positive or negative value to them. According to U.S. News & World Report, “The idea is to allow parts of the prefrontal cortex to lessen activity
in the amygdala, which is responsible for evaluating threats.”
This way, you can reduce the likelihood that you’ll overreact to your problems and increase your chances of responding more calmly and effectively in challenging situations.
When people learn this way of being, they understand the difference between unavoidable pain in life (death, disease, disappointment, and grief), and the suffering that happens in our minds, explains Lies.
Once people have the ability to separate their thoughts about painful and challenging situations from the anger or agitation automatically elicited by their habit ways of thinking, they then have choices: respond more skillfully to what is actually happening or continue with the habituated reaction. Mindfulness helps us to choose.
“We can start to notice the tension in our shoulders and neck and face and attend to it before we develop a powerful headache and then wind up being irritable,” says Lies. “For example, we start to notice how we automatically approach a coworker with a defensive stance rather than coming to each conversation with an open curiosity of what will happen. This opens up the opportunity for something different to happen between us instead of the same-old, same-old. And the same-old, same-old, is stress.”
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If you’re stressed and having trouble functioning, your distress is leading to dangerous thoughts or behavior, people are worried about your wellbeing, or your concerns are having a negative impact on school, work, or your social life, it might be time to seek professional help. At Plymouth Psych Group, an outpatient mental health clinic, clients are seen for any number of concerns, including depression and anxiety, relationship troubles, grief and loss, trauma, employment issues, sexual problems, or major life transitions. Treatment can range from a few sessions, to more long-term care.
Sometimes venting to a friend just isn’t enough, and getting professional feedback may be just what a person needs to manage the demands of daily life. The compassionate and caring mental health professionals at Plymouth Psych Group recommend scheduling an evaluation to help determine primary concerns and a customized treatment plan.
Everyone needs time to themselves now and then—and a completely unplugged and serene environment—like a spa—can be the perfect way to hit the “reset” button on a stressful day (or week). A spa day is a great way to rejuvenate, relax, and unwind.
At Crutchfield Dermatology, a menu of spa treatments were designed to support personalized cosmetic treatment plans by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Charles E. Crutchfield III, Spa and Medical Director. A visit, says Dr. Crutchfield, is an opportunity for a “renewed sense of self.” Services include massage, CoolSculpting, laser hair removal, facials, makeup consultations, microdermabrasion, and glycolic peels.
You should never, ever feel guilty for scheduling “me” time. You should only feel guilty for not having enough of it.
We asked our readers, “How do you de-stress? How do you create calm in your life? How do you put yourself first?” Here are a few of their answers:
April, 31, St. Francis
I’m a mom to three beautiful kids and a full-time daycare provider to an additional nine kids every day. My day starts at 4:15 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. I am busy. For many years, I felt like I gave and gave and gave, and left myself behind. Within the past two years, I finally figured out what I was missing in my life: I was missing ME. A friend introduced me to a workout program, and I realized this was something for me, something no one could take away from me. Taking 30 minutes out of my day to work out makes me happy, gives me a sense of pride in what I can accomplish, relieves stress (sweat pouring and muscles burning can do that!), and gives me clearer thoughts.
I make time to focus on me so that I can be the very best version of me possible. Working out is a big part of the puzzle; the other part is nourishing my body with real, healthy, unprocessed food. Why? Because nutrition is what my body needs to stay balanced, energized, and fueled to get through my days. In short, I get my workouts done in the morning first thing to clear my head of all worries and unnecessary stress and I try to eat well throughout the day. If I can feel the effects of a long day wearing on me, I reach for nothing more than the play button on my DVD player.
Katie, 35, West St. Paul
I realized recently I am not doing enough to de-stress. Sleep deprivation and a two-parent entrepreneurial household take their tolls. My current luxury is sleeping an extra hour or two on Saturdays while my husband watches the kids, and then I take a super long, super hot shower and do all my little spa treatments. I love the Shower Steamers that are scented with essential oils. If I have time at night I might take a bath and bring a glass of whiskey in with me, a magazine, and try to float away for a bit.
Yoga helps me de-stress considerably. l don’t get there enough but I’m always glad I do. I’ve realized that sometimes I just need someone to tell me how to breathe, and that I can guilt-free clear my mind. Another de-stressing thing I do is acupuncture. First of all, it feels great. Secondly, while the needles do their work you get the best, most restorative nap. Ever. It continues to work long after you leave (I’m a big fan of Senia Tuominen at HealingInSight on Grand Avenue.)
Massage is another source of awesome wellness, to restore great muscle function/mobility and pure, yummy relaxation.
And facials! Oh, facials. I love Maggie Miley Kelly at Complexions on Carter or Kate, who is also at CoC, or Catherine at Haus Salon. They are all so nurturing and sweet and knowledgeable.
I also just believe in the general maintenance of self. When you feel good about yourself physically, or are taking care of yourself physically, you are a kinder, better human. We also have to shift our thinking from getting care when we’re sick (we’ve gone too far!) to when we’re well—maintenance is the best prevention.
With two children under the age of 3, it’s more important than ever to make sure I put my oxygen mask on first, as they say, so that I can attend to the needs of some very adorably tyrannical tiny people. I can tell I am a more patient, compassionate, and loving wife, friend, and mother when I take care of myself. But I admit it’s a daily struggle to make sure that everyone—plus me—gets everything they need. Someone recently posted online something to the effect of: If someone evaluated the level of care you gave yourself, would they say you were neglected? I thought that was a great lens to look through.
Ways that I try to prioritize are really, really basic, but do help: Am I getting any exercise at all (sometime a few yoga poses, swinging the kids around like kettlebells—kidding, but not totally—dance parties in the living room)? Did I drink enough water today? Did I eat regular meals at regular times? Did I sleep enough (the answer is always no on that one, check back in a few months!)? If I can get out of bed before the kids wake, and take a shower and spend a little time alone, sometimes that is enough to recharge my batteries.
Dan, 43, Minneapolis
I de-stress by doing physical activity. I play basketball two nights a week with some other dads from my kids’ school. It gets me out of the house and gives me something fun to do, where I don’t think about work or home issues. (My biggest concern is trying NOT to get injured!)
I also try and run a few times per week. Running gives me time to clear my thoughts and enjoy some solitude (while still feel like I’m being productive).
I basically have my three kids “come first” in regards to activities and events, so it’s hard to make my own health and wellbeing a priority. I try and work my physical activity around their schedules, which is not always easy. I run early in the morning before the day really begins and play basketball at 8:30 p.m. after most of their events. The other thing we try is to do physical activities as a family. We’ll go to the backyard and play basketball, volleyball, or kickball together.
I find that playing with my kids is a great way to forget about work or other problems and just enjoy the moment and their company. It’s stressful when I have to run my kids to their different activities, but taking the time to hang out at home and “play” together during the down times helps to keep the household stress levels manageable.
Agneta, 70, Madison, Wis.
We all know nowadays that stress—at least negative stress—causes or exacerbates serious health problems. Eliminating stress has become as important as, or more important than, daily vitamins and showers!
I thought retirement would eliminate much of my stress, but as it turns out: I loved my job as a guidance counselor, so I had more positive stress at work than its dangerous twin. (Stupid legislation vis-a-vis education and a constant double-and triple-scheduling were the only negative aspects of my job.)
Next, I thought retiring would cause stress by me missing my job—and I quickly realized NO! I did enough throughout my career—I love retirement! The only negative is that I have more free time to read the news, so retirement hasn’t been all tranquil and stress-free. I need to balance my news addiction with time off.
I would say that my best de-stressor is taking early morning walks with my long-time friend Marge in my winter home in Florida. Thanks to the lovely winter climate and both of us being early birds, our morning walks are good for both body and soul. We share thoughts on pretty much everything and walk at a good pace, and when I get back to the house, I can tackle the news and social media and my oxygenated brain can fight bigotry and stupidity and enjoy the humor and wisdom of friends.
My second most favorite de-stressor is reading. I have always been a voracious reader, and e-books have added another dimension to this addiction (my bookcases ran out of space).
Thirdly, I would have to say—my friends and family, whenever I see them, whether often or not, give great meaning to my life and add to my overall sense of peace and comfort. What is there in life without family and friends? I hope I will never find out!
How do I put myself first? Please don’t ask my husband that question—he thinks I get my way all the time! I, of course, strongly disagree (wink, wink), but seriously, I was born to a caretaker mother, I have a son who is my pride and joy, and my full-time job was taking care of kids as a guidance counselor. I LOVE taking care of others. I seldom put myself first. With that being said, when someone else does that for me, I love that, too. Going out with women friends, traveling to my first home country Sweden, making my annual trip with high school friends—those are definitely “me first” activities. One more such “me first” action is arranging to visit or be visited by dear family members, whether in Wisconsin or Florida … mi casa es su casa!
Judy, 60, Chaska
I really don’t have a lot of stress in my life right now. I am retired and my kids are all off on their own, so the “usual” stressors aren’t present. Where I do encounter stress at times, though, is through my volunteer work in a high-poverty school in Minneapolis. In the moment, I take some very deep breaths, then later—when I’m home— I work off worry by taking a long walk. I don’t know if the body releases some chemical during exercise, but my head clears and I begin to believe I have superpowers! I feel strong and confident enough to overcome whatever it is I am presently worried about. I also relieve stress by soaking in a bubble bath and getting together with friends. Having a healthy friend network, friends who can laugh with you, is so good for the soul.
How do I prioritize my mental health? Well, after spending many years in Al-Anon, I learned to “let go” of what’s not mine. I am very good at not letting tomorrow’s problems take a moment of today’s happiness. When I find myself getting upset or worried, I ask myself if there’s anything I can do about the situation. If there is, then I have work to do; if there isn’t, I remove the negative thoughts. It has taken me a long time to be able to master this way of thinking.
Volunteering in my community—whether at a school or in political causes—is also a priority in my life. As a retiree, this has become even more important for both my physical and mental health. It gets me out of the house and it helps keep me sharp and involved. I have met so many people and made great friends through volunteering. I also prioritize time with family and friends (I make the calls and schedule get-togethers so that my friendships don’t fade away). My husband and I set aside “Tuesdate” for ourselves, a tradition that guarantees quality time together while exploring the city. Reading is also important to my mental health and wellbeing. Every year, I set a goal to read 50 books. Some years I make it; some years I don’t.
As far as physical activity, I belong to the YMCA and I try to go to exercise classes whenever I can (I don’t have the discipline to stick with an at-home workout routine), but I admit that I struggle with this. My goal is to make exercise part of my daily schedule. I do all of these things to help fight off brain decay. I believe the expression “use it or lose it” applies not only to the body, but to the mind as well.