Are you stressing? In a city where long work hours, crammed MRTs and small living spaces are the norm, stress is unavoidable. In fact, during my health assessments with potential clients, I ask a few questions about the levels and types of stress they may be experiencing, and I have yet to meet anyone who tells me that stress is not a factor in their lives. Whether it’s your job, your family, financial pressures or social obligations, stress likely plays a role in your reality. Acute stress—the stress we feel due to some type of short-term event or situation—can actually be beneficial by boosting cognitive function and alerting you to potential threats. After all, acute stress has had a big hand in protecting the human species over many thousands of years.
Chronic stress, however—a constant and sometimes debilitating stress that occurs over an extended period of time—can lead to some serious health challenges, including obesity, depression, diabetes, heart disease, and sleep and digestion problems. When you’re chronically stressed, your body’s “fight or flight” response is continually on, secreting the “stress hormones” cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream over a prolonged period of time, resulting in immune response depression, high blood pressure, blood sugar elevation, significant loss of calcium from the bones, fat accumulation, and loss of muscle mass. Studies also show that stress can cause metabolic changes in the body, contributing to obesity. High levels of cortisol due to chronic stress can also lead to a major accumulation of abdominal fat and severe loss of muscle tissue in the extremities. And, of course, chronic stress has a tendency to trigger addictive or unhealthy habits in order to cope, like overeating or binge drinking.
How can you reduce stress in this crazy busy world? Read on for six stress busters that, applied over time, can turn rough seas into smooth sailing.
1. Exercise: Physical activity ramps up the production of endorphins, “happy hormones” that dull the feeling of pain while triggering positive, energizing feelings throughout the body. In addition, regular low- or moderate-intensity exercise can reduce the body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol (be careful, however- overtraining can drastically increase these hormones, with detrimental effects!) Physical activity is also a good way to put your problems aside and focus on the task at hand, whether it be lifting a heavy weight, setting a personal record, or holding a challenging yoga pose.
2. Meditate: Mindfulness meditation is the practice of using focused attention to remain in the present moment, usually through concentration on the breath. Meditation has been around for thousands of years, and with good reason. Studies show that cultivating a daily mindfulness practice can help relive chronic pain and reduce anxiety. Neuroscientists have found that people who meditate regularly are better able to control the alpha waves in their brain, which helps to minimize distractions. Just meditating ten minutes per day can have a powerful positive impact on your mood, focus and overall sense of wellbeing.
3. Unplug: In the past ten years, our lives and our behaviors have been dramatically jolted by email, texts, laptops, Facebook, Twitter, smart phones, and all the other gadgets and sites we’re now permanently attached to. For some reason, we now feel the need to be “on” 24/7 and fully responsive at all times. Studies show that, as much as we fight it, the human brain needs some downtime away from stimuli and expectation. Scientists have also found that many hours spent on search engines and social media can actually rewire the brain and shorten our attention spans while increasing stress hormones, which in turn are shown to reduce short term memory. Carving some time out each day to unplug can help you unwind and reset while allowing the brain both rest and creativity. Consider setting aside a full “no device” day each week, or taking a device-free holiday every once in a while!
4. Take a “forest bath”: In Japan, a “forest” bath refers to taking a leisurely stroll through the woods, soaking in the myriad scents of the soil, the leaves and the flowers while listening attentively for the mating call of a bird or the gentle croak of a frog. It’s also a recognized relaxation and stress management activity in Japan, first promoted by The Forest Agency of Japan in 1982. In a number of experiments conducted at Nippon Medical School, regular forest bathing is shown to decrease stress-related diseases and actually boosts a component of the immune system to battle cancer. While “forests” might not immediately come to mind when you think of Singapore, reservations like Bukit Timah and MacRitchie are wonderful sanctuaries to take a “bath” and chill out amidst the hustle and bustle of the busy red dot.
5. Eat some salmon: Omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish—particularly mackerel, trout and salmon—have numerous health benefits, including lowering triglycerides and blood pressure, reducing inflammation throughout the body, slowing down cognitive decline from aging and regulating oil in the skin. Research also shows that they appear effective in the prevention of stress and depression by slowing the body’s release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, immune factors that respond to infection and disease. Be careful, though- not all salmon are created equal. When you have the choice, opt for wild-caught salmon or sustainable sea farmed salmon from companies that can guarantee no antibiotics are used- it’s worth the few extra bucks. If you’re looking for a local supplier, check out The Barbie Girls here in Singapore!
6. Snack on some stress-busting superfoods: Rich in antioxidants and vitamin-C, blueberries are fun little stress-fighting super berries. Need to crunch on something? Grab a handful of almonds, packed with zinc, magnesium, B2 and E to boost the immune system and fight anxiety. Feeling particularly grouchy? Break out that dark chocolate- it’s good for you! High in flavonoids which promote relaxation, chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, a chemical related to amphetamines that stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain and can promote feelings of joy and excitement. Need something to wash it down with? Grab a cup of chamomile tea, which has been shown to reduce stress levels by up to 50% if consumed regularly over a period of eight weeks or more.
Still stressed? How are you trying to tackle your anxiety? What stress busting method works best for you? Leave your thoughts in the comments section! I’d love to hear from you.