Whether we're worried about the cost of living, anxious over daily disappointments like traffic jams, or overwhelmed by negative thoughts, stress can prove toxic to our bodies.
Stress activates a potent combination of hormones that influence things like our heart rate, digestion, and fat storage. Medical research increasingly points to the ill health effects that can be triggered by chronic, sustained stress, such as a heightened risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and dementia.
"We're all under too much stress whether we notice it or not," psychologist Elissa Epel, Ph.D. told CBN News.
Dr. Epel researches how stress can damage the body, and says it goes all the way down to the cellular level. Stress triggers a chain reaction in the body that can end up shortening the telomeres – the protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes. Short telomeres often predict earlier onset of disease and death. The good news is we can turn things around before our telomeres become too short. In her book The Stress Prescription, Dr. Epel recommends these seven ways to reduce stress.
1. Embrace Uncertainty
"How much can you relax if you don't know what will happen tomorrow or if you don't know how plans will go later? Because it turns out, when we're intolerant of uncertainty, we're much more vulnerable to anxiety and depression when stressful things happen," said Dr. Epel.
Research during the COVID-19 pandemic showed people who reported being okay with the uncertainty of the outcome, people who said they were okay not knowing how the pandemic would end, reported much less stress than those who weren't.
"We all have different levels with how comfortable we are with uncertainty, about the future, and we like to think that we control things a lot more than we do."
Epel recommends trying to avoid worrying about tomorrow, and instead focusing on the concerns of today.
"Our brain is not really geared to be worrying about such big things that are in the future," she said. "We really just want to worry about what's right in front of us."
In fact, that's exactly what Jesus Christ said to do in Matthew 6:34 - "So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
2. Let Go of What You Can't Control
Dr. Epel referenced the traditional Serenity Prayer that deals with this practice. The words to the prayer are: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."
That prayer is attributed to American theologist Reinhold Niebuhr. It was part of a sermon at the Heath Evangelical Union Church in Massachusetts in 1932 and has since become a fixture in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs.
"That prayer has so much wisdom and that's why it sticks around," said Dr. Epel.
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3. Find Excitement in Challenges
Stress can be minimized when we turn our feelings of fear into feelings of being fierce. That involves reframing our thoughts. For example, instead of thinking, "This is so stressful, I hate this feeling," try to embrace, "This is exciting! I can appreciate this feeling!"
Turn down the heat by replacing fatalistic thoughts like, "If I don't pull this off, everything will be ruined," to, "I can only do my best, everything else is out of my control."
When facing a challenge, it helps to relax by remembering past success and believing you have what it takes to meet the current challenge.
"Emphasizing your resources, and what you can do, and how that can overcome the demand," said Dr. Epel.
4. Metabolize Body Stress
Certain physical activities can actually help our bodies train for resilience. Dr. Epel recommends practicing "hormetic stress," which induces short, concentrated bursts of acute stress, the kind you can easily and naturally recover from. These include exercise, particularly high intensity interval training (HIIT), a blast of cold water for anywhere from 15 seconds to one minute at the end of a shower, and intense heat, such as sitting in a hot sauna for about a half an hour. Dr. Epel says these things help us "stress better," by "not having an over-activated stress response."
5. Immerse Yourself In Nature
Getting away from our computers and phones and all the care of the world they encapsulate can instantly reduce stress.
Unplugging from regular life by going outside to a park, the woods, a river, lake, or ocean and focusing on the natural beauty and miracle of nature can help reduce blood pressure and anxiety.
Believe it or not, we can also create similar sanctuaries in our own homes that can accomplish the same results. These include things like a prayer closet, where we can get away from the day-to-day cares of this life and focus on the big picture.
"I believe prayer can do this too," said Dr. Epel. "If we can develop spiritual urgency, not wait until we get sick and then feel spiritual urgency, but actually now. Realize the miracle of life, the fragility of life."
6. Experience Deep Rest
This involves slowing our normal breathing pattern so more oxygen crosses the barrier between our lungs and our blood vessels, causing nitric oxide levels to rise, which causes blood vessels to dilate, letting blood and oxygen travel more quickly through the body. This causes our blood pressure to go down, and our heart rate to drop, both of which point to reduced stress levels.
Dr. Epel recommends regularly getting a good night's sleep and during the day, practicing breathing exercises, inhaling slowly through the nose with the mouth closed, deeply, so the ribs widen to the sides, and slowly exhaling through the mouth.
7. Create Bliss Bookends
This involves starting an ending each day feeling full of joy. This can be accomplished by waking up with a sense of gratitude and concentrating on what you're looking forward to that day. Then at the end of each day, think of the many things for which you are grateful and focus on the positive things that happened during the course of the day.
In between the morning and evening "bookends," make a conscious effort to connect with people.
"That is one of the ways we cope with the big stressors especially well, is really through relationships, supportive relationships," said Dr. Epel, adding, that includes people we don't even know. "Kind acts to strangers, in one study, had beautiful effects on gene expression for inflammation."
So while we can't eliminate many of the stressors in our lives, we can respond to them differently, and hopefully feel a greater sense of peace and joy while lowering our risk for a number of health problems.
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