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Saturday
May112013

6 Ways to Live a Less Frazzled Life

Hard Fact: your response to stress may be a greater determinant for how healthy you’ll be in the future than the food you put in your mouth or the workout you fit into your schedule. Most people understand that exercising for several hours every day is a bad idea. It’s too much for the body to recover from. However, we miss that same connection when we work and push our mental abilities for 10-12 hours, six to seven days per week. With long hours and multiple running lists of chores, errands, and other obligations, we live a harried lifestyle in which personal fulfillment comes last and stress runs rampant. Without mental rest and personal replenishment, this type of unrelenting stress will take a serious toll on our health--unless we choose otherwise.

To demonstrate just how serious the stress and health connection is, a new study shows that measures of cortisol in the hair (which are a good indicator of cortisol levels in the body) was a clear predictor for cardiovascular risk and type 2 diabetes. In fact, the researchers found the stress levels to be as predictive of heart disease as other more conventional risk factors! Another recent study showed that the top 20% most stressed employees had a 79% increased risk of heart disease! While relational stress can take its toll, work-related stress is often the most common source of non-physical stress we encounter. Again, that’s not always a bad thing. If work was too easy, it would leave people bored and keep them from growing, which is important for job satisfaction. It’s when pressure becomes too great, hours too long, or breaks too infrequent that work negatively influences health.

As crucial as diet and exercise are to our basic health, clearly reigning in stress plays a vital role as well. We often hear about the importance of “managing” stress, which can include genuinely helpful strategies for relieving the immediate effects of stress in our day. There’s another take on stress, however, that’s less about alleviating or managing symptoms but diffusing the power of stressors themselves. Some of the best ways to blunt the impact of stress aren’t just about keeping stress at bay but about filling our lives with enough positive experiences and inputs to counter stressful experiences as a whole. It’s what I’ll call the “long view” on stress--and it’s about living life less frazzled and more fulfilled.

Use Your Vacation Time

Just as you need to pause to recover between weight training or sprint sets to maintain your level of performance, you should pause every so often from work to recover mentally. In 2012, Americans took an average of 12 days of vacation, less than half of what most Europeans take. When you break that down, it’s only one vacation day per month. What’s more, nearly 60% of us deliberately forgo the vacation days allotted to us in our jobs. This isn’t a good way to let the body and mind recover throughout the year. While it’s difficult to say that vacation time will directly improve health, research linking stress to serious physical and mental health issues (as well as job burnout) continues to grow.

Summer is coming and, with it, vacation season for many people. It’s the perfect time to make a resolution of a different sort: resolve to take all of your vacation this year. (If you’re diligent about preparing work for your time away, you shouldn’t even have to check in much, if at all, when you’re gone.) Plan more than the dates but also what you’ll do with the time. If money permits, go somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. If it doesn’t, plan the most relaxation and adventure you can with day trips, unplugged time at home, and regional activities or camping.

Schedule Unplugged Personal Time.

Beyond the vacations, you might ask, what about the every day? How do we take the “long view” on stress in the midst of the daily grind?

If you have a tendency to bring work home and get caught up in it for several hours on the weekend, be sure to schedule yourself as well--your own personal time for R&R alone or with family and friends. Work of one sort or another has a way of filling every minute it’s allowed to--that is, if you don’t impose hard boundaries. Set a schedule and stick to it. Maybe you pencil yourself in from 12-5 on Saturdays or for the first half of the day on Sundays. Maybe you block out the whole day for yourself and your family.

What’s more, make most (if not all) of those personal hours unplugged time. Turn off your phone. Don’t check email or social networking sites. Put the technology aside and relish the real, non-virtual moment.

Even if you can’t spend the day in a hammock, envision a way to enjoy the chores and errands you have to do. My wife and I tend to take our time getting errands done together. We’ll combine shopping with a meal at Whole Foods as a way to catch up. Additionally, we set aside some unplugged time at home. Whether it happens on Friday evenings or Saturday afternoons, we always have at least four hours to ourselves--sans chores and technology.

Get outside--every day.

Research has shown time and again that being in natural settings or even within natural views can enhance our mood, improve our focus, decrease physical pain, and lessen our stress.

Sure, not every day can include a leisurely hike in a remote forest. Nonetheless, we can take advantage of small moments in the day by drinking our morning coffee in the backyard, eating dinner outdoors, or going for a walk over our lunch hour. We can turn off the T.V. at night and sit outside to talk or read. On weekends or days off, we can prioritize “green” time by getting some outdoor exercise in, biking to do errands, or spending time in a favorite local park. For vacations, we can plan plenty of outdoor activities like hikes, boating, or time at the beach.

Treat Sleep as Sacred.

I can’t stress enough how much this will change your life. We’re naturally diligent about setting our alarms to get up in the morning to be on time for work, school, or other obligations. How about setting an alarm to go to bed at night? Consider it an obligation to yourself. You’ll be healthier, happier, more energetic, and more productive if you allow yourself the chance for adequate rest. An added bonus: you won’t need to bombard yourself with caffeine the next day.

Act in sync with your Circadian rhythms by powering down a couple hours before bed if you can. When you need to use blue screens shortly before bed (e.g. phones, laptops, etc.), wear yellow-tinted glasses to counter the blue light, which interferes with melatonin production. The sooner you can put the power equipment away, however, the better. Leave your inbox or Facebook for the morning. (Consider it a good step in trimming your media diet.) You’ll relax more with a good book or a quiet chat and fall asleep more easily.

Do one thing every week for pure pleasure.

You may love painting, wood working or discussing the latest bestselling novel in a book club. Alternatively, you enjoy rock climbing or hitting the golf range. What about a movie (minus the carb coma of popcorn, soda and candy)? We all have things we like that don’t necessarily make us more productive, intelligent or better at our jobs. As long as it isn’t actually hurting your health (like a weekend bender) do it! These passions and pastimes are an integral part of who we are and how we enjoy life. In prioritizing them, we “exercise” the dimensions of ourselves that can languish and leave us feeling unfulfilled and more prone to the effects of everyday stress.

Do one thing every day for relaxation.

A couple months ago on the LTWL Facebook page, we shared a cartoon of a person walking outdoors with his dog and two thought bubbles above his head. In one was a reflection of the landscape in front of him. The bubble was labelled “mindful.” The other thought bubble was filled with pictures of mental static like a car, people, laundry, work, and mail. It was labelled “mind full.” You get the picture, but which one would describe you?

While developing genuine mindfulness practices can offer enormous stress-relieving and health-enhancing benefits, simply incorporating a casual relaxation routine each day can make a definitive difference in our personal contentment. It can be a focused and formal activity like yoga or Tai Chi, of course. However, it can also be something as basic as a quiet evening walk or bike ride or something more thoughtful like writing in gratitude journal. Whatever relaxes your mind and lets you live pleasantly in the moment will offer you benefit.

These are just a few ideas among many for infusing your life with more fulfillment to counteract the frenzy of everyday stress. I hope you’ll share your own favorite ways to “fill the well” and cultivate more happiness and relaxation each day.

Written by Tom Nikkola - Sr. Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

 This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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