Let’s face it.  Life can be stressful.  We all have deadlines, unforeseen obstacles, and the world’s expectations of us.  Stress is just a part of life.  It is a primal instinct that has served to protect us from harm for as long as humans have lived.  It triggers the “fight or flight” response which releases cortisol into the body giving a burst of nervous energy with which to fight or flee the threat.

That was all well and good when humans spent most of their time hunting for food or trying not to be eaten by wild animals.  The cortisol in the body is immediately processed, burned up as energy in motion.  As we have progressed as a civilization, our lives have become more domesticated and sedentary.  Now, instead of exerting a great deal of energy getting enough food for the day or staying safe, we have drive-thrus and Door Dash.  We have home monitoring and security equipment that can control the house’s environment and alert us to any threats.  It even alerts the authorities to send help.

The things that cause us distress today have the same effect on our bodies and minds, but we no longer have a way to physically and mentally burn up the cortisol as we did when we were fleeing apex predators when the world was still wild.  You can’t club an annoying coworker to death or climb up a tree to get away from the boss.  So how can we process stress and nervous energy?  Here are a few suggestions.

One of the most obvious ways we can process and reduce stress is through exercise.  Aside from the many physical benefits of exercising, it actually makes us feel better when we do it right.  The sustained, moderate, physical exertion (being mindful of one’s limits so as not to cause injury) releases neurotransmitters into the brain like Dopamine which has been linked to everything from depression to dementia when levels are off.  Exercise supports the processes in the brain responsible for healthy thinking and healthy functioning.

Even more simple than exercise for dealing with stress is attention to one’s breathing.  This can be done at one’s desk at work or in school without drawing much attention or taking up much time.  There are many breathing exercises that may be done.  Dr. Andrew Weil developed the 4-7-8 method.  First, empty the lungs of air.   Second, breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds.  Next, hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds.  Lastly, exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds.

This breathing exercise has a powerful effect on the mind.  For it to be fully effective the breath cycle can be repeated once or twice.  Doing this twice a day will help de-escalate your emotions and help with healthy oxidation of the brain for clearer thinking.

Another particularly helpful way to deal with stress is with a short mindfulness meditation exercise.  It doesn’t require a yoga mat or a lot of time.  All you need to remember when you get stressed out it 5,4,3,2,1.  Just stop what you are doing and try to relax.  Make a mental note of 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can smell, 2 things you can feel, and 1 thing you can taste.  It will calm you down and distract you from whatever is stressing you.

Another way to address the issue of stress is with healthy eating.  Highly processed foods don’t provide healthy fuel for the body.  This can be avoided by shopping the outside isles of the grocery store.  Fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains will help you “burn clean” requiring the digestive system to do less work in turning food into energy.  Whatever you do, be mindful of how you think and feel.  Take time to address the challenges you face as well as better preparing for and processing stress.

Kevin L. Thompson MA, LPC

This guy got a kick out of it

This guy got a kick out of it