A new survey by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation suggests that stress and health are having a greater impact on our society than previously thought. One in four US adults say that they’ve had a great deal of stress in the previous month, and half of all American adults say that they’ve experienced a major stressful event in the past year—that works out to be more than 115 million very stressed out individuals!
As a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 19 years of experience treating patients, I’ve learned that the reason most people aren’t able to manage their stress is because they’re not targeting the right problem. In order to start coping with stress, you need to get specific and call your stress what it really is—distressing emotions.
I teach my patients a strategy for life that I call Wise Mind Living, which means that you’re living with balance, mindful awareness and the knowledge that the key to managing stress and anxiety lies in understanding your emotions. Managing your stress the Wise Mind Living way starts with paying attention to what you’re truly feeling. One of the best ways to reduce your vulnerability to these distressing emotions you’ve identified is to optimize your physical health.
You may not realize it, but exercising, getting enough sleep and eating healthy foods are as important to your mental and emotional health as they are to your physical health. Think of a time when you didn’t get enough sleep because you were working late or binge-watching Netflix and subsisted on junk food and coffee all day. How much more likely were you to get into a fight with your partner or coworker the next day or to be more upset by that fight than you might otherwise have been? When your body doesn’t feel well, you’re much more likely to feel bad emotionally.
If you want to reduce your stress and emotional vulnerability, try these five Wise Mind Living strategies:
Get—or keep—moving! Exercise helps regulate emotions by making positive changes to brain chemistry while reducing stress and keeping you healthy (and distress resistant). As Dr. Oz says, the only thing between you and exercise is an excuse, so choose something you like to do, whether that’s yoga, running on the treadmill or taking a walk outside. Then put it on your schedule and be realistic—if you won’t get out of bed at 5 a.m. to hit the gym, schedule it for after work so you don’t set yourself up to fail.
2. Balanced Sleep
Get some rest. A ton of research supports the importance of good sleeping habits for both physical health and emotional well-being. The average amount of sleep an adult needs to be healthy is between seven and eight hours. Try to get to bed every night at a time that allows you to get an optimal amount of sleep and shut off all electronics at least an hour before bedtime.
3. Healthy Eating
It might surprise you to hear that dips in blood sugar can dramatically affect your overall mood. Eating small meals every four to five hours and eliminating refined carbohydrates and sugar is healthy and can stabilize your blood sugar levels. Another way to help keep your mood steady is by eating lean protein with high-quality carbohydrates (quinoa, brown rice and vegetables). And eating foods rich in omega-3 fats (salmon and sardines) and folic acid (leafy greens and beets) may offer some protection against depression. Try to be mindful of what and when you’re eating, and see if you can identify any relationship between your mood and your food.
4. Time Management
If you’re wondering how you’re going to squeeze exercise and more sleep into your schedule, then getting a grip on how you spend your time must be a priority. Managing your time well is key to taking care of yourself so you have the time to shop for and prepare healthy foods, eat a proper meal, be social in ways that build strong relationships and get a full night’s sleep. Review your calendar and see how you’re spending your time—then take some stuff off and add only new entries that nurture you. You can’t make more time, but you can carve out the time you have in better ways.
5. Accomplish Something
Every day, you should try to do at least one thing that makes you feel productive, competent, appreciated or in control. Do something a little challenging, something you felt was meaningful or valuable, or something that contributed to your personal growth. Touching any of these bases builds your personal reserves of confidence and faith in your ability to handle stress when the going gets tough.