“Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those who are in touch with it." - Jane Wagner
While the Eskimos have at least one hundred words for snow, we only have a few words for stress, which for us is equally ubiquitous. We may or may not realize it but most of us are consistently balancing large levels of stress. From performance expectations encountered at work to the various physical challenges our jobs might entail, earning a living is a largely stressful part of our lives, even when we absolutely love what we do.
Then we go home. Often, instead of being a rejuvenating sanctuary our home life resembles an exhaustive “to-do” list. We mow the lawn, pay the bills, shop for food and walk the dog…for starters.
Unfortunately, some of the activities we use to relieve and release ourselves of the daily pressures—exercise, a night out, vacations—can actually maximize the strain to our bodies rather than minimizing it. Lots of exercise programs can be harsh and aggressive. When we lived more in harmony with nature, our bodies got all the exercise they needed. Thanks to cars, computers, television, video games and the refrigerator, we're not getting 'natural' exercise as much as we used to. So we simulate it. We isolate muscle groups and place large amounts of stress on our bodies in an effort to keep "fit" and work out the pressure from our jobs, our relationships and our debts.
We work hard at managing all this ‘noise’ so of course we like to reward ourselves. A night out with friends or family can include heavy foods loaded with too much salt, too much sugar, too much fat and too much alcohol. We probably spend more money than we planned and a woman might look great wearing uncomfortably high heels, but most often they make her wish she’d never left home.
Finally we take a vacation. After rushed packing, busy airports, crowded jets, negotiated accommodations we vow to relax. By the last day (with any luck) we are breathing normally and feel like we have gotten away. We then return home facing the same challenges as on the outbound. While the saying goes: “A change is as good as a rest,” there are those who would argue otherwise.
As our bodies try to manage these pervasive, demands, cortisol is released. It's the 'fight or flight' hormone. As cortisol levels increase and become elevated we become irritable, prone to frequent illness and often suffer insomnia. As if that wasn’t enough, our ability to focus becomes an issue, and we develop a tendency to overeat.
If you're a woman who is also working to become pregnant, this excessive stress is compromising on the Hypothalamic Pituitary Ovary Axis (HPO), which regulates the hormones needed for fertility. It's almost as if the body is allergic to stress. It starts doing strange things like pulling blood from the ovaries and balanced hormonal functions become difficult for the body to respond to normally.
Balancing stress includes a combination of actions. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), yang foods such as meat, eggs, fish, poultry, nuts, and seeds are recommended to eat in the morning and at lunch as they are a good source of protein and energy, which help combat the effects of stress by keeping us focused and strong, and not craving sugar. Processed carbohydrates may seem like a good idea before a workout, but they actually deplete the body of energy by spiking and dropping our blood sugar levels.
Green foods are also important to consume regularly. According to Chinese medicine, the way that green foods grow—straight up—means they stimulate life energy, or Qi. Green plants are loaded with B vitamins, magnesium and calcium, which we need for energy and to help the body process stress.
Hydration is also closely linked to stress. The less water we have in us, the harder the body has to work. Think of your body as a car—when there's not enough gas in the tank, oil in the engine or air in the tires, there is increased stress on the whole vehicle. Water is like this in our bodies. The more we have in us, the more fluidly things work.
A healthy dose of natural sunlight every day is another important ingredient to preventing and decreasing stress. Sunlight makes vitamin D; too little of it can cause fatigue and muscle weakness. Taking supplemental vitamin D may also be recommended.
Try trading in your isolated muscle workouts for a more holistic full body exercise. A long brisk walk works every muscle in the body. It's also a great way to calm the mind, and it can be done virtually anywhere. Tai Chi and yoga are also low-impact ways to exercise while decreasing stress. They focus on the breath too, which can calm and relax the entire body.
Implementing activity that cultivates relaxation every day is nurturing to your body and, according to TCM, is "preparing the soil for the seed." Did you know that your baby's most important time is 3-4 months before conception? Which egg will be released is determined that far in advance, so readying the body by decreasing stress and cortisol levels helps to ensure conception. Meditation and nurturing practices such as spending quiet time in nature, reading, getting acupuncture, massage or simply working in the garden can reduce cortisol and increase your chances of a healthy pregnancy.
“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are." -Chinese proverb