GTJ Health Series: Six Tips for Stress Relief

The contents of this article are for informational purposes only.  The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

For many of us, the holidays can be a stressful time filled with deadlines at work, travel (and delays), and extended time with family.  To help manage your stress this holiday season, GTJ offers six tips for stress relief.

1- Eat, Sleep, and Exercise: A Dose of Prevention

Dr. Adam Goldstein of yourhealthradio.org, and an expert on and advocate for quality of life, gave me three pieces of advice when I started medical school (arguably the most stressful 4 years of my life).  His advice was to:

  1. Eat
  2. Sleep, and
  3. Exercise

These three activities are things that all of us, as busy professionals and students, struggle to prioritize. Let me convince you why you should.

  1. Eat well: A poor diet, such as those high in sugar, caffeine, and fat, has been shown to decrease mood and increase stress and anxiety symptoms.  Lessen your risk by eating three well balanced meals a day with plenty of vegetables, lean protein, and fiber and by limiting your sugar, caffeine, and alcohol consumption.
  2. Sleep: Sleep deprivation causes an increase in Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH) which leads to the production of stress hormones like adrenaline.   A 2010 study in the Journal of Sleep in which 30,000 adults participated found that those that get at least 7 hour a day of sleep are half as likely to have stress related illnesses like heart attack, stroke, and chest pain compared to those who slept less than five hours a day.  Other studies support this research and have also shown that those who were sleep deprived were more likely to be rated as less attractive, have poorer skin tone, be overweight, and die prematurely.  So do your body and attractiveness a favor: get at least 7 hours of sleep a night.
  3. Exercise: Exercise prevents stress by increasing production of mood boosting endorphins, lowering the production of stress hormones such as cortisol, increasing self-confidence, and even improving mild symptoms of anxiety and depression.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week.  So whether you enjoy jogging, Pilates, or basketball, make sure to get your 150 minutes a week.
2 – Breathe

We all take breathing for granted, but it is a valuable tool for relieving stress.  When you are in a stressful situation, your body releases hormones that create a “flight or flight response.”  Your breathing rate increases and your heart beats faster and faster.  While beneficial in the short term to help us catch the metro or fight off overzealous shoppers on Black Friday, if this response continues it can create physical and emotional damage.  The opposite response, known as the “rest and digest” response, serves to lessen stress and the potential damage of the “fight or flight” response.  To promote this “rest and digest” phase over the “fight or flight” phase, practice this simple deep breathing relaxation technique when you’re stressed:

Close your eyes and picture a relaxing scene (my current favorite is the beaches of Costa Rica) and, while counting to five, take a deep slow breath in through your nose.  Then, while counting down from 5, breathe slowly out through your mouth.  Repeat as necessary to encourage relaxation and relieve stress.

3 – Avoid Making a Mole Hill into a Mountain

We’ve all done it- treated a small inconvenience as if it was the end of the world.  Catastrophizing is, when a challenging event occurs, foreseeing the worst possible outcome, however unlikely.  Most likely just because you missed your bus, your significant other is in a bad mood, or your mother isn’t talking to you, the world isn’t ending.  When you feel yourself drawing broader conclusions from a relatively minor hiccup, take a moment to put the issue in context and consider asking a trusted friend for their opinion.

4 – Be Grateful

“The ship of my life may or may not be sailing on calm and amiable seas.  The challenging days of my existence may or may not be bright and promising.  Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitude.  If I insist on being pessimistic, there is always tomorrow.  Today I am blessed.”  — Maya Angelou

Much of what we face on a daily basis are minor challenges compared to the much greater totality of things we are grateful for.  During this holiday season, take a moment each day to reflect on the things you are grateful for and approach each day with an attitude of gratitude.

5 – Help/Treat Yourself

As Donna and Tom Haverford from Parks and Rec always say you don’t need an excuse to treat yourself.

To relieve stress, do (at least) one nice thing for yourself every day.  Start each day with a relaxing ritual such as yoga, take a walk at lunch to clear your mind, or watch a hilarious video on YouTube after a long day.  By taking time out of your day for yourself, you combat the buildup of stress.

6 – Let Someone Else Treat/Help You

If you find you are stressed, seek support from relatives, significant others, friends, and, at any point, physicians or therapists.  Mental illnesses- whether panic attacks, depression, or anxiety- are serious and often treatable issues that need to be brought to the attention of a professional.  We can all benefit from a little help from our friends (or our doctors).

Liked this article? Stay tuned for Alex’s next article on New Year’s Resolutions!

Alex Berger, a new GTJ contributing columnist, is a native of the Washington DC Metropolitan Area.  He graduated in 2008 from the University of North Carolina and is currently in his last year of a combined MD/MPH program. He is excited to be back in the DC area and to share tips on nutrition, health, and fitness. He can be reached at Alexander_Berger@med.unc.edu.