Movement – our bodies need to move, and the normal process of burning off stress hormones doesn’t happen when the stressors are ongoing, and the day’ activities are primarily sedentary in nature. Almost any resource on stress management emphasizes the value of exercise as a key tool in developing resilience to stress. There are three primary benefits of physical activity. First, the “feel good” hormones called endorphins are released through physical activity. Second, by getting physically active and focusing on the body, simple physical activity becomes meditation-in-motion where problems are shed and we gain a healthier perspective. Finally, physical activity brightens our mood and promotes deep and restful sleep which is an important stress management requirement.
When the body enjoys physical activity, it produces endorphins. These “feel good” hormones give us that “feel good” mood lift, often called “runner’s high”. Games like tennis, racket ball, baseball or a hike in nature will produce those same endorphins, so you can pick something that you especially enjoy. Scheduling a game with a friend also has the added benefit of teaming up with another to support each other in staying fit, or in the case of a volleyball or basketball night, a whole support group. Where we might set our own well-being aside, we are much less likely to renege on a physical activity when we have set an appointment with another, as there is a natural reluctance to disappoint our fitness partner or team members. This is a powerful motivator that we can use to everyone’s benefit and better health.
Movement is meditation in motion, whether it is a walk in nature, a traditional practice such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong or Yoga, or a fast game of tennis. Our mind focuses on the physical, the heart and circulation bring fresh oxygen to the body and removes metabolic waste, and excess stress hormones are burned off. Check out the report from Harvard Medical School about how the benefits of exercise reduces stress and anxiety and helps fight depression.
Regular exercise will brighten your mood. Schedule exercise should be scheduled almost daily, as movement will increase self-confidence and reduce symptoms of most mild conditions of anxiety and depression. Chronic elevated stress levels interfere with sleep, and by building in daily scheduled exercise we can take control and enable a deep sleep that will further reduce the negative health effects of stress. Again, schedule activities with a partner or take a class to take advantage of the power of strength in numbers. Regular exercise and good health habits are a foundation investment in our health and we really cannot afford to put the basics on the back shelf.
The Mayo Clinic has a great strategy for using exercise as a health and stress management tool.
Get in Control – in a Good Way
Most people probably don’t want to be labeled as a control freak. But there are really two kinds of control. The one with the bad name is the frustrating and futile attempt to control others or to control circumstances outside of our control. The other kind of control is really the act of taking command of our own thoughts and responses. Often times we have heard the advice, “Just Say No”; this is an example of examining our beliefs and how we spend our time. Are we habitually responding in a way that serves others to our own detriment, or are perhaps habits that we learned as a child that no longer serve an adult, or learned by modelling after dysfunctional behavior that simply doesn’t work, or is no longer useful? By examining our own responses to life’s challenges, we can choose our goals, and determine what changes in lifestyle and thought habits might be beneficial. The serenity prayer asks that we recognize and act on those things that we can control, accept those things that are not in our direct control, and have the wits to be able to tell the difference. In managing stress, we need to actually let go of – attempted – control of others’ behaviors and situations beyond our control. But, in the case of chronic stress, we need to get control over our response to the situation … to develop response – ability. Remember that the stress response begins in the brain, in the hypothalamus. This begins the cascade of stress hormones. In normal situations, our metabolism is ramped up to meet a challenge or threat, and once the incident is over, the metabolic state will subside to a normal relaxed state. It is when the stress hormone levels stay elevated that our health and well-being begin to suffer.
Mayo Clinic medical staff tells us that we should begin with the brain; that science tells us we can choose to be happy, and that medical research shows that decisions we make will affect how we handle stress. Get in command of your time so that you have time for family and friends. One teacher told me, we can’t afford negative thoughts; choose the “attitude of gratitude” and counter negative thoughts with positive affirmations. Seek and feel a sense of purpose; if this seems unanswered at the moment, volunteer in a way that helps others. You will meet a community of caring people, and the very act of getting out and helping others will mitigate an anxious and depressed mood. In a very real sense, this also, is a moving meditation. Again, physical activity grounds us in our body and we are living in the moment. Creating through dance, art or music also accomplishes this, and if it is shared with others the pleasure is multiplied many times.
The Mayo Clinic article reminds us that changing long-established habits is not like turning on an electric switch; but rather takes time. But the benefits of taking control of our thoughts and emotions are very real … practice, practice, practice!