Dr. Kaushik Sridhar

Becoming the CEO of your own body

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Stress is good and bad. A little stress can help people grow. A lot of stress can ruin people. Stress, which is ubiquitous, can be both good and bad. A little stress at the right time can serve as the forced but needed impetus that sparks growth and success – and in prehistoric times, fight-or flight survival. It’s largely impossible to avoid stressful circumstances. Stress can lead to numerous negative and potentially debilitating challenges to your physical and mental well-being. Heavy doses of continual stress can destroy or shorten lives.

Many of us live under relentless, ongoing stress. Often, this is not caused by a single identifiable element, but by the weight of collective life demands and seemingly endless challenges. Chronic stress can cause fear, increased blood pressure, heartbeat issues, headaches/migraines, sweating, prematurely aged skin, sexual issues, problems with digestion, hearing loss/ringing in ears, reduced kidney function, more frequent urination [and] sleeplessness. Other negative effects include a reduction in your drive to accomplish your goals, indulging in antisocial actions, and suffering unease, fright and a constant sense of uncertainty.

People who suffer from chronic stress have a strong susceptibility to colds and flu. Their appetite often increases. So does their weight, often by too much, and their blood pressure. Stressed-out people prove susceptible to weakness in the muscles and spinal issues. Heavily stressed individuals may experience panic or anxiety attacks or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Essentially, life is one demanding and challenging circumstance after another. Heavy stress undermines your capacity for learning. People who suffer from continual stress may find it difficult to focus and to pay attention. They may experience memory loss and insomnia. Many will crave sweets. Stress plays havoc with emotions and can damage DNA. This damage accelerates aging and lowers your resistance to disease. Chronic stress plagues children as well as adults.

Professional athletes face constant stress, but don’t let it rule their lives.

Professional athletes deal with unrelenting stress throughout their careers. They must cope with the pressures of competition, team politics, the hopes and dreams of fans, career disappointments, difficult travel conditions, too much time alone, the looming possibility of injuries and lucrative careers that can end at any moment. The need to perform brilliantly, game in and game out, brings enormous strain.

The only way elite athletes can stay at the top of their game is to develop stress resilience. Most exceptional, high-performance athletes deal well with stress. As you might expect, professional athletes are exceptionally healthy. Many seem to be immune to chronic stress.

What is their secret to staying stress-free? Many exceptional athletes adopt a holistic approach that involves making certain activities a central part of their normal routines. They practice visualization. They soothe themselves with music. They routinely get massages. They take daily nutritional supplements.

High-performance athletes practice yoga. They often enjoy ice baths and contrast showers that switch from hot to cold. Many high-performance athletes make an effort to support their teammates in practical and emotional ways.

Elite athletes’ lives demonstrate four steps you can take to deal with stress. What works for professional athletes can work for you. You can learn how to manage stress effectively by carefully patterning your life and your health-promoting activities after those of professional athletes. Follow, as do athletes, four discrete stress-management steps:

Step 1: Develop an informed mind-set and attitude about stress.

To develop stress resilience, re-evaluate how you perceive and understand stress. As you do, remember: Modern science considers acute stress to be a positive – indeed, a necessary – protective experience. Reframing stress as a positive experience and adopting positive attitudes and behaviours towards ourselves and others needs to be continuously emphasized and worked on throughout your stress-resilience journey.

Such an enlightened perspective on stress can prove a lifesaver. Research shows that if people experience stress while believing it an unremitting danger, their risk of a shortened life span increases by 43%. Considering stress to be a positive experience safeguards your physical well-being. This forward looking mind-set helps you improve your cognition. When you reorient your thinking about stress, your ability to deal maturely with difficult moments or crises will improve.

Step 2: Alter your behaviour to increase the level of oxytocin in your body.

Science supports this intuitive insight: You can cut way back on the stress in your life by simply being a nicer person. When you demonstrate active and loving concern for others or engage in charitable behaviour, you’ll feel less stress. These are the opposite of antisocial behaviours, and they yield positive effects. The more you act in this admirable and uplifting way, the better you’ll feel, and the less stress you’ll experience. These proactive steps increase the levels of the hormone oxytocin in your body. Increased oxytocin leads to decreased stress.

According to research, if you elevate the oxytocin in your system, you can minimize many of the injurious effects of chronic stress. This is because oxytocin positively affects the amygdala, the brain’s wheelhouse for fright and feelings. Oxytocin has a direct impact on behaviour and self perception, boosting confidence, courage, optimism and calmness. Additionally, oxytocin benefits the nervous system, brain and circulatory systems by lowering your levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reducing your pulse and blood pressure. Oxytocin reduces inflammation throughout your body.

Increase the level of oxytocin in your body through specific, easy behaviours. For example, simply hugging someone boosts oxytocin for both of you, as does shaking someone’s hand. Establishing and maintaining close relationships also elevates your oxytocin.

Step 3: The vagus nerve is like a switch that turns off stress. Activate it with yoga and other practices.

Stress triggers the stress response, which leads your body to generate more adrenalin and cortisol. This attacks all of the body’s systems. Instituting a program of stress resilience activates the vagus nerve, which helps balance your system. The vagus nerve, a major body-process regulator and a vital component of the parasympathetic nervous system, plays a central role concerning stress control. It soothes the body after a fight-or-flight (high-stress) event.

The vagus nerve is a switch that turns off stress. Immediately after a stress event, activating the vagus nerve can quickly restore a soothing sense of calm and balance. You can activate the vagus nerve through massage, aware breathing, psychotherapy, dunking your face in cold water, practicing yoga, learning to meditate and losing yourself in your favourite songs. All these activities are useful components of any overall program for stress reduction and resilience.

Step 4: The right stress-management program stimulates the hormones that reduce stress.

If you take the right actions, adopt lifestyle changes and make healthy choices, you can restore your mind and body to vibrant health. In the process, you become stress resilient. This program directly stimulates hormones that counteract stress. The correct stress-management program, if you maintain it continually, helps you sustain overall fitness – mental, psychological and physical. To manage stress, implement a “resilience model,” and become the CEO of your physical and mental health. A strong resilience program will reduce your overall stress level, but requires implementing lifestyle changes and developing healthy habits. The steps you need to take – according to extensive research – include connecting with other people, getting regular exercise, eating a  healthful diet, and more. These adjustments include taking vitamins and nutritional supplements – “nutraceuticals”– as well as spending enough time in the sun and outdoors. Incorporate as many of these elements and actions as possible into your life.

To combat stress, these lifestyle changes need to become a sustained, natural part of your daily routine. This may require you to step out of your current comfort zone, but these changes manifest as potent stress reducers. Making this work requires willpower and a positive mind-set. Bear in mind, though, you should never institute major life changes that make you uncomfortable.

Make changes that fit your lifestyle well. Select activities and other changes you know you can sustain daily, so their lasting effects will deflect the negative aspects of stress. Adopt a long-range view about these changes in your routine – start out slow, with just a couple of changes, new activities or additions. After you have successfully made these adjustments into a reliable habit, introduce more changes. And, day by day and week by week, add more.

Start by building prosocial behavior and activities, which greatly promotes oxytocin. Take on regular daily exercise, including aerobics. Swimming is a soothing activity. Weight training brings numerous stress-reducing benefits. Get outside each day, and get plenty of sleep.

A healthy diet helps reduce stress. Consume plenty of vegetables, fruits and proteins daily. Plan on numerous small meals during the day, not just a few big meals. Include omega-3 fatty acids – which you can best derive from marine sources – in your diet. Moderate your intake of alcohol and coffee. Instead, drink green tea, which is wonderfully healthy. Plan to fast occasionally, but stay away from heavy exercise when you do.

Apply all these programs to become the CEO of your own body and your own best ally against the ever-present forces of stress.

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