Many of us do not learn enough tools when growing up to manage stress. Unless we take the initiative to learn alternative coping strategies, we respond to stress with the same patterns we have learned as children. Ten years ago as a pre-med college student, I was so stressed out that I wanted to drop out of college. I believed that I had to be perfect in order to be successful. I feared failure. I knew I needed to make a radical shift, so I started to see a mind-body therapist and adopt a meditation and yoga practice. These practices provided me with some starting tools to retrain my brain to handle stressors with resilience. Over time, I have made it a lifestyle and career to adopt tools for myself and others to achieve vitality and happiness. Now, I am a licensed Naturopathic Doctor specializing in natural approaches to treat the root causes of anxiety and depression. In the spirit of mental health awareness month this May, my hope is that you will incorporate the tools that resonate with you most and make small shifts in awareness to cultivate resilience in the face of stress.
1. Wake with the sun and sleep with the sun
Optimizing sleep is key to improving mood. The best time to sleep is before 11pm and rise before 7am. Our circadian rhythm or natural sleep-wake cycle follows the sun. When the sun rises, we experience a surge of cortisol, a key hormone involved in the stress response. Levels decrease throughout the day to prepare us for a sound sleep. When cortisol is not properly regulated, this can lead to increased stress and disturbed sleep, a vicious cycle that wears us down over time and can make us feel “wired and tired”.
2. Break a sweat: aerobic exercise
Vigorous exercise increases your heart rate and leads to a physiological experience that mimics the stress response: increased blood pressure, sweating, and shortness of breath. In so doing, aerobic exercise primes your body and trains your brain to regulate your stress response when you are not physically active. Research suggests moderate to intense exercise a minimum of two hours per week, which is only 30 minutes four times weekly, has significant anxiety-reducing effects that are comparable with taking psychiatric medication.
3. Eat a nutrient-rich diet to support your brain and improve mood
Eating organic whole foods closest to their source in nature with minimally processed ingredients will fuel your brain. Color your plate with the rainbow: Eat many different-colored vegetables (every color is a different vitamin!) and healthy sources of fat and protein. Nutrients from our food become the building blocks of key neurotransmitters and hormones to optimize mood. Magnesium, which can be found in raw cacao, avocados, nuts, and seeds, is key for boosting mood. L-tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin, an important neurotransmitter involved in mood, can be found in salmon, eggs, and spinach. Essential fatty acids, which can be found in organic sardines, mackerel, flax seeds, and pumpkin seeds are fuel for your brain and actually are the backbone of your neurons. There are many more mood-boosting foods: stay tuned for a future article delving into more detail.
4. Develop self-regulatory strategies to make stressful events less taxing on your nervous system
An experience of acute stress usually involves some physiological changes in your body such as increased heart rate, sweating, shallow breathing, and muscle tightness in the shoulder and back. Draw awareness to those patterns through mindfulness and deep breathing exercises, especially in your most stressful moments. Consult a practitioner trained in neurofeedback, a therapy that helps you to bring awareness to those thought patterns in your brain and develop tools to self-regulate your stress response. Seek a trained professional in homeopathic medicine, a gentle therapy without side effects, to bring your brain back into balance and improve your ability to heal and adapt to stressors.
5. Consult a medical practitioner to assess for underlying contributing factors to stress and anxiety
The mind and body are intimately connected. Sometimes our biggest hurdle to happiness and vitality is a biological issue. We may have the best discipline and consistency in our mindfulness practices, but find that we are still less resilient than our peers in the face of stress. It is important to assess underlying biological factors, such as a hormonal imbalance, a genetic predisposition, or a nutrient deficiency, and treat the root cause using natural approaches, as this can make it difficult for you to adapt tools to manage stress.
6. Trust yourself
Trust the process. Anxiety is caused by anticipation of the future. As someone who struggles with letting go of control, my mindfulness practices strengthen my capacity to focus on the present moment. When you are focused and present, you can shift your attention more readily to solve problems as they arise rather than worry about the future!
About Dr. Genevieve Price
Dr. Price is a San Diego naturopathic doctor, meaning she completed a four-year doctoral program and one-year naturopathic general medicine residency at Bastyr University. Her bachelor’s degree is in Neuroscience from Barnard College. These studies have shaped her perspective that psychological health is key to maintaining physical health. She consults with patients at her clinic in sunny San Diego as well as remotely from around the world through telehealth. She specializes in natural approaches to depression and anxiety and treats hormone imbalances, such as thyroid and adrenal dysfunction, menopause, and menstrual irregularities. She treats the root cause of disease using the least invasive therapies first in order to minimize harmful side effects. Her ultimate goal is for her patients to have the health and vitality to fulfill their highest purposes in life.
Disclaimer: Making lifestyle changes set the terrain for optimal health. However, this article is not a replacement for an individualized medical consultation that tailors treatment to your individual needs given your unique medical history.