Everyone feels a certain amount of stress from time to time. Stressful events or circumstances sooner or later impact everyone’s life. A certain amount of stress is normal, and can even be healthy. Having a deadline about getting a project or report done can spur you to completion. Stress in one form or another is a fact of life, but chronic stress can take a toll on our health. The good news is that our lifestyle choices have a lot to do with how much influence stress has on our daily life.
The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America (2015) survey provides data on the leading causes of stress in our society, and there’s both good news and not-so-good news. Since 2007, the year of the survey’s inception, stress levels have been trending downward overall, however, women, young adults and parents still report higher levels of stress. The survey also found that “Regardless of group, Americans continue to report stress at levels higher than what they believe is healthy, struggle to achieve their health and lifestyle goals, and manage stress in ineffective ways.”
By now the interconnection of mind/body/spirit is well established yet many people in Western culture still neglect their basic health needs – nutrition, exercise, and getting enough rest/sleep. It’s easy to skimp on sleep or grab a fast food lunch when we’re on the go, but neglecting our health impacts everything else in our lives – our families, our work, our enjoyment of life.
We all want satisfaction and fulfillment from life, but what really drives these things? Science has come up with some answers. What researchers have discovered over decades is this: Happiness is determined 50% by genetics, 40% by our behavior and choices, and only 10%(!) by our circumstances (i.e., marital status, income, etc.) That’s great news because it means we have a lot of control in influencing our wellbeing, including how we deal with stress.
Successful people know that they need to be in top physical shape to perform at their best. This includes both body and mind. A meditation practice provides proven benefits such as reduced stress, increased focus and clarity, enhanced levels of productivity and greater energy.
Many highly effective individuals and public personalities have a regular meditation practice that enables them to sustain their high levels of achievement and sense of wellbeing. Ray Dalio – the billionaire CEO and founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest global hedge fund, has been a regular meditator for years and has said that meditation has played a role in every success he has had in life. Oprah meditates daily, as does Ariana Huffington, Russell Simmons, Jerry Steinfeld, and George Stephanopoulus, to name just a few. Far from being a passing trend, meditation is now mainstream, a part of daily life for many.
What other behaviors and choices can determine our reactions to stressors in our life?
- According to the APA survey, those of us who have others they can rely on for emotional support (family, friends or community) have lower stress levels than those without. The answer: Build relationships with trustworthy people you can count on (and who can count on you.) Nurture and make time for relationships with family and friends, and be open to new ones. If you’re dealing with a specific challenge such as a chronic illness, or a difficult family situation, consider finding a support group to meet others who are experiencing similar difficulties.
- Take a walk. The benefits of a regular exercise routine continue to pile up. Aerobic exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Release of endorphins promotes feelings of both mental and physical relaxation. Even a brisk 20 minute walk, jog or bike ride can take the edge off when you’re having a difficult day.
- Take a break. Walking away from a tough or challenging situation even for a short time can provide much needed breathing room, and enable you to return with a clear head and different perspective.
- Share a laugh. If you’ve ever been in the middle of a tense situation that suddenly turned comical, you’ve experienced the power of laughter as a stress reliever. It may not be a cure for everything that ails you, but there’s a reason for the old adage, “Laughter is the best medicine.”
- Help someone else. The APA study reports that, “when it comes to longevity, research suggests that providing social support to friends and family may be even more important than receiving it.” (Psychological Science 14(4), 320-327.)
If ongoing stress is impairing your ability to function, it may be necessary to consult with a licensed mental health professional. Such a person can help to identify and develop helpful strategies to manage the stress in your life more effectively.