Finding Calm Within The Storm
Let me put it this way, the first full week of January has been a very stressful one for me, and I hope it’s not a sign of things to come for the year. I must admit, I haven’t always been the best at handling stress in the past. When I get bogged down in heavy stress, I feel nauseous and have a tough time sleeping and eating. Basically, it’s like being sick. Unfortunately, when we feel sick, it’s hard to get motivated to go workout, but engaging in exercise can be really helpful in combating the effects of stress. It can be tough, but we really need to just push ourselves to get out there and get moving. A certain level of stress in life is expected and is probably healthy, helping us become more resilient. However, high levels of chronic stress will begin to deteriorate our health. Here are a few things that we can do to help us deal with high levels of stress.
Take a moment to breathe. Deep breathing can be a simple technique that can literally be done anywhere, and help us relax. I’m amazed that there isn’t much research out there about the effects of deep breathing on stress and anxiety, but I did manage to find one. A 2010 study in Behavior Research and Therapy showed that mindful breathing was more effective at reducing reactivity to repetitive thoughts than progressive muscle relaxation or loving kindness meditation. Most research I found about stress and anxiety was focused on meditation techniques and didn’t single out deep breathing techniques. Here are a few mindful breathing practices from Dr. Andrew Weil. I notice that I shorten my breath and constrict my abdomen when I am highly stressed. Take the time each day to bring some awareness to your own breathing. I have most of my clients check in with their breathing before their workout, and have them do a few deep abdominal breaths. Whether you are stressed or not, check in with your breathing each day. Take a look at my recent post about things we might want to do every day, here’s a hint, breathing is one of them.
Engage in some aerobic exercise. As I mentioned earlier, exercise can be a powerful antidote to stress. However, it’s a specific type of exercise that provides the most benefits, and that type is aerobic. If we take a look at Joel Jamieson’s book, Ultimate MMA Conditioning, the cardiac output method would be most useful during stressful times. The method consists of doing any form of cardio that raises your heart rate between 120 and 150 bpm for 30 to 90 minutes. If you want more details on the aerobic energy system, you can read this past post. This 1991 meta-analysis that appeared in Sports Medicine on the anxiety reducing effects of acute and chronic exercise showed that aerobic forms of exercise are associated with anxiety reduction. The only variable that was significant was exercise duration, and the magic number in terms of minutes appears to be a 21. You should shoot for a minimum of 21 minutes of aerobic exercise for anxiety reduction.
Find some time to play. I don’t have any fancy studies to throw at you on this one. I just know from personal experience, if I can engage in some physical play, it usually takes my mind off of stressful thoughts. Yesterday, I took my daughter down to a local playground to get us out of the house. We went on the swings, monkey bars, balance beam, slides, and ran all over. Not only did it take my mind off of stress, it also was a good workout. No matter what your age, it would be wise to incorporate some play in your life. It could be a sport, a martial art, dancing, playing with your kids, etc. It doesn’t really matter what it is, just as long as it gets you moving and having fun.
Become more resilient. Participating in a really tough workout or race can help build mental toughness. Putting yourself through a really tough situation can make some of life’s stresses seem pretty insignificant, and it can make you feel very strong. Now, while I don’t recommend doing this all year, it’s good to test yourself with some tough challenges a few times a year. I think a lot of people don’t know how strong they can truly be, and if you a acquire this knowledge (by pushing your limits), there isn’t much that will phase you.
Thankfully, most stressful times in life are temporary, and will pass with time. The storm will pass, the clouds will break, and the sun will shine again. Hopefully some of the above tips will be helpful to you, as they are to me. Looking on the bright side, the rest of my year has a good chance of being better than the start.