Back to Basics: The Recipe for Reducing Stress and Boosting Health
By Sheila Ohlsson Walker, Ph.D.
This post is the first in a series focused on what we can do, starting right now, to emerge from this time of crisis with new lifestyle habits that will empower us and our families to flourish, mind and body, from now on.
Crises, while extraordinarily disruptive, also present opportunities for growth, agency and change. While COVID-19 has uprooted our sense of stability, temporarily distanced us physically from relationships with supportive friends and family, and caused tremendous stress, there are a few easy things we can do every day, starting right now, to maintain a sense of control, build resilience and stay healthy.
Although science tells us that stress “gets under the skin” and can affect our brains and bodies in critical ways over time, it also tells us that healthy lifestyle habits, positive experiences and narrative — the stories we tell ourselves about our lives — are equally as potent. These “ingredients,” particularly in combination, comprise a powerful antidote to stress anytime. During the current coronavirus pandemic, when staying mentally and physically healthy is more important than ever before, the 8 ingredients shared below are not just helpful — they are essential.
Let’s start by setting the table for a better understanding of how experience gets folded into our biochemical make-up at a cellular level. There are three major concepts, grounded in science, guiding our recipe:
- Nurture Shapes Nature: First, “nurture” (experiences we have in our everyday lives) shapes “nature” (our genes) through the process of epigenetics — a term which literally means “above genetics.” Our epigenome is active 24/7. In other words, each and every one of us is an ongoing work-in-process, malleable and changing in dynamic ways by the nanosecond. From a practical standpoint, this means that the lifestyle choices we make, such as engaging in regular physical activity, prioritizing sleep, selecting healthy food and drink when possible, and practicing mindfulness, all shape how our DNA is read and expressed; and therefore how we look and feel.
- What’s Real in the Mind is Real in the Body: Second, epigenetic research reveals that what is real in the mind is also real in the body. It is not necessarily objective reality that affects our biochemistry as individuals, but instead how we perceive that reality. Moreover, the way in which we process and make meaning of our daily lives, through our personalized lenses and filters, is shaped, over time, by our own unique life experiences. This means that we have the power to recalibrate our filters, hence change the chemistry in our brains and bodies. By intentionally shaping our self-narratives, transforming challenges into growth opportunities, and by actively ascribing strong, capable and resilient characteristics to ourselves, we are actively building new neural pathways that reinforce these very qualities.
- Mental and Physical Health are Two Sides of the Same Coin: Third, the same biochemicals, neurotransmitters and hormones that affect our brains also affect our bodies. This means that mental and physical health are two sides of the same coin. Engaging in activities that promote the health of our emotions, by scientific definition, also promotes the physical health of our bodies.
Self- Care: 8 Ingredients for Health and Wellness
Now that you have the essential concepts, here are eight time-tested things you can do today to, as they say on an airplane, “put on your own oxygen mask first.”
- Exercise Every Day: Try and get at least 30 minutes, inside (get creative!) or outside (ideal because you gain the health benefits of connection with nature, and also soak up Vitamin D if the sun is out). You’ll start to feel your brain chemistry begin to change after about 15 or 20 minutes. If there is one magic pill we can take every day to improve mental and physical health, mood and mental clarity — exercise is it. Take this time to create a new habit that will pay dividends for a lifetime.
- Prioritize Sleep: Adults need 7–9 hours a night, children and adolescents need 9–10 at a minimum. When we sleep, our brains recharge, our bodies heal, and our immune systems power up for the day ahead. Do your best to stick to regular bedtimes and wake-up times, shut down screens an hour before bed (blue light from screens interferes with melatonin production, which is a key ingredient in sleep quality), and no technology in the bedroom.
- Make Healthy Choices with Food and Drink: Almost two-thirds of our immune systems, our front-line defense in the battle against viruses and bacteria, live in the lining of our gastrointestinal (GI) systems, otherwise known as “the gut.” Moreover, digestive health has a powerful effect on mood and cognitive clarity. Lean proteins, such as fish, lentils and chicken, are easier to digest and more efficient at fueling your body than red meats. Colorful vegetables are loaded with antioxidants that boost immunity and reduce inflammation. Choose fruit over cookies, avoid soda, minimize alcohol consumption and drink lots of water. And if you are looking for a general rule, stick with whole foods comprised of just one ingredient: apple, salmon, spinach, carrot, avocado, etc. This makes for easy logic to share with your family so that they can make healthy choices too!
- Practice Mindfulness Meditation: Give yourself the gift of taking your foot off of the gas pedal for 20 minutes per day by being present in the moment, and by making time to meditate. Meditation reduces stress by dampening the fight-or-flight response, improves mental clarity and mood, bolsters heart health, improves the efficiency of your GI system, and increases immunity by reducing inflammation. Some prefer a “moving meditation,” such as a walk where one’s “thinking brain” takes a break and one’s sensory “feeling brain” is fully absorbed in the experience of the moment. Practicing mindfulness or meditating daily will calm important brain- and body-wide systems that support health and well-being.
- Keep a Gratitude Journal: Find something, anything, to feel grateful for. Then, close your eyes and think about it. Really, truly, feel it. Write it down in a journal you keep next to your bed just before you go to sleep at night, so that you the positive biochemistry of gratitude infuses into your epigenome, and importantly — can improve sleep quality, which will improve your capacity to manage all else when you wake up in the morning.
- Service to Others: Whether reaching out to a friend in need, or giving the extraordinary gift of a random act of kindness, research tells us that the mental and physical health benefits can be even stronger for the one who gives than the one who receives. Research also shows us that generosity is contagious, spurring a wave of energy to “pay it forward.” Give with no expectations about receiving, and then, breathe in the feeling of having done something concrete to make our world a better place.
- Savor Quality Time: We are social beings, and since the beginning of time have grown and developed not in isolation, but in the context of relationships with others. As families have gotten busier and technology threatens to eviscerate authentic human connection, this moment in time provides an opportunity for us to reconnect as human beings — in person and virtually. Let’s be there, with full hearts and full attention, for those we love.
- Surround Yourself with People Who Feel Like Sunlight: Remember, emotions are contagious — for better and for worse. So, seek out family members and friends who fill up your emotional gas tank. Make time every day, whether in person, via text or Zoom, or on the good-old-fashioned phone, to connect with people who help you maintain a positive mindset. Who are the friends who make you laugh so hard that you crinkle your eyes (biochemically distinct from a polite smile), who makes you feel seen, heard and valued. These people are our neurobiological rocket fuel, who support us in thriving no matter the circumstances.
We are all in the coronavirus crisis together, and hand-in-hand we can do this. But we must start by taking good care of ourselves. This will give us the capacity to support our families and communities. One foot in front of the other, with discipline and intentionality, we will build new habits that foster greater health, mental wellness and quality of life for us and those we love for the many years that lie ahead.
Next in this series, we will delve more deeply into the science behind each of the eight ingredients for health and wellness. In the meantime, breathe in a moment of gratitude to yourself for harnessing this moment in time to create a healthier, happier you.