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When and How to Make Stress Good for Your Body and Mind

When and How to Make Stress Good for Your Body and Mind

Today, more than ever, we are experiencing record levels of stress at work, home and in our everyday lives.

We are bombarded with messages from the media telling us that, as a society, we are more stressed than ever before. Sitting in commuter traffic is making your blood levels rise. Thinking about your credit card debt makes you break out in a sweat. The state of the economy has you concerned, and you’re anxious about losing your job/ partner, health or any other important thing in your life.

What’s more, we have become conditioned to think that stress is a bad thing, that’s it’s harmful to us and toxic for our health. And it is true. While the ‘fight or flight’ mode is a physiological response that can save our lives, being in a state of constant stress, where your adrenal levels are raised can lead to high blood pressure, weight gain and eventually wear and tear on your organs.

When you’re chronically stressed you’re more likely to experience irritability, anxiety, depression, headaches and insomnia. But what if I told you that not all stress is created equal, and certain forms of stress can actually be very beneficial for you?

The Three Levels of Stress

According to Professor Bruce McEwen’s article in Aeon, there are three levels of stress:

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  • Good stress’ involves taking a chance on something one wants, like interviewing for a job or school, or giving a talk before strangers, and feeling rewarded when successful.
  • ‘Tolerable stress’ means that something bad happens, like losing a job or a loved one, but we have the personal resources and support systems to weather the storm.
  • ‘Toxic stress’ is something so bad that we don’t have the personal resources or support systems to navigate it, something that could plunge us into mental or physical ill health and throw us for a loop.

So how do you handle your own levels of stress and use them as a force for good, or better yet avoid the ‘toxic’ stress and welcome in more ‘good stress’? Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” response I mentioned above, a vital part of our nervous system, the way in which the body reacts to stress or danger. Many, however, have never heard of the “rest and digest” response, where the nervous system activates the more tranquil functions of the body; those that help us maintain a healthy, long-term balance.

Using Stress for Positive Good

While a little bit of stress can help motivate you to achieve things like hitting a deadline for an important project, and bungy jumping off a bridge can raise your adrenal levels through the roof and make you feel on a high afterwards, the less time we spend in this mode, the better. Although it makes us alert and better able to respond to the challenges ahead, it takes a huge toll on our bodies after a while and can lead to adrenal fatigue or burnout.

I came close to having a mild form of burnout in 2013 when I was self publishing my book, The Suitcase Entrepreneur. At first it was exciting to work on the launch of my first ever book that I’d worked so hard to write. I used a positive stress to achieve so much and be ridiculously productive. I felt on a high and in flow. As time wore on, I was juggling so many facets of publishing the book that I simply couldn’t switch off. I was working really long days and forgoing exercise and time out just to make this thing a bestseller. As a result, mid way through my book tour, I realized I was only getting a few hours sleep a night, I wasn’t handling the project as well as I could have, and I certainly wasn’t enjoying or laughing as much as I should have been.

Once I recognized this and started to take more time off, get plenty of fresh air and exercise and set boundaries, I felt better. But my body took months to recover, and for some people it can take years. So anything we can do to keep ourselves in the “rest and digest” mode as much as possible is worth the effort, since our long-term health may depend on it!

Three Practical Ways to Reduce Stress Today

The best way to stay on top of your game and feel less stressed is to learn what truly makes you feel relaxed. For you this may mean spending time on a hobby you love like building train sets or gardening. Or it might be hanging out with your favourite friends, going on a bike ride or getting out into nature.

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I personally love starting the day with by writing down three things I’m grateful for and easing into 15-30 minutes of yoga which makes me feel like a million dollars. Throughout the day I make sure to take lots of breaks – cuddling and playing with my puppy, going on a spontaneous walk in nature, doing a gym workout or relaxing with a book.

Whatever method you choose has to be one you enjoy. To help you out, here are three ways to ensure you reduce stress in your life on a daily basis.

1. Free Your Mind

There’s no better time than now to start meditating, if you’re not already. Even five minutes a day can make a world of difference. There are all sorts of meditation including walking, guided, visualization and chanting meditations to suit your needs.

I like the Insights Timer app for offering you up guided meditations from one minute to several hours, or the choice to just set a timer that plays a gong when you’re done with breathing and focusing on the present moment.

Or simply mind your mindfulness – practice the art of being aware of the present moment.[1] It sounds so simple yet is much harder (initially) do to than you may think. But it can melt away stress by getting you to focus on the present moment, and just soak in how lucky you are to be alive, and all the beauty that surrounds you that you may be oblivious to.

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Trust me it’s there. Put down your pen, switch off your mobile and look up from your computer screen and just observe. And breathe.

I personally love Dr Libby’s advice on doing 20 deep abdominal breaths each day for instant relaxation (around 3pm is a great time to re-energize through this insanely simple technique). Want to learn more? Read 8 Mindsets Which Prevent Success And Happiness

2. Move Your Body

Rather than getting all pent up and stressed out, release that toxic energy with exercise. Even a brisk walk can help, especially after a frustrating phone call or meeting. Walking not only deepens breathing but also helps relieve muscle tension.

It might be that techniques like yoga or tai chi help you more. These combine fluid movements with deep breathing and mental focus, all of which can induce calm.

Or you can head off to crossfit, jump on your bike, dance around your kitchen like crazy or run after your kids and play with them. All of this will pump oxygen through your veins, and produce oxytocin – commonly known as the love drug, whilst reducing your stress levels.

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3. Get Social

I am not talking about jumping on social media here. I mean calling or meeting up with your friends, family, spouses, co-workers and mentors.

Anyone who brings you joy, motivates you, nurtures and supports you is going to help increase your longevity. Close relationships with family and friends gives you the emotional support to sustain you, especially at times of chronic stress.

Take a Deep Breath

At the end of the day, when it all feels like too much, take a few DEEP breaths and no matter how hard it is, state one thing you’re grateful for right now.

You’ll be surprised how diverting attention away from the negative, to the positive can instantly shift your stress levels and put life in perspective.

Buy Natalie’s best-selling book The Suitcase Entrepreneur on Amazon

Reference

[1]Natalie Sisson: Mind Your Mindfulness

More by this author

Natalie Sisson

Best Selling Author of The Suitcase Entrepreneur, CEO, Speaker, Global Adventurer

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Last Updated on September 20, 2018

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

You go to the gym to train your muscles. You run outside or go for hikes to train your endurance. Or, maybe you do neither of those, but still wish you exercised more.

Well, here is how to train one of the most important parts of your body: your brain.

When you train your brain, you will:

  • Avoid embarrassing situations. You remember his face, but what was his name?
  • Be a faster learner in all sorts of different skills. No problem for you to pick up a new language or new management skill.
  • Avoid diseases that hit as you get older. Alzheimer’s will not be affecting you.

So how to train your brain and improve your cognitive skills?

1. Work your memory

Twyla Tharp, a NYC-based renowned choreographer has come up with the following memory workout:

When she watches one of her performances, she tries to remember the first twelve to fourteen corrections she wants to discuss with her cast without writing them down.

If you think this is anything less than a feat, then think again. In her book The Creative Habit she says that most people cannot remember more than three.

The practice of both remembering events or things and then discussing them with others has actually been supported by brain fitness studies.

Memory activities that engage all levels of brain operation—receiving, remembering and thinking—help to improve the function of the brain.

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Now, you may not have dancers to correct, but you may be required to give feedback on a presentation, or your friends may ask you what interesting things you saw at the museum. These are great opportunities to practically train your brain by flexing your memory muscles.

What is the simplest way to help yourself remember what you see? Repetition.

For example, say you just met someone new:

“Hi, my name is George”

Don’t just respond with, “Nice to meet you”. Instead, say, “Nice to meet you George.”

Got it? Good.

2. Do something different repeatedly

By actually doing something new over and over again, your brain wires new pathways that help you do this new thing better and faster.

Think back to when you were three years old. You surely were strong enough to hold a knife and a fork just fine. Yet, when you were eating all by yourself, you were creating a mess.

It was not a matter of strength, you see. It was a matter of cultivating more and better neural pathways that would help you eat by yourself just like an adult does.

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And guess what? With enough repetition you made that happen!

But how does this apply to your life right now?

Say you are a procrastinator. The more you don’t procrastinate, the more you teach your brain not to wait for the last minute to make things happen.

Now, you might be thinking “Duh, if only not procrastinating could be that easy!”

Well, it can be. By doing something really small, that you wouldn’t normally do, but is in the direction of getting that task done, you will start creating those new precious neural pathways.

So if you have been postponing organizing your desk, just take one paper and put in its right place. Or, you can go even smaller. Look at one piece of paper and decide where to put it: Trash? Right cabinet? Another room? Give it to someone?

You don’t actually need to clean up that paper; you only need to decide what you need to do with it.

That’s how small you can start. And yet, those neural pathways are still being built. Gradually, you will transform yourself from a procrastinator to an in-the-moment action taker.

3. Learn something new

It might sound obvious, but the more you use your brain, the better its going to perform for you.

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For example, learning a new instrument improves your skill of translating something you see (sheet music) to something you actually do (playing the instrument).

Learning a new language exposes your brain to a different way of thinking, a different way of expressing yourself.

You can even literally take it a step further, and learn how to dance. Studies indicate that learning to dance helps seniors avoid Alzheimer’s. Not bad, huh?

4. Follow a brain training program

The Internet world can help you improve your brain function while lazily sitting on your couch. A clinically proven program like BrainHQ can help you improve your memory, or think faster, by just following their brain training exercises.

5. Work your body

You knew this one was coming didn’t you? Yes indeed, exercise does not just work your body; it also improves the fitness of your brain.

Even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. But it’s not just that–exercise actually helps your brain create those new neural connections faster. You will learn faster, your alertness level will increase, and you get all that by moving your body.

Now, if you are not already a regular exerciser, and already feel guilty that you are not helping your brain by exercising more, try a brain training exercise program like Exercise Bliss.

Remember, just like we discussed in #2, by training your brain to do something new repeatedly, you are actually changing yourself permanently.

6. Spend time with your loved ones

If you want optimal cognitive abilities, then you’ve got to have meaningful relationships in your life.  Talking with others and engaging with your loved ones helps you think more clearly, and it can also lift your mood.

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If you are an extrovert, this holds even more weight for you. At a class at Stanford University, I learned that extroverts actually use talking to other people as a way to understand and process their own thoughts.

I remember that the teacher told us that after a personality test said she was an extrovert, she was surprised. She had always thought of herself as an introvert. But then, she realized how much talking to others helped her frame her own thoughts, so she accepted her new-found status as an extrovert.

7. Avoid crossword puzzles

Many of us, when we think of brain fitness, think of crossword puzzles. And it’s true–crossword puzzles do improve our fluency, yet studies show they are not enough by themselves.

Are they fun? Yes. Do they sharpen your brain? Not really.

Of course, if you are doing this for fun, then by all means go ahead. If you are doing it for brain fitness, then you might want to choose another activity

8. Eat right – and make sure dark chocolate is included

Foods like fish, fruits, and vegetables help your brain perform optimally. Yet, you might not know that dark chocolate gives your brain a good boost as well.

When you eat chocolate, your brain produces dopamine. And dopamine helps you learn faster and remember better. Not to mention, chocolate contains flavonols, antioxidants, which also improve your brain functions.

So next time you have something difficult to do, make sure you grab a bite or two of dark chocolate!

The bottom line

Now that you know how to train your brain, it’s actually time to start doing.

Don’t just consume this content and then go on with your life as if nothing has changed. Put this knowledge into action and become smarter than ever!

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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