Stress levels are on the rise in America according to annual surveys conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA). Daily news reports on topics such as political divisiveness, sexual harassment, gun violence, immigration tension, climate change and international conflict create a shared anxiety.
On an individual level, today’s workers are asked to do more with less and lack job security. Many have long commutes and sit staring at computers for more than eight hours a day. Most professionals are on call 24/7, expected to respond to text and email even while on vacation. Many of us are obese, eat poorly, don’t exercise or sleep well.
Over 50 percent of American workers don’t take all their accrued vacation days or know how to relax when they do. We tend to live our lives inside climate-controlled buildings, connected to social media, but isolated from real connection. Being over-scheduled and stressed out has become a twisted badge of self-importance.
Human beings were created to thrive in an environment with a balance of eustress and stress. Eustress is positive stress that helps us to grow and develop — a challenging, but doable assignment, a creative risk, a new relationship. Without eustress, life would be boring and static.
Stress, on the other hand, is a destructive force. Stress is any situation perceived as a physical or physiological threat. Our ancient ancestors, who were confronted by an occasional saber-tooth tiger, were equipped to fight or flee. Their bodies released adrenaline that shifted blood flow from internal organs to muscles and enhanced their reflexes. We don’t face saber-tooth tigers these days, but in many ways our bodies respond as though we are constantly under assault. Prolonged stress and adrenaline overload causes a physiological response that floods our systems with cortisol. Excess cortisol is associated with serious health issues like high blood pressure and endocrine imbalance. Too much stress is as dangerous as that long-extinct tiger.
Our current environment is out of whack and getting worse. Generation Z, individuals aged 15-21, reported the highest levels of anxiety in the most recent APA annual survey. The world that our children and grandchildren are inheriting is crazy, and getting crazier. We aren’t designed to cope with this level of stress.
Miracle of Mindfulness
Meditation is one of the most effective ways of reducing stress by developing a state of mindfulness, but many women who are adrenaline addicted and habitual multi-taskers, find it difficult to cultivate a meditation practice. Mindfulness in its simplest form is merely nonjudgmental focus.
It may be simpler to choose one regular task and focus your attention on the process. When you wash dishes, wash dishes. Feel the water temperature on your skin; note the contour and texture of the plates; smell the fragrance of the detergent. If you find your focus drifting to other tasks or topics, notice your breath for several inhalations. Even stopping in the middle of your day and taking four slow breaths in succession can significantly lower your stress level.
Antidotes for Reality
Hopefully, as members of the older generation, we are committed to impacting the social issues that underlie our stress, but environmental and cultural change is slow. What can you do to manage your own mental health in this current reality and lower the stress for those you love? If the focus required for mindfulness escapes you, there are still proven activities and practices that can help you keep your sanity in a stressful reality. The list below of ways to reduce stress is long, can be overwhelming, and, well, stressful. Choose a few that intrigue you. Google if you need more detail or instructions.
· Set boundaries — choose to unplug after you’ve put in a full day at work. We’ve trained our bosses and clients to expect an immediate response. Give them a heads up that you will now be available from 9-5. They can be retrained. They might even follow your lead.
· Practice self care — eat fresh food, drink plenty of water, set an alert to remind you to get up from your computer every hour, walk at least 6,000 steps daily, disconnect from electronics at least an hour before bedtime, engage in a relaxing hobby rather than mindless TV watching, write in a journal, listen to guided imagery recordings, take a yoga class, use relaxation apps like CALM for quick breaks in your day, aim for a minimum of 7 hours of sleep each night. You can also go for a massage (or ask your partner to oblige), soaking in a hot bath, and listening to soothing music.
· Spend time outside — breathe fresh air, feel the sun on your face, listen to the birds, look for the stars, notice the life around you, seek solitude. Research has found that even 20 minutes spent in natural vegetation can lower stress. Tend a garden or even a small container plant.
· Connect with others — make eye contact, honor others with your full attention, practice small acts of kindness, smile more, touch when appropriate, look for the irony and humor in life situations and laugh out loud frequently, get a rescue dog or cat, ban phones from social gatherings, aim for regular family meals. Hug.
· Cultivate gratitude — there are many forces outside your control, but there are always blessings if you look for them. A sign near my coffee machine says, “Start each day with a grateful heart.” I do, and I end each day thinking of all the things that brought me joy. I’ve never failed to find something, even on my darkest days.
And the most important tip of all for maintaining good mental health in this crazy world:
Discard all the excuses you just made for why you can’t follow any of the suggestions above. Make lowering your stress level a primary goal. Your life may depend on it!
May is International Mental Health Month, and this piece is just one in our continuing coverage of mental health topics. If you, or someone you know, needs help, there are a variety of options for relief. If this is an emergency, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 24/7: 1-800-273-8255