Spotlight on Health: Coping with Stress

Health & Wellness

This time of year brings change. School is starting again (which brings fall sports, studying and, for college students, moving). Long-planned summer vacations have been taken, and the world will soon shift like our schedules. Although the August heat says otherwise, the Autumn breeze will come, and we will soon greet another season in Arkansas.

According to Lisa Duke, JRMC Health Educator, stress, in the most basic sense, is change. Despite the negative connotations associated with the word, some stress is good for our bodies. It can help us to do well in competitions or projects; it can even save our lives when stress hormones are released in short bursts to give us quick reactions to dangerous situations.

However, there are many ways to spot negative stress effects in your life. For example, are you a person who frequently gets colds? Do you have trouble sleeping, or do you feel anxious or sad most of the time? Lisa says even losing hair is a sign of extreme stress, recalling the adage of “I’m pulling my hair out.” Laughing, she adds, “Well, you don’t have to. It’s coming out by itself!”

One of her ideas is this: if every one of us is subject to chronic stress, then we need to engage in chronic relaxation. Lisa describes this as “habitual care for our body, our mind and our spirit—our entire person.”

Lisa’s holistic view of stress management can be broken down into four main parts: diet, exercise, breathing and chronic or habitual relaxation.

• Diet – Lisa says our diet should encourage repair and growth. Eating poorly encourages inflammation, which results in issues like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
For example, she mentions the fluffy donut she might be inclined to eat. “After it passes my tongue, and I stop smelling it,” she says, “all the benefit is erased and the bad stuff starts happening. When I eat a glazed donut, that’s an assault on my body.”

On the contrary, eating healthy foods encourages repair. “I’m at an age where I’m no longer growing, so now I’m trying to repair,” Lisa says. “The better we eat, the kinder it is to our body.”

The body’s response to healthy eating goes beyond preventing sickness, although eating well helps prevent sickness. “It’s not even just not being sick,” she says. “It’s about feeling good. There is a big difference.”

Lisa says to choose minimally processed, simple foods, such as vegetables, fruits, beans, oatmeal, berries, seeds, mushrooms and onions.

• Exercise – “Exercise for the way it makes you feel,” she encourages. “The best exercise is the one that you’ll do. When people tell me they don’t like exercise, it’s because they haven’t found the one they like yet.” Exercise is important because it releases endorphins, which the Mayo Clinic calls the brain’s “feel-good neurotransmitters.”

• Focused Breathing – For the most part, Lisa says, people breathe pretty shallowly. When she drives, she reminds herself to focus on her breath at every traffic signal. “It’s getting the oxygen into me that I need,” she says, “but also, it’s bringing me back into this moment.” In those moments, she says her mind isn’t all over the place and that’s calming.

Lisa suggests assigning cues to remind yourself to relax your shoulders and to practice focused breathing, such as a phone ring or a traffic light. “We hold a lot of pressure, because we’re holding the world up here,” she says. “Every time the phone rings, roll your shoulders. Let some of the stuff go.”

• Chronic Relaxation – Lisa says that when she teaches diabetes education classes, she spends time on how people relax because stress drives blood sugar up.

She describes chronic relaxation as engaging in regular downtime. Because people are relaxed by different activities, this will look different for every person.

Lisa advises taking time to be in the sunlight each day (protected by sunscreen, of course). She says it can be good to go for a walk and get outdoors during your lunch break. “I have personally found that being outside under the sky makes a huge difference,” she says.

Her final encouragement is this: living a healthy lifestyle does not have one definition. “Our bodies are so forgiving — I don’t think we have to just do one type of activity — as long as we do the things we enjoy,” she says.

Go on the journey of finding what is good for your physical and emotional health. Do the activities that you enjoy, and allow them to create a healthy life that you can live.


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