Aware Senior Care Blog
In this article, Suzanne Ballantyne, E-RYT & Certified Health & Wellness Coach of Simply Practice, Raleigh NC, and Pooja Chilukuri, MS, Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, and Certified Health Coach will outline steps we can take to build resilience against stressful triggers that overwhelm us and can lead to chronic illness.
These steps are easy and automatic when practiced often enough to become a part of our lifestyle.
Before we outline the different skills for coping with stress, what exactly is stress? What does it do to our bodies and minds?
How do exercise, nutrition, and social/emotional factors build resilience against avoidable stress?
What is Stress?According to the Cleveland Clinic, stress is “The body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses.”
If this stress perpetuates, this can have devastating effects on our wellness. The good news is we can learn (or relearn) how to return the body to the state of rest and repair.
What Stress Does to the BodyThe Adrenal Glands are the major players in our fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is the body’s response to any threat - real or perceived. It can be physical (being chased by a lion) or emotional (a demanding job).
The response causes arterial constriction. Blood becomes sticky and prepares to clot and prevent excess bleeding. Heart rate and blood pressure go up. Blood sugar is burned up for energy to help you run.
These physical responses are automatic and designed by the awesome intelligence of nature. “Fight or flight” is a primitive instinct leftover from a time when stress meant, “Run for your life!” In modern life, this response is rarely due to a physical threat.
We are left to deal with the aftermath of the fight or flight response. This includes an exhausted vascular system and excess sugar likely to get stored as excess belly fat.
We tend to let stress move our bodies into “fight or flight.” Often, the soothing techniques we use after the fact are addictive. They also end up creating more stress by creating metabolic changes to which the body must adapt.
Alcohol, over-eating, or becoming sedentary have similar effects on the body. They cause more stress on our digestive, vascular, and nervous systems.
This affects mental health. We are more likely to make poor decisions at work and in relationships. To minimize the damage of stress, we must break this cycle. By learning how to down-regulate our responses, we give our Adrenal glands time to restore.
If not, these glands wear out, lowering our immunity, leading to chronic fatigue and chronic disease. We either learn to disrupt the cycle or have our lifestyles plagued by chronic illness.
How Exercise Impacts StressOur bodies are designed to move. Sedentary lifestyles induce unwanted stress on the body. Exercise and movement keep the blood circulating (delivering key nutrients to your cells). They keep lymph flowing (helping us detox).
Exercise produces Nitric Oxide in our arterial walls. This reduces blood pressure and blood coagulation (byproducts of stress). These discoveries led to a Nobel Prize! (Louis Ignarro in 1998).
Regular movement can improve our mood and positive outlook on life. This is the result of our "happy hormones”: oxytocin and endorphins. Thus exercise helps reduce the effects of stress on our bodies.
We do not recommend intense exercise while going through acute stress. This can have an adverse effect. Otherwise, regular movement practices do build up resilience.
How Nutrition Impacts StressEnergy regulation by our bodies has a huge impact on stress regulation. Balancing blood sugars is key to maintaining a calm outlook in stressful times. Each person’s needs - for protein, fat and carbohydrate - differs according to metabolic type and age. A general rule is 40/30/30; 40% of your daily calories from carbohydrates, 30% each from healthy fats and proteins.
Refined carbs such as white processed flour and sugar can compound the effects of stress. Our Adrenal glands do not know the difference between sugar peaks and crashes or being chased by a bear. They respond in the same manner.
Keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day. Don’t skip meals and include healthy fats and proteins in your diet. The benefits are numerous.
Healthy fats (Avocados, seeds, nuts, grass fed butter or ghee) along with healthy plant proteins (lentils, quinoa, beans) or animal proteins (pasture raised poultry or wild caught fish, not farmed fish) help build neurotransmitters and hormones required by our body’s “fight or flight” systems. A healthy balance of minerals (especially sufficient magnesium) can help reduce heart palpitations and anxiety.
The Impact of AttitudeWhen it comes to managing stress, attitude is gold. Perception is reality, especially for the body’s stress relief mechanisms. No matter how powerful the stress trigger, reframing can help our immune and Adrenal systems cope better. The worst thing we can do in any situation is to get locked in panic and/or “victim mode."
This has detrimental effects on the Adrenal function. If a situation is overwhelming, it is best to call for help from a friend, compassionate family member, counselor, or therapist. It is imperative to find ways to return to a healthier perspective and feel a sense of control over the situation.
Using our energy to “solve” the issue at hand and not expend it in feelings of worry and helplessness.
Impact of LifestyleAre you happy? This doesn’t mean every minute of every day is a blast. But rather, are you living a meaningful life that supports your sense of peace and well-being?
Do you have a ‘feel’ for your own peace and well-being? Reflect upon this idea: ‘we become what we practice’. Poor stress management erodes a sense of peace and physical health. Good habits build resilience.
Lifestyle (that includes our work) is key to managing stress. Rather than “work-life balance”, we can call it “life-work” balance. What quality of work do we produce if we are not feeling alive and well?
Thinking about it this way, we can be more intentional about our daily habits and practices. Doing what we love supports our ‘happy’ hormones (endorphins, oxytocin), increasing our sense of well-being.
For example, one thing we can do is make a list of things that make us feel good. Or list activities that increase positive energy. Then, we make a conscious effort to do things on our “Happy List” daily to keeping good feelings flowing.
No matter your job, consider putting vitality (health, wellbeing, dreams) ahead of income. To quote a “great” book about conscious businesses, “Choose to be great instead of big.”
We are all pieces of nature connected by breath. We can go 5 weeks without food, 5 days without water, and about 5 minutes without breath. How does that change our perspective when it comes to success?
Is it really about ‘having a lot’ and some kind of prescribed “American Dream?” If money is described as “the root of all evil", perhaps nature is “the root of all good.''
Let us turn our attention to all that is good. Let us yield to the speed of nature for the sake of our vitality.
Living is a social endeavor. We suggest creating and maintaining healthy relationships and a sense of community among friends, family and work colleagues. This helps us on our paths to “greatness.” If this feels difficult or ‘easier said than done’, we can consider hiring a coach in support of greater well-being.
Our lifestyles are learned patterns. As we increase our awareness of mind and body, we begin to see our current patterns. We imitate friends and family.
We get lost in a life of too much stress or acquire poor habits responding to stress. Here are a few practices for reducing and creating a buffer against stress in your life:
- Slow down, act intentionally, and take responsibility for your actions.
- Develop self-awareness, make better choices, and support intentional behavior.
- Practice healthy habits: Eat a healthy diet of whole foods. Reduce sugar intake. Keep a gratitude journal and spend time each day communing with yourself (meditation, prayer).
- Spend time in nature daily to help find perspective. Nature’s energy is soothing to us.
- Build good, positive relationships in all areas of your life.
- Move more.
- Practice deep breathing in and out for a few minutes throughout the day. Pace your breath (inhale and exhale for 4, 5 counts - a comfortable pace for you).
- Do not forget to ask for support.
- Do more activities that lift your mood/energy.
- Identify financial, nutritional, physical and emotional imbalances and address them.
These foundations carry us through the tough times. By putting our life, breath and well-being first, we build resilience against storms. This defines success not so much as a numbers game, rather as a well-rounded sense of peace and well-being. Be true to yourself!
One thing is for sure: Life has its ups and downs. This can be forgotten during a moment of turmoil. Stress is inevitable. How we face and prepare for it will determine our peace and well-being.
Join us for one of our “nourish” retreats. Come experience practices that help develop tools for working with stress levels in health-supporting ways.
About the Authors:
Pooja Chilukuri is a resident of North Carolina-her home for over two decades. Pooja holds a BS and an MS degree with a background in scientific research. She is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, Health Coach and Author with a passion for creating awareness around health and well-being through education, coaching, and counseling. Her mission is to empower individuals to take charge of their health in order to prevent chronic illnesses from taking a toll.
Suzanne Ballantyne is a Registered Yoga Teacher, E-RYT200 (+ 300) with Yoga Alliance. She teaches yoga and leads wellness workshops and retreats with her business, Simply Practice, based in Cary, NC.