Think about the last time you asked someone, from a passerby in the street to one of your closest friends how they are doing. I don’t know about you, but I cannot tell you how many times people respond with “Good, just really busy” or “I’m just feeling really stressed lately.” Why is this such a commonality? According to WebMD, 75-90% of doctor’s visits are related to stress, and when left unchecked, it can lead to weight gain, anxiety, and various other health issues. Stress is such a hot-button issue, people are always trying to find new ways to reduce it. If you incorporate these five small changes in your life today, you can start to see your stress levels decreasing naturally. These changes can not only positively affect your waistline but other facets of your health as well.

Learn the difference between “good stress” and “bad stress”

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Just like there are good and bad fats, the same goes for stress. Contrary to popular belief, stress is not necessarily a bad thing; it is designed to protect us if we are in a dangerous situation. For example, stress causes us to go into the fight or flight mode when faced with a hungry lion (back in the day, of course!). Stress drives action; if we didn’t have anything to stress about, we might not hold ourselves accountable to meet deadlines, achieve personal goals or even motivate ourselves to get out of bed every morning.

Too much bad stress, however, does a number on our health. It can make our blood pressure and heart rate soar; cause anxiety and moodiness and make us feel helpless. We are constantly in that fight or flight mode and that is very taxing on our bodies, minds and souls. Instead of trying to eliminate stress altogether, understand that you must embrace the good stress as motivation, while managing, not eliminate, the bad stress so it doesn’t negatively affect your health and well-being.

Tackle the “stress” hormone

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Cortisol is nicknamed the “stress” hormone because its job is to pump adrenaline through our bodies to cause it to release glucose when we experience any type of stress. Over time, we develop excessive amounts of cortisol and unfortunately, its favorite place to hang out is in our abdominal areas. The majority of my clients struggle with belly fat and only start to see the results they want when they learn to manage their stress levels in a healthy way. To help reduce your stress levels, try meditating at least once a day, starting out for three minutes.

When I first learned about meditation, for some reason images of Buddha popped into my mind and it seemed real “out there.” But when I learned about all the health benefits, such as lowered blood pressure and reduced anxiety, I started with a simple guided meditation that was less than four minutes long and couldn’t believe the results. There are no rules to meditation, just find a quiet place to sit, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Think of a peaceful place, like a beach or by a crackling campfire. Use this time to clear your mind, you’d be surprised at how refreshed you’ll feel afterward! If you need help getting started, try this guided meditation I found on YouTube.

Focus on what you can control, then take it out on the mat

Woman doing meditation near the ocean beach. Yoga silhouette.

Life brings you all sorts of curveballs you can’t control: rude and hurtful people, bad weather on a vacation, bumper-to-bumper traffic. While you can’t control any of these things happening to you, you can control your reaction, your attitude and how it shapes your mood and the rest of your day. That time you feel you’ve wasted in traffic? Think of it as “you” time. Listen to a podcast or audio book and channel gratitude for the extra time you get in your day to work on yourself. Instead of lashing out or becoming defensive after a loved one says something negative, you could brush it off, or even interpret it as something constructive. You could be fuming inside, but that’s only because that’s the meaning you assign to it as your reaction.

Try repeating to yourself: “[inset name here]’s choice of words is powerless against me; I choose happiness over anger.” Then, when you’re able to get on your mat, blast that intense energy into your practice to help deepen your stretches or hold a pose for a fraction longer. Yoga can truly play a key role to help improve how you respond to stress.

Harvard Medical School put together a great article summarizing tons of studies done showing the benefits of practicing Yoga and its ability to help lower stress levels. What I’ve noticed is that when I’m consistent with my Yoga practice, I perceive and react to stress differently. Things that normally would get my heart rate up or cause anxiety just don’t have the same impact. Pretty cool.

Find a balance

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Warrior III is not the only place where balance is important; it’s also critical when it comes to ensuring you’re properly choosing the right types of exercise for you. Intense physical activity activates your sympathetic nervous system (ie: fight or flight system) to get you through the workout. This is great for conditioning, but what some of us need is more activity that engages the parasympathetic nervous system and allows the body to relax and slow down.

The beauty of yoga is there are so many kinds to accommodate your lifestyle. Get your adrenaline going with power yoga, which has a sequence designed to make you sweat. Or seek solace through Yin or a Vinyasa cool flow. There is no one-size-fits-all, experiment to find the perfect kind or kinds of yoga for you!

Take care of yourself first

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When I began adding yoga classes to my workout schedule, I actually felt really guilty the first few times. Because classes are often 60-90 minutes in length, these seemed very indulgent compared to my typical 20-30 minute HIIT workouts. We all have our own vices. However, once I got past that, I started noticing the need to take that time for myself and how it helped me to perform better at work, be a better wife and mom and to also acknowledge what a great self-care practice it was for myself. In other words, treat yourself! Find what brings you joy and live for that moment.

This article was originally written by Kimberly Olson, PhD, and first appeared on yogalifestyles.com.
Photos: Yogalifestyles.com.

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