Sure-Fire Tips to Cultivate More Joy & Less Stress
by Susan Smith Jones, PhD
Each of us faces tremendous challenges every day. As we get up each morning, we may face bumper to bumper traffic, getting the kids off to school, a career “make or break” report due to the boss, not enough time in the day to accomplish all you need to do, and so much more. Everyday life can simply get us down, and cause many form of stress, depression, and anxiety.
Stress is a fact of life but you can choose not to make it a way of life for you. By incorporating most or all of the tips below, you will experience more joy and less stress, be well on your way to creating a healthy, happy, peaceful, fulfilling, and soul-satisfying life.
Exercise. Physical exercise is an effective means of reducing stress and tension. A single dose of exercise works even better than tranquilizers as a muscle relaxant among individuals with symptoms of anxiety and tension, but without any undesirable side effects.
In a classic study of tense and anxious people, Herbert de Vries, PhD, former director of the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at the University of Southern California, administered a 400-milligram dose of meprobamate, the main ingredient in many tranquilizers, to a group of patients. On another day, he had these same patients take a walk vigorous enough to raise their heart rates to more than one hundred beats per minute. Using an EMG (electromyogram) machine to measure the patients’ tension levels as shown by the amount of electrical activity in their muscles, de Vries found that after exercise the electrical activity was 20% less than the patients’ normal rate, indicating their bodies were less tense. By contrast, the same patients showed little difference after the dose of meprobamate.
Along with exercising outdoors in nature, yoga is an excellent exercise for reducing stress. A study of yoga-class beginners found that workouts left them less nervous and more energetic. Another study found that yogis go through life with lower stress hormone levels.
Meditation. Practicing regular meditation is one of the best ways to bring stress hormone levels back to normal quickly, especially after an adrenaline-producing, cortisol-raising experience. I know of no more effective way to bring about relaxation than through meditation-turning inward in silence and reconnecting with the peace and calmness that’s always within you.
Nurture this inner peacefulness by book-ending your day with quiet meditation for at least 15 minutes first thing in the morning and again before you go to sleep at night. This quietude will remind you that you can make the choice every day to live in the world but not be caught up in the frenzy of it.
Part of the meditation process is focused, deep breathing. In fact, conscious breathing-inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply-is itself a form of meditation. In addition to practicing deep breathing while meditating, take mini breathing breaks throughout your day. While you’re breathing, be sure to focus on your breath or a relaxing, peaceful thought and not on anything that might be stressful.
Proper Diet. Because fresh fruits and vegetables are the foods highest in water content, and because they are the foods easiest to digest, they take stress off your digestive system and are what I refer to as “body-friendly” foods, especially if you eat them in their raw, natural, organic state. Keep the following three tips in mind when planning your meals.
1) Eat at least 8 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Emphasize the vegetables, especially leafy greens like romaine lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, collards, and fresh sprouts.
2) Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to obtain the widest selection of nutrients that boost immunity, beautify skin, accelerate fat loss, increase energy, prevent heart disease, and fight cancer.
3) Select produce with rich, diverse colors. Many of the beneficial antioxidants in fruits and vegetables are also the pigments responsible for making them red, orange, purple, green, or yellow.
Besides being rich in fiber, phytonutrients, chlorophyll, antioxidants, minerals, and enzymes, life-giving fruits and vegetables provide vitamins and minerals that help the body when it’s under stress.
And don’t forget to drink at least 8 glasses of pure water every day. When you don’t get enough water, the result is added stress on all of the organs and cells in the body. Dehydration can also lead to frequent headaches, general fatigue, dizziness, and weight gain. That’s right. A shortage of water will result in excess water weight, as too little water causes our bodies to store water outside of our cells, making us feel bloated and heavy. Drinking plenty of water will actually help you lose or maintain a healthy weight, too. Water is calorie-free, suppresses the appetite naturally (drink a large glass 15 minutes before mealtime on an empty stomach), and helps metabolize fat.
Without enough water, your kidneys can’t function properly, which forces them to send some of their workload to your liver. Since one of the liver’s main functions is to metabolize stored fat, the added work from the kidneys means that the liver burns less fat, so that more fat remains in the body-usually in the hips and thighs for women and around the waist for men. If you desire to lose some fat, it’s a good idea to drink at least three extra glasses of water every day.
Supplements. Creating vibrant health is a combination of several factors. Along with a healthy diet that emphasizes fresh organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean protein, and plenty of water, your body also needs exercise, proper rest and sleep, a positive attitude, the ability to laugh at yourself, quality time in nature, and the best whole food supplements.
Massage. Studies reveal that therapeutic massage can cut cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, and boost immunity. Additionally, massage reduces stress and tension, improves circulation, relieves muscle spasms, helps rid the body of toxins and retained fluids, and improves the skin. In terms of weight loss, the person massaging you is burning more calories than you are, but as your stress is massaged away, your hormones will be more balanced, which aids in fat reduction. Some people claim it aids in cellulite reduction. While I’ve never seen any good studies to prove that, I have seen impressive results in clients. Best of all, I know that massage feels terrific and for all the reasons above, I look forward to several massages each month.
Sleep. America is a chronically sleep-derived nation, and lack of sleep undermines the body’s inherent ability to deal with stress. There is nothing more restorative for your body than a good night’s sleep, night after night after night. Consistent lack of sleep can lead to a variety of health problems, including toxic build-up, weight gain and aging, depression, irritability and impatience, low sex drive, memory loss, lethargy, relationship problems, accidents, and at least 1,500 reported “drowsy driving” fatalities each year. Studies show that driving on only 6 hours sleep is like driving drunk.
One clear sign of sleep deprivation is needing an alarm clock to roust you out of bed in the morning. To dramatically improve your alertness, mood, appearance, and overall health, as well as help normalize stress hormones, try to get to bed 30 to 60 minutes earlier than you’re used to. Exercise helps you sleep better but you don’t want to engage in strenuous exercise too late at night because it accelerates the body’s metabolic rate, which remains “revved up” for a few hours, making it tough to sleep. Morning exercise routines or, if you’ve got insomnia, exercising 4 hours before bedtime, will help you sleep much better.
Nature. Being out in nature, where the air is filled with salubrious negative ions, lifts the spirits, relaxes the body, and gives us a sense of well-being. The air all around us is electrically charged with positive and negative ions. Most of us live and work in environments dominated by technology-surrounded by computers, microwaves, air conditioners, heaters, TV’s, and vehicular traffic. These and other “conveniences” of modern life emit excessive amounts of positive ions into the air we breathe, which can result in mental or physical exhaustion and affect overall wellness as described above. But when you’re in nature, especially surrounded by water, like the ocean, or in the mountains surrounded by trees and greenery, negative ions abound. In fact, the revolving water generated by fountains creates negative ions that cause air particles to achieve electrical (ionic) balance. You can increase negative ions in your home or office space by the addition of green plants and water fountains.
Laughter. Laugh as often as possible. Along with my faith in God, meditation, and spending quality time out in nature, laughter is one of the best ways I know to help mollify stress. It is okay to laugh, even when times are tough. Toxic worry almost always entails a loss of perspective and a sense of humor almost always restores it.
It was Norman Cousins, a noted journalist and author who, during a life-threatening illness, was able to achieve two hours of pain-free living for every ten minutes he devoted to laughter. In his wonderful book, Anatomy of an Illness, he told about how he watched old Marx Brothers comedies, the Three Stooges, and Candid Camera by the hour. He learned that laughter-hearty belly laughter-produced certain chemicals in the brain that benefit body, mind, and emotions.
According to researchers, Cousins was right on! Laughter releases endorphins into the body that act as natural stress beaters. It aids most-and probably all-major systems of the body. A good laugh gives the heart muscles a good workout, improves circulation, fills the lungs with oxygen-rich air, clears the respiratory passages, stimulates alertness hormones that stimulate various tissues, helps relieve pain, alters the brain by diminishing tension in the central nervous system, and counteracts fear, anger, and depression, all of which are linked to physical illness and stress.
Simplify. Simplification is to your life what healthy foods, sleep, water, exercise, and positive thinking are to your body; they all rejuvenate your life and reduce stress. Start by decluttering your personal environment, either at work and/or home. Even something as simple as organizing your desk will make you more efficient and help to relieve stress. What makes a world of difference in my life is the 15 minutes I spend before I leave the office. I use that time to straighten my desk and make a list of all the things I want to do the next day. I can go home with my work left neatly behind me and the knowledge that tomorrow I can easily pick up where I left off.
Living an uncluttered life (and this includes drawers, cupboards, closets, and day-to-day scheduling) gives me time for the things I really care about, like time to think, to read, to walk in nature, to meditate, and watch the sunset. Through simplification, I am more clear-minded and, I believe, a kinder, more sensitive person. But it’s hard for me to live a stressless life when my environment is surrounded by clutter and I have no time during the day to call my own.
Spend a few minutes each day and clean out one drawer, cupboard, or closet. That’s easier than committing to taking an entire week off to simplify your entire life. One step at a time is practicable and within a month or so, you will be living and working in an environment that brings you more joy and less stress.
Gratitude. Be positive and grateful every day. The link between mind and body has been contemplated since the time of Plato, but it’s only recently that research has been done on the neurophysiology of the brain. Every thought transmits instructions to the body through some 70 trillion nerve cells, so when you think a negative thought, your immune system is immediately compromised. By the same token, when you think positive thoughts, your immune system is enhanced and your whole body benefits. Furthermore, an anxious or fearful mind instructs the body to be likewise-tense and nervous. A calm mind creates a calm body.
So choose your thoughts wisely. A new report from the Mayo Proceedings suggests that individuals who profess pessimistic explanations for life events have poorer physical health and a higher mortality rate compared with either optimists or “middle-of-the-road” types, regardless of age or sex. In fact, every 10-point increase in the study’s pessimism scores was associated with a 19% increase in the risk of death. Conversely, participants whose test scores indicated optimism had a survival rate significantly better than expected. The reason for this may be that pessimists may be more “passive” or have a “darker” outlook on life than other personality types, leaving them more prone to “bad life events”-such as illness, injury, and depression. The researchers concluded that pessimism itself is a “risk factor” for early death, and should be viewed in the same way as other risk factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol level.
One way to foster a positive attitude is to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude (and appreciation) is a magnetic force that draws more good to each one of us. It’s a dynamic spiritual energy that allows you to exert a powerful influence on your body, life, and world. Most importantly, it’s a stellar stress-buster. What you think about consistently, you bring about in your life. Keep a gratitude journal and each day write down at least three things for which you are grateful. Focusing on the positive things, even during the most difficult times, is the perfect remedy to reduce and alleviate stress. And if you don’t feel positive and grateful, “fake it until you make it,” as the saying goes.
In other words, “acting as if” will help you through many challenging times and carry you on to better times. It was Shakespeare who championed this sage advice in his immortal words in Hamlet: “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.”
Relaxation. Do you practice some type of relaxation in your life? If you’re like most people, you put relaxation near the bottom of your “to do” list each day. One of the world’s leading experts on the brain is a Harvard medical doctor, Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response and Your Maximum Mind. What Benson calls “the relaxation response” is the body’s ability to enter into a state characterized by an overall reduction of the metabolic rate and a lowered heart rate. According to Benson, this state of relaxation also acts as a door to a renewed mind and a changed life, a feeling of awareness. He describes the physiological changes that occur when you are relaxed as a harmonizing or increased communication between the two sides of the brain, resulting in feelings often described as well-being, unboundedness, infinite connection, and peak experience.
One way to cultivate calmness and peacefulness is to progressively relax your body, beginning with your toes and ending with your head. Breathe slowly and deeply and totally relax each part of your body, saying to yourself as you go along, “My toes, feet, legs [and so on] are relaxed,” until you have gone through your entire body. Then rest for a while in the quiet and silence. Listening to a relaxation or meditation tape may also be helpful and I have several available through my website below.
When you make time daily day for a few minutes of deep relaxation, you will experience more joy and less stress. And if you incorporate most of the above stress-buster suggestions, you’ll enrich your experience of living and achieve the goal of a balanced life.
This material contains highlights from Susan Smith Jones’s book Be Healthy • Stay Balanced.
Susan Smith Jones, PhD is founder and president of the consulting company Health Unlimited, LLC. She’s authored over 25 books, including her bestsellers Recipes for Health Bliss (Hay House), Walking on Air: Your 30-Day Inside and Out Rejuvenation Makeover, and The Joy Factor: 10 Sacred Practices for Radiant Health (foreword by Wayne W. Dyer). For 30 years, she taught health and fitness at UCLA, and is internationally renowned as a motivational speaker to corporate, community and church groups. For more information on Susan’s work, or to receive some special gifts, please visit www.SusanSmithJones.com.
The American Holistic Health Association has compiled a collection of self-help articles to support your efforts to enhance your own health and well-being.