Strategies to manage chronic stress

Earlier this week I wrote a post on what stress really looks like, and specifically, how chronic stress can play a major role in your fat loss progress.  

You can check out part one here.

You know what chronic stress looks like. You wake up worried and struggle to fall asleep because you’re still worried. You’re distracted and scattered when trying to get things done. You constantly walk into a room and wonder why you're there.

 Snuggling with Rooney is scientifically proven to reduce stress. Science people. 

Snuggling with Rooney is scientifically proven to reduce stress. Science people. 

But what do you do about it?

1. Put the emphasis on sleep

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 40 million people in the United States suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders each year and an additional 20 million people experience occasional sleep problems. So I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that at least a few of you reading this struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep, or feeling rested when you wake up.

So what can you do about it?

Start by tracking your sleep. For those of you wearing a Fitbit, the device is already doing that for you, and chances are it's telling you what you already know. But figure out how much sleep you average in a week. Seven to nine hours is ideal. I know, I know. That's fantasy land for a lot of folks. But it's true. 

Reduce your screen time two hours before bed. By now you've heard that staring at a screen reduces your melatonin levels which will impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you have the kindle app on your iPad and that's where your book is, at least turn on the night shift feature, which reduces the blue light that can affect your brain. Or consider using Audible and have someone with a sultry voice read your book to you :)

Make the room completely dark. The biggest improvement I've made to my sleep routine was the simplest. I cover my eyes with a mask. I never appreciated how much light I was sleeping with, even when the lights were off. 

2. Find ways to kick in your parasympathetic nerve system

Have you ever been laying in bed, trying to tell yourself to stop thinking? It’s a practice in futility. 

You have a thought.

Then a reaction.

“Kim, stop thinking about that."

Another thought.

“Ok I’m going to just stop thinking about that.”

I think about pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in less than a week, but it's only seconds before I'm back to the original thought.

And on it goes until you’re in a full-fledged fight with yourself. That your losing.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the part of our nervous system that is responsible for slowing down, relaxing and recuperating - which in turn reduces the stress response and increases positive emotional feelings. But we can’t talk ourselves into switching on the PNS. We have to be in our bodies and practice it.

Snuggle with your pet

My favorite way to relax is snuggling with Rooney. It was only recently that I realized that getting a good snuggle with him on the couch is relaxing because it does kick on my PNS.

Deep breathing

The first time I tried this practice in my 20’s I almost hyperventilated. As an already anxious person, thinking about breathing was for me, ironically, stressful. But if you can teach yourself to take long, full, slow deep breaths through your nose - hold those for 1-2 seconds, and then release the breath through your mouth, you can breathe your way into a relaxing state. 

Deep breathing works best for me when I snuggle with Rooney, because he naturally isn't phased by anything, and therefore breathes very deeply.  

Massage

Yes we’re still under ways to kick on the PNS. Have you ever had a massage, then walked out to your car feeling like you shouldn’t drive? You’re massage drunk. It means it was a good massage and your PNS has kicked on. Do more of that.

Meditation

Meditation is the most difficult on this list. Who would think that sitting still and breathing could be such a challenge? We live in a high-stress, noisy world. But research has shown that meditating, even if it's only five minutes a day, can help boost your immune system, lower blood pressure, your heart rate, and stress hormones (back to cortisol and adrenaline) and keep you from losing your mind on a co-worker later that day. 

Rather than just tell you to go sit on the floor and be quiet though, I encourage folks to start with a short guided meditation. I often use talks from Tara Brach, which you can find for free here. If it's your first time meditating, look for one that is less than 10 minutes. 

3. Build your support network

Last week I wrote a post about finding the strength to be vulnerable. About needing other people to help me out while I spend a month in a sling after major shoulder surgery. 

I'm grateful for the partner, friends, and co-workers that I can lean on to help out while I recover. Learning how to allow yourself to need others in times of high stress is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself, and to other people who want to help out. Maybe it's taking your kids to a movie so you can have two hours to yourself or with your spouse. Maybe it's meeting a friend for lunch so you can vent. Whatever it is, learning to build and need your support network can be a very useful way to manage stress.

4. Practice self-compassion

Yes, I saved the hardest one for last. Be nice to yourself. My tag line of be strong and be kind applies not only to others, but to yourself as well. I know this is a struggle for many of us. It's second-nature to self-flagellate and bury ourselves under the mountain of shoulds. 

Stop. 

Be kind to yourself. You are a good person doing good things.

Trust that.