March 29, 2014

Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's stress.

This morning, I attended a seminar at my gym about stress. As the presenter started listing off the health conditions caused or exacerbated by stress, I felt like she was describing my personal list of woes: Weight gain, belly fat, carb cravings, feeling tired, irritability, mood swings.

I haven't felt like myself for the last few months. The best version of me is positive, health-conscious, and happy. I still remember what it's like to feel that way, and I can bring bursts of it, but lately I have felt duller, tired, like a fog is hanging over me. Sometimes, I chalk it up to the cold weather and lack of sunshine. Sometimes, I blame external situations like work and busy schedules. "I'll feel better when ___ is over," I tell myself.

After this morning, I think I'll call it "stress."

Our bodies evolved in a world where stress meant the threat of physical danger. If a bear wants to eat you, the logical response for your body is to release a bunch of hormones that raise your heart rate, clear your brain of extraneous thoughts, and give you either the courage to swing your club at that bear or the energy to run as fast as possible.

What if, instead of being threatened by a bear, your stress comes from urgent emails or a busy schedule or slow traffic? It means that you're sitting at your desk, at home, or in a car, with all those fight-or-flight hormones coursing through your body.

The good news is, stress is totally and completely manageable. 

Here's how I plan to reduce my stress.

Sleep is sacred. I need a minimum of 7-8 hours a night. My alarm clock goes off at 4:30 so that I can wake up, eat breakfast, and be out of the house in time to catch my bus to downtown. This means I need to make 9:30 my absolute latest weeknight bedtime. This means I'm asleep at 9:30, not "It's 9:30 so I should think about going upstairs, getting into my pajamas, washing my face, brushing my teeth, and examining my skin in the mirror for 15 minutes."

Eat the right things. It's not complicated. If it grew in the ground or used to be alive, it's probably good for me. If it came from a box or a bakery, it's probably not. I know that my body doesn't do well with an abundance of carbs, that just a little taste of candy can send me into a sugar spiral, and that I need to push myself to eat enough vegetables.

Make space for calm. Each day, I will set aside 10-20 minutes to do something that reduces stress, like taking a walk or meditating. I have a meditation app on my phone and a pair of sneakers at the office. I am equipped for success.

Stay self-aware. I signed up for some lab tests to check into my cortisol levels throughout the day. I'm excited to see the data, but I also know that I can recognize my own stress if I just stop to pay attention to my body. 

Keep things in perspective. A lot of my stress is self-imposed. My job is busy and often challenging, but I'm not rescuing people from life-threatening situations or negotiating multi-million dollar deals. Most days, I'm sitting in an office, talking on the phone and sending email. Sometimes, I make PowerPoint presentations, type things into spreadsheets, or sit down in other offices and talk to people. None of these activities benefit from a fight-or-flight, "Bear's about to eat me!" stress response.

I came home from the class feeling energized. It was 42 degrees out, perfectly warm enough to go for a run in shorts. Spring is coming. It's supposed to break 60 tomorrow. The ice is melting on the pond and soon it will be warm enough to sit on the back porch and listen to frogs and watch fireflies.

I can feel my stress reducing already.

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