Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.
When I realized April was National Stress Awareness Month and that my taxes are due soon and I’m traveling, I started feeling stressed, frazzled and hassled. Then I thought what a wonderful opportunity to share what I do to keep myself centered and beating my stress.
It starts with laughter. Is there anything better than a great big belly laugh? Even comedians pass on the old trope that laughter is the best medicine. And did you know laughter may also help lower stress? That’s a huge boon to the normal human stress response, a complex release of hormones and blood that has one too many Americans tied up in knots.
According to the American Institute of Stress, the fight or flight response stress triggers, which was once an evolutionary advantage, may be killing you. In fact, 44% of Americans feel more stressed than they did 5 years ago, 1 in 5 feel “extreme stress,” marked by shaking and heart palpitations, and 3 out of 4 doctor visits are for stress-related ailments such as obesity, asthma, depression and diabetes.
That’s why laughter may be crucial to giving stress the kick in the pants it needs. In fact, the Mayo Clinic reports that laughter triggers physical responses in the body, which are helpful in combating stress. “Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles and increases endorphins released by your brain.”
It’s not just laughter that helps beat stress. Here are five more daily practices that will help you:
Live in the moment. The key to living in the moment – and letting all the rest melt away – is mindfulness. What is mindfulness? In my studies and teachings on the topic, I’ve come to define mindfulness as the conscious awareness of the present moment and the people in it. According to my findings on mindfulness, featured in my keynote presentation found on my website, here’s what mindfulness can do for you:
Build immunity so you’re sick less often
Help you through other medical issues
Mellow your kids (shout out to parents!)
Mindfulness is about giving all your attention to what you are doing; to be present, rather than dwell on the past or future. It’s easy for our minds to drift: from “How do I make my car payment next month?” to “Why was my brother upset at dinner last night?” to “I’m never going to get that promotion at work.”
We get so wrapped up in our thoughts – many of which are out of our control – that we’re distracted from the moment before us. Beginning with meditation – the touchstone of mindfulness, says researchers – ten minutes a day can get you going toward being more present. And when we’re living in the moment, stress gets the boot.
2. Feel stress to build resilience. Science says a little bit of stress isn’t harmful. When someone feels fear or discomfort, cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is released to regulate many bodily functions including the immune system, digestive function, reproductive system and growth processes, says the Mayo Clinic. And this bit of stress will eventually build a strong physical and emotional resilience.
The key to building resilience? In addition to feeling your natural stress, a stable support system leads to resilience. “Very few highly resilient people are strong in and by themselves. You need support,” says Steven Southwick of the Yale School of Medicine. Moreover, these tenets for building strong resilience are the very things that 12-Step support groups use in recovery. Turns out, recovery and resilience go hand-in-hand!
What else can you do to experience a normal level of stress and build strong resilience? Here are expert tips:
Develop a set of your own personal values and stick to them.
Look for meaning in stressful or traumatic life moments.
Focus on the positives more than the negatives each day.
Face the things that scare you the most. Dark shadows disappear when light shines on them.
Learn something new. Every Day.
Pick a positive emotion and ignite your behavior towards actualizing the emotion each day.
Find an exercise regimen – yoga, pilates, running, walking, boxing, cycling the park trail – and stick to it.
Let go of the past.
Recognize your sources of strength and own them.
3. Make a change. Daily routines are good for staying productive and getting life tasks done, however, they can get in the way of excitement and spontaneity. And when we feel our lives are zapped of unexpected joys, stress can sink our mood. Shake up your routines with different places and faces and your mind will handle the stress better. Try a new band or musical artist to listen to music you’ve never heard. Take the path that’s less traveled. You’ll discover new joys in the unexpected, in effect lowering stress.
4. Believe stress is normal and essential. If we change the way we view stress in our lives, perhaps we can harness its power and use it in our favor. That’s just what Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, suggests in her Ted Talk on the positive view of stress.
In the Ted Talk, McGonigal discusses a longitudinal study of 30,000 adults on their experiences with stress. The participants who believed that stress is harmful to their health saw a 43% increase of dying from stress-related issues. However, this only held true if the participants believed stress was bad for them.
Conversely, the participants who experienced high stress but did not believe it was bad for their health saw the lowest risk of death in the study from stress-related causes. As such, she reveals a key insight about stress: it doesn’t have to play a negative role in our lives if we don’t let it. A typical stress response is a pounding heart, sweaty palms and shallow breath. She points out that’s totally okay – not the harbinger of chronic disease. In fact, her research found that when participants in the study viewed their stress response as helpful, blood vessels in the body remained relaxed.
5. Focus on gratitude. Gratitude is about giving thanks and dwelling on all the things that are right in one’s life, rather than what’s wrong. When we focus on the negative, stress takes a toll, a dark spektor that compounds a negative view of the world and those in our lives. Gratitude, however, reminds us that there’s light in the darkest corners. Here’s how to foster a spirit of gratitude:
Write notes – little reminders around the house that say you are grateful for all that makes your home warm and comfortable.
Journal your gratitude – a place where you can write down three things you are grateful for each morning before you start your day.
Give thanks daily – to people on the street, family and friends, coworkers and bosses. When we give thanks to others, it shows that we care and truly value their contributions. Not only that, giving thanks helps us to remember the blessings that bring so much to our lives.
Be specific – about the things you are grateful and thankful for. For instance, if you share that you’re thankful when a friend organizes a group event, specifically thank them for this gesture and maybe it will lead to more.
As a highly skilled clinician and interventionist who specializes in complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process disorders, I try and make these six habits cornerstones in my daily life. In turn, I share these practices with families and loved ones overcoming the struggles that come with substance abuse and mental health issues. Together we can beat stress and rise to our best possible selves.
To learn more about Louise Stanger and her interventions and other resources, visit her website.