Editor’s note: Before starting a new diet or strenuous physical activities, be sure to get clearance from your primary-care physician.
From the aftermath of the election to the ongoing pandemic, stress is taking a toll on Americans.
According to the American Psychology Association, one-third are living with extreme stress, and nearly half (48 percent) believe that their stress has increased over the past five years.
The connection between stress and our physical health is obvious, but finding the path to combat it is not so clear. Here is a series of tips, ranging from quick and simple to those that require more time and commitment, to help tackle what life throws at you.
• Exercise regularly. The key to exercise – anything from walking to yoga to dancing to hiking to weightlifting – is consistency. Studies show that those who exercise regularly experience lower levels of anxiety and depression than those who do not. Exercise decreases the body’s stress hormones and helps release mood-boosting endorphins; they can even act as natural painkillers within the body. At the same time, the confidence that comes with exercise promotes well-being, a key factor in daily happiness.
• Get some rest. Prolonged stress levels have been associated with poor quality sleep and impaired memory, which can lead to increased stress and weight gain. Evidence suggests meditation and patterned breathing can help reduce anxiety and improve sleep. If breathing exercises are new to you, there are many online videos and apps to help guide you.
• Focus on antioxidants. Did you know that certain foods help lower stress in the body? Eating an antioxidant-rich diet can help increase your blood antioxidant levels to fight oxidative stress and reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Among foods high in antioxidants are dark chocolate, pecans, berries, artichokes, kale, red cabbage, beans, beets, dried goji berries, spinach and green tea.
• Cut caffeine. High doses of the stimulant, found in coffee, tea and energy drinks, can lead to anxiety. The FDA recommends limiting caffeine consumption to 400 mg per day. Consider swapping that extra cup of coffee for an antioxidant-rich green tea.
• Start a hobby. Research shows that people with hobbies have lower levels of stress and depression. Activities that get you out of the home – or at least out of your head – can make you feel happier and more relaxed. Group activities, like team sports, can improve your communication skills and relationships with others.
• Try aromatherapy. Lighting a candle or using essential oils can help elevate your mood. Studies show that aromatherapy can reduce anxiety and improve sleep. Some scents are more soothing than others, but seek out one that speaks to your desired mood.
• Start a journal. Putting things in writing is a cathartic way to ease your mind. There’s no right or wrong way to do it; you can acknowledge what stresses you out, or choose to reflect on things you’re grateful for and the positive things in life.
• Laugh. It’s hard to feel anxious when you’re laughing, and it can even improve immune function in the long term. Watch a comedy or spend time with those who make you laugh. A study among people with cancer found that participants in the laughter intervention group experienced more stress relief than those who were simply distracted.
• Just say no. Volunteering can increase happiness, but too many responsibilities can lead to feeling overwhelmed and guilty. By not biting off more than you can chew, you reduce anxiety and allow yourself to focus on your priorities.
• Cuddle. Positive physical contact – including cuddling, kissing and hugging – can all help relieve stress by releasing oxytocin and lowering cortisol. They can also help lower blood pressure and heart rate, which are physical symptoms of stress. It’s been challenging during the pandemic to maintain physical contact with loved ones, but even cuddling with pets provides a sense of comfort and companionship.
Army veteran Jennifer Campbell is a certified personal trainer and has a master’s degree in nutrition education. She works with veterans and civilians, from elite athletes to those just starting their fitness journey. She is the commander of American Legion Post 43 in Hollywood, Calif.