Each year, millions of people struggle with their mental health. Stress, anxiety, depression, ADHD, eating and sleep disorders, and many other conditions can plague us. Stress may be the most pervasive of these symptoms—and when left unchecked, also the most harmful.
That's why I decided to cofound and cohost The Mental Wellness Summit with dedicated partners like writer and producer Jonas Koffler, and my cohost Ross McKenzie, the film producer behind the award-winning documentary Bipolarized. Our summit is the first and largest online event of its kind, featuring 33 of the leading minds in the fields of mental health and wellbeing. It’s designed to help us rethink and reshape our approach to addressing mental wellness from a root cause perspective. And, here’s the grand irony of it all—in developing the event and running a busy clinic, I’ve never had more stress to deal with! I honestly need a mental wellness summit right now.
Every time you feel some stress doesn't call for a mental health summit, though. In the meantime, try each of these five simple strategies to help relax your mind and get you back to a calm and happy state.
1. Be mindful
Meditation reduces anxiety and lowers cortisol levels, full stop. Simply taking a few deep breaths engages the vagus nerve, which triggers a signal within your nervous system to slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and decrease cortisol. The next time you feel yourself in a stressful situation, and your body starts to activate that "fight-or-flight" response, stop and take 10 full breaths. You'll feel your entire body start to relax and decompress. Repeat the process often—once an hour is ideal.
Setting aside 10 to 15 minutes each day to practice mindfulness or meditation will create a sense of calm that permeates throughout your entire nervous system. There are many different types of meditation, and truthfully the one that is best for you is the one you can commit to doing daily. Do more research, visit a meditation center, form a group if you can, and settle on a daily meditation practice that fits your personality and schedule. It gets easier and more enjoyable with repeated practice.
2. Food is your friend (not your crutch)
Nearly 40 percent of Americans report overeating or eating unhealthy foods as a result of stress. While it may seem tempting to drown your anxiety in a bowl of ice cream or calm your nerves with a bag of cookies, eating junk foods while stressed may be particularly dangerous to your health.
One study showed that for chronically stressed women, eating foods high in trans fats and sugar lead to concerning health effects, including a larger waistline, increased abdominal fat, more oxidative damage, and more insulin resistance. In addition, junk foods will only give you a moment of reprieve. After the initial pleasure wears off, you may find yourself battling mood swings, irritability, and other unpleasant emotions on top of the stress—courtesy of the sugar, trans fats, artificial colors, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and whatever other synthetic ingredients you may have consumed. On the other hand, by choosing healthy, non-processed and real foods, and adding probiotics like kimchi and kombucha, you can actually impact your mood on a positive note, helping to relieve tension, stabilize blood sugar, and say goodbye to stress.
3. Laugh often
Is laughter truly the best medicine? Harvard University seems to think it is certainly one of them. From brain scans and other tests, neuroscientists are compiling evidence that laughter triggers chemical responses in the brain that lead to feelings of pleasure and a sense of well-being. Having fun and laughing reduces cortisol levels. Laughter also appears to go beyond the belly and the brain—arteries respond to it in healthy ways that could improve blood flow and long-term health. Try to find ways in your daily life to laugh and joke as much as possible and you’ll lower your cortisol levels—and that alone will have a tremendous impact on your health. Study and practice improvisation techniques from comedy groups like Four Day Weekend or enlist in a local class. If you’re not laughing for a few minutes every day, you’re missing out on one of the great joys of life.
4. Identify and correct nutrient imbalances
As a practitioner who is board certified in Functional Medicine, I spend a lot of time looking "under the hood" of my patients' biochemistry. One of the most important ways to help someone enter into a healing environment is to identify their nutrient deficiencies. Surprisingly, I have yet to find a patient who didn't have a nutrient deficiency in their first blood test. Using stress management as an example, those who are low in B vitamins, amino acids, and certain minerals (i.e., magnesium and zinc) have a higher chance of feeling anxious, and have a tougher time coping with daily stressors of life. Optimal nutrition is the cornerstone of optimal health—without it you are building a house on quicksand.
5. Develop a strong sense of community
Close-knit human bonds—whether with family, friends, or a romantic partner—are vital for your physical and mental health at any age. Recent studies have shown that the vagus nerve also responds to human connectivity and physical touch to relax your parasympathetic nervous system. Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and his team set out to simulate social isolation associated with the difficult years of adolescence in human teens. They found that isolating mice known to have a genetic predisposition for mental illness during their adolescence triggered ‘abnormal behaviors’ that continued even when returned to the group. They also observed the effects of adolescent isolation lasted into the equivalent of mouse adulthood. The “tend-and-befriend” response is the exact opposite to “fight-or-flight”, as this beneficial response increases healthy molecules like oxytocin and actually reduces cortisol. Make an effort to spend real face-to-face time with loved ones whenever you can.
Photo credit: Ondrej Supitar via Unsplash