We don’t always sense when we’re stressed, especially if we’re used to a high-stress lifestyle. But if left unchecked, stress can affect our health, showing up as a variety of symptoms: headaches, abdominal pain, intense acid reflux, TMJ pain, difficulty focusing, heart palpitations, and restless sleep. It’s common to experience some of these occasionally, but if they’re occurring frequently—repeatedly over several weeks—then it’s best to see your doctor.
You don’t want to wait until an abdominal pain is nearly debilitating, as one of my patients did who considered herself good at handling lots of stress and pushing through. And you don’t have to withstand daily headaches for weeks, as another patient did whose internalized anxiety was affecting her health.
INCREASING YOUR RESILIENCE TO STRESS
We can all find ways to improve how we cope with stress, since it’s impossible to eliminate it. And when we do, we become more resilient to future stress and mitigate some of the long-term health outcomes of chronic stress, like hypertension, dementia, anxiety and depression, impaired learning and memory, diabetes, and gut conditions.
It starts with ensuring that we fully deactivate our sympathetic nervous system—the fight-or-flight response—to adequately recover from a stressful situation. A quick biology reminder: The flight-or-flight response is automatically activated when we experience a stressful situation, which triggers cortisol and other hormones and neurotransmitters to be released. The deactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, which we usually forget about, is what allows for the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e., the rest-and-digest state) to engage so that cortisol and other hormones and neurotransmitters reset to baseline. This way, we don’t get stuck in an overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system and chronically high cortisol levels.
It takes a conscious effort to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system, but it’s worth the immediate feeling of relaxation and the long-term health benefits. A daily stress-reducing practice, like one of these, can help in as little as five minutes.
Box breathing. This breathing pattern uses equal counts (like the four equivalent sides of a box) as you inhale and exhale and hold your breath between each. For four counts each: Slowly breathe in, hold, exhale, and hold again. This is a quick, powerful way to use your breath to calm your mind and body. And you can repeat it as few or as many times as you’d like.
Five-minute meditation. Set a timer for five minutes. Sit upright, comfortably, in a chair or on the floor. Close your eyes. Focus on your breath as you deeply inhale, expanding your abdomen, and slowly exhale through your mouth. If your mind wanders, without judgment, gently return your focus to your breath.
Nature therapy. This therapy is for grounding yourself in nature using all five of your senses: Find five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Another option is to combine the benefits of nature and movement and take a 20-minute nature walk. It can help reduce stress, lower cortisol levels, and enhance your immune function.
Nurture your relationships. Make plans to spend time with a friend or family member. When you join them, be fully present during your conversation, actively listen, and respond compassionately. This helps you release the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin, which buffers cortisol’s harmful effects.
Intermittent fasting. You may not think of fasting as a stress reliever, but intermittent fasting can help engage your parasympathetic nervous system—the calming rest-and-digest state. Choose the ratio that works best for you. I find that a 16-to-8 ratio (a 16-hour fasting period with an 8-hour eating window) is sustainable for many patients.