How to Find Calm During Stressful Times

Practical ways to ground yourself and find calm through sleep, movement, nutrition and breathing

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Photo by Max van den Oetelaar via Unsplash
Photo by Max van den Oetelaar via Unsplash

When everything around us is changing quickly, it can be overwhelming, stressful and leave us exhausted. How do we ground ourselves in calm when everything is rapidly shifting?

During long, stressful periods of time (hello pandemic) it is time to clear all the non-essential time commitments off our calendars and root ourselves in the core things our bodies need to build endurance for the marathon of change ahead. A wellness foundation of sleep, nutrition and exercise will give us the physical strength, mental clarity and resilience in the chaos.

Why Do I Need a Wellness Foundation?

We can learn some cautionary lessons from the classic story about the Three Little Pigs. Stick with me here. The first pig builds her house out of straw. She is stress eating sugary snacks and processed foods. She’s lacking the nutrients to fuel her best thinking and support her immune system. She is drinking a wee too much caffeine and alcohol, leaving her jittery and dehydrated. When the Big Bad Stress Wolf comes by, the flimsy straw walls supporting her quickly collapse. She is exhausted and anxious from her Buddy the Elf Diet.

Then comes along the second pig, who builds his house out of sticks. He is too busy to work-out or sleep the 6-8 hours our bodies need to recharge. His body is tired and at the first small knock from the Big Bad Stress Wolf, his stick house snaps. His boss is frustrated that his latest report is full of errors. The smallest setbacks make him irritable and short tempered with his coworkers and family. 

The third pig builds a solid foundation of bricks that support her even when the Big Bad Stress Wolf comes her way like Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball. She has built the four cornerstones of her wellness foundation: sleep, movement, nutrition and breathwork. Her focus on her physical, mental and emotional health helps her find calm and peace.

How Can I Build A Wellness Foundation?

Which metaphorical pig are you? If you’re exhausted, mentally scattered or hitting a wall during stressful times, it is a sign that there are cracks in your wellness foundation and it is time to get back to the basic cornerstones: 

Sleep: Dedicate 8 hours nightly to sleep. This will help your body regenerate and reduce your stress. According to Verywell Health, “When your body is sleep deficient, it goes into a state of stress. The body’s functions are put on high alert, which causes high blood pressure and the production of stress hormones.”  

Trouble falling asleep? Create a nighttime ritual that relaxes your mind and body, preparing it for sleep. This could be a bath, drinking chamomile tea, a meditation app like Calm or reading a boring book. Cut out caffeine after 12 pm and avoid screen time two hours before bedtime. Get outside everyday. According to holistic psychiatrist, Dr. Ellen Vora, the exposure to daylight will help regulate your circadian rhythm.

Movement: Exercise helps your mind and body relax. It will also help you sleep better.  Most importantly, moving helps us process our emotions. Our emotions store-up in our bodies and without movement, they get stagnant. Harvard Medical School explains,  “Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.” 

Getting started is the hardest part. Start small and stay consistent with your exercise. Move your body at least 20 minutes a day. Go on a walk during a phone meeting or check out classes available online. Get out your old Skip It from the garage (Shout to the 90s kids). The key is to find ways to exercise that you enjoy. You’ll start to crave how it makes you feel, promise. 

Nutrients: Fuel your body with nutrient dense foods that activate your best thinking, improve your concentration and give you sustainable energy. Add more colorful fruits and vegetables to fill up on natural forms of vitamins and minerals. Chose lean protein, which helps maintain the immune system. Also, drink at least eight 8-ounces glasses of water to keep your body hydrated. 

Start everyday with breakfast – it increases your metabolism, fuels the brain and provides you with energy. This is not about depriving yourself. Think 80/20. For 80% of the time, choose non-processed foods that will fuel your body. Give yourself space to enjoy your favorite treats 20% of the time. My 20% is made up of Talenti gelato and mac n’ cheese.

Breathing: Pause for a second, put one hand over your chest and the other over your belly. Take a deep breath. Which hand moved? During times of stress, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, resulting in short breaths from our chest. Over a long period of time, shallow breathing causes muscle tension, inflammation and high blood pressure. To help your nervous system relax and reduce your stress, try breathing from your belly. A way to practice this is to lie on the floor with one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Inhale from your belly making your hand rise higher on your stomach than your chest – count to 8. Then exhale and count to 8. Do this 10 times. Pause throughout the day and take deep belly breaths.

These cornerstones are not groundbreaking, we all know that we should do them, however we often build a straw or stick house instead of laying a resilient brick foundation to support our best selves. When our bodies are in a state of stress, we need to ground ourselves. 

“In times of stress, our bodies are often among the first things we neglect if not actively abuse. But your body is your most valuable asset during a pivot. With so much change it is important to actively recruit all your natural feel-good chemicals — serotonin, oxycontin, dopamine, and endorphins — while minimizing spikes in cortisol, the stress hormone.”

Jenny Blake, Author of Pivot

Let’s leverage our body’s built in support system to activate calm and reduce stress. Your light can’t shine bright if you don’t have the foundation to power you. And in times like this, we need your light.

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