I’m going to share something I’m not proud of with you: Gilmore Girls is one of my all-time favorite shows. There is a quote from the show that completely envelops how my brain feels when I’m stressed, and, as stress is the topic of the day, it’s appropriate. From the ever-hilarious Lorelei Gilmore: “My brain is a wild jungle full of scary gibberish. I’m writing a letter…I can’t write a letter…why can’t I write a letter?…I’m wearing a green dress…I wish I was wearing my blue dress…my blue dress is at the cleaners…the Germans wore grey…you wore blue…Casablanca, Casablanca, such a good movie…Casablanca…the White House…Bush…why don’t I drive a hybrid car? I should really drive a hybrid car…I should really take my bicycle to work…bicycle, unicycle, unitard, hockey puck, rattle snake…monkey, Monkey, UNDERPANTS!”
C’mon, admit it, you’ve been here before too. We’ve all experienced stress and the monkey mind (PUN intended!) that goes along with it. I have decided to discuss this topic today as it’s one thing that affects our health dramatically that no one really wants to talk about. In this Low-Carb, High Fat, Paleo-minded community, we all know food. We spend countless hours trying to tweak our diets for better bodies, digestion, and health. We also generally know the importance of exercise and movement for strong bones and muscles, and as Robb Wolf says, to “look good naked.” Because of this, we’ll slave away at the gym several days a week, occasionally causing ourselves injury. You’ve seen those people who are running on a treadmill at 10pm because that’s the only time they have all day to exercise (you’re one of these people, aren’t you? Are you shamefully nodding right now?). We rush around ALL DAY, and in doing so, we often forget to take time to reduce our stress. AND, on top of that, hyper-vigilance about diet and exercise can even increase your stress load! I know what you’re going to say, because I’ve heard hundreds of patients say the same things over the past few years:
- “I have three kids and a husband who won’t clean ANYTHING. AN-Y-THING. My to-do list is a mile long.”
- “I’m working on my Master’s, have a full-time job, and CrossFit 5 days/week. I don’t have time to relax. Or sleep.”
- “I’m a full time caregiver for my spouse with health problems. I don’t have time for me.”
I get it, people, I really do. Unless you’re living in a cave somewhere, you are BUSY! The bottom line is, if you have health problems or if you want to avoid health problems, something’s gotta give.
Webster’s dictionary defines stress as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” We of course need our bodies to be able to have a physical response in times of stress to protect us. Anyone who has had to slam on their brakes to avoid an accident, stop a child from sticking something in a wall socket, or run from a donkey (I kid you not, this recently happened to me) knows that your body’s ability to go into fight or flight mode is imperative for your safety. But imagine feeling in this mode numerous times per day, at home, at work, etc. Wait…you DO feel this way all day long? I am writing this for you, my friend.
So what happens to the body when experiencing stress? The first thing that occurs is a signal is sent to your brain saying “Danger, Will Robinson.” The brain then responds by initiating an entire hormone cascade, which eventually leads to secretion of cortisol from the adrenal glands. Any type of stressor, whether it’s emotional, physical (exercise, sleep deprivation, inflammation, infection), or even caffeine or alcohol causes a release of cortisol. For a while, as you remain a stressed-out basket case, your body can handle the stressors by pumping out cortisol. Over time, however, your adrenal glands are exhausted by the constant abuse and are not able to secrete cortisol when you really need it. This is the basis of adrenal fatigue (to be discussed in a future blog post- stay tuned!).
You may be thinking “Yeah, yeah, cortisol-schmortisol. Why do I care? I’m stressed, but I can handle it.” Get this, friends: if you’re in a constant state of physical or emotional stress and cortisol is chronically elevated, you will have SIGNIFICANT difficulty losing weight. I realize this doesn’t matter to all readers, but weight loss is a common goal among many of my patients. When there is excess cortisol floating around in the body, it’s converted to glucose, which then by default is stored as fat (the bad kind around your mid-section). In a way, it’s very similar to insulin resistance, right? Insulin and cortisol both knock on the door of your cells over and over again, trying to do their jobs, but eventually the cells get tired of the knocking and don’t answer, and the end result is the same- glucose remains in the bloodstream. Here’s something else that makes sense: if you’re body perceives that it’s in a state of stress, do you think its first priority is sleep? What about digestion? Perhaps fighting off that cold that’s going around the office? Nope. It’s only concerned about getting you away from the symbolic anvil that it thinks is about to fall on your head! It’s easy to see how every other system of your body can fail when under constant stress.
Now comes the hard part: how do we reduce our stress load in this busy world we live in? There are many ways to reduce stress, but first you must carve out some time in your schedule for these activities. Impossible, you say? I challenge you to find at least 5 minutes a day for one or more of the activities listed below. Also, I would like to encourage you to sleep. Very few of my patients sleep more than 7 hours/night. Aim for the elusive 8 hours, or get really crazy and have a night that involves 9 hours! You rebel! After you are successfully incorporating more sleep into your life, consider some of the following strategies for stress reduction:
Be mindful and present. This requires literally no extra time in your day. The idea is to focus on whatever you’re doing when you’re doing it without 100 distractions. If you’re walking your dog, look up at the trees and listen to the birds chirp. If you’re working on a project, commit to that project and don’t check your email throughout your work. Watch your kids at their baseball games without looking at your phone. Be present, and take it all in.
Do exercise that you enjoy, don’t over train, and work out when it’s light out. The exercise discussion with patients is often as follows: Me: What do you do for exercise? Patient: I run on a treadmill/elliptical/workout with a trainer 4-5 hours a week. Me: Do you enjoy your workouts? Patient: <scoff> No. No, I hate it. Seriously, people?? This is the only life we get. Go play soccer with your kids, ride your bike, jump on a trampoline, hula-hoop, take a dance class. I don’t care; just enjoy the exercise you do. If you’re exhausted, don’t exercise that day. And when you do exercise, do it when the sun is out. We are not nocturnal.
Meditate, practice yoga, deep breathe: Okay, this hippie-dippie stuff isn’t for everybody. If you are more stressed trying to find time to get your zen on, just don’t do it. But before you knock any of these suggestions, try them for a week. Even five minutes at the beginning of your day sitting with your eyes closed while deep breathing and stretching can do you a world of good.
Listen to music: If you are soothed by classical or soft music, put that on, but if you like something with a beat and some funk, that works too! Dance it out, people!
Get off the grid even for a few minutes: If you can, take a camping trip or day hike without any technology around you. If you can’t, make sure there is at least an hour every day that does not involve your television, computer, I-pad/pod/phone, etc. Brightly lit screens are stimulating to the brain, and we all could use a little less stimulation. Besides, doesn’t a night with an actual book (remember those? Cover, pages?) and a softly lit room sound just plain indulgent?
Be grateful for what you have: It’s so easy to complain. What’s harder is to sit down and think about what you’re grateful for. This can be daily or weekly (maybe during your 5 minutes of meditation! Hey-oh, time-saver!), and will benefit your mental health immensely.
Touch another living being: How good does it feel after a rough day to hug your kids, spouse, friend, or even dog? It helps, right? We forget the importance of touch but humans are social beings and experience a calming rush of endorphins when we touch someone we love. Go hug someone right now. Do it.
Let go of perfection: Whether this means putting down your to-do list now and again, giving yourself a break when you make a mistake, or being kinder to others around you when they make mistakes, make an effort to realize that striving for perfection will make you and everyone around you crazy. Take it from an actively recovering Type A personality- it’s a process and it’ll do you some good.
Even though it may be easier to change your diet or your exercise regimen before changing your workload or reducing your stressors, I guarantee making some small changes will benefit your health. And if you get lost along the way, just repeat this little phrase to yourself as a reminder to give your body and brain a break: Monkey, monkey, underpants.