Top 5 Ways to De-Stress Your Way to a Healthier Life

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National Guardsman performs a high crawl.
U.S. Army Spc. Emma E. Archut, 328th Military Police Company, performs a high crawl during the stress shoot portion of the New Jersey Army National Guard’s Best Warrior Competition at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., April 10, 2019. (Mark C. Olsen/New Jersey National Guard photo)

When you consider the ways humans die every year, would you be surprised that stress is associated with five of the most common ways we die -- cancer, heart disease, stroke, accidents and suicide? The big three (cancer, heart disease and stroke) are the long-term effects of stress, but accidents and suicides can result because of how we can struggle to deal with stress. Stress makes us do things without thinking.

Life is full of daily stress -- the stress of the to-do list, driving in traffic, work and family stress. If properly dealt with, it is actually a performance enhancer, allowing you to focus, have the energy to move and get things done.

However, as stress becomes more acute, the mind and body start to become affected with emotional responses (anger, irritability, depression), digestive issues, decreased sex drive and weight gain/diabetes. See more info for kinds of stress from APA.org.

Stress symptoms to look for: Butterflies in the stomach, profuse sweating, increased heart rate, high breathing rate/blood pressure, headaches, circulation issues and cold hands/feet. How do you immediately deal with these?  Breathe..

The following is a list of five ways to help alleviate stress. Strive for as many of the following as possible. If you can go 5 for 5 (bold/italicized below), that will boost your longevity and overall health and wellness:

1. Breathe well. We all breathe, but do we breathe well? Properly? If you constantly are stressed, likely not. Breathing is the number one tool our bodies can utilize to deal with stress before it becomes overwhelming and starts to affect our mood and physiology.

Find time to relax and breathe deeply. Taking deep relaxing breaths will slow your daily stress and anxiety easily and naturally. Try box breathing: four seconds inhale, four seconds hold, four seconds exhale, four seconds hold. Repeat until you notice your heart rate and other stress responses are back to normal.

2. Sleep well. If breathing is the number one immediate way to deal with stress, sleep is the number one way to recover from stress each day. The better you sleep, the more your body can recover from the mental and physical stresses the mind and body undergo each day. See related article.

3. Eat well. Stress causes inflammation in our bodies, which is very dangerous to our long-term health. We must eat to reduce inflammation with foods rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and omega three fats. Avoid sodas, high sugary foods, fried foods, processed meats and refined carbohydrates. Eat more natural foods such as tomatoes, olive oil, fruits, nuts, green leafy vegetables and fish (salmon or tuna, for instance).

4. Move and be still. Get some exercise and relax, too; both are equally important daily. At some point in the day, do something besides sit and stress. Walk 10 minutes during breaks or after lunch. Go to the gym, do a quick circuit and follow it with some easy cardio. 

Breathe deeply during your exercise. Then later in the day or evening, find a place to be still. Unhook from all electronics and noise and breathe. Check out quick meditation practices.

5. Smile and laugh more. Laughing, smiling, hugging and having sex are all stress-relieving ways that are fun to do. Find people or things that make you smile and laugh -- kids, puppies, pretty views and quick travel getaways -- even for a half day. Enjoy the day. This usually requires you to get out of the house, where there is always something that needs to be done or take a day off from work – where there is work always to be done. Do it on the weekend if you cannot take a day off work, even if for a few minutes or hours.

Stress and the Body Infographic from Heart Math

Infographic courtesy of Heartmath.com

Unfortunately, of the many ways to die, chronic stress is usually at the center of nearly all of them. Stress is associated with elevated inflammation, a rush of hormonal responses that are designed to keep up alive in the fight-or-flight mode.

The only problem is, this occurs when there is small stress and big stress. The body does not differentiate between the stress of not being able to pay a bill at the end of the month and when bullets are flying over your head. Stress is stress and, hormonally speaking, the same thing (basically). 

Learn what triggers you to be stressed and start thinking and feeling internally (internal awareness). The better you become at knowing why and when that rush of adrenaline hits you and start to react appropriately or breathing through it, the better. Start adding in as many of the above ways to deal with stress as possible. The more, the better.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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