Two often overlooked methods of controlling stress and anxiety are nutrition and exercise. You probably already know that eating well and exercising are good for your body. Well, research has shown that a healthy diet and regular exercise can also improve one’s mental health. With simple lifestyle changes, one can become healthier and reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety as well as decrease the frequency of employing destruction coping mechanisms, such as turning to drugs and alcohol. Here are some guidelines to eating well and exercising:
Research has shown that certain foods can contribute to the symptoms of stress and anxiety and can negatively impact one’s sleep. While some foods contribute to anxiety, there are other foods that can reduce the symptoms of anxiety. By eating fewer foods that exacerbate stress and more foods that reduce stress, you can help improve your mood and mental health. Below are a few basic guidelines to eating healthy:
- Eat a variety of foods, in a variety of colors. A good rule of thumb is to have more than half of your plate to be vegetables or fruits. These provide the vitamins and nutrients to help strengthen your immune system and can decrease inflammation.
- Seek out healthy fats, like those found in avocado, nuts or fish. Fats help create healthy cells, including neurotransmitters, which our brains use to communicate that we are calm, happy, content, etc.
- Start your day with protein and be sure to include protein in all your meals. It can help you feel fuller and give you the needed energy to start your day. Protein can be found in fish, meats, plants such as soybeans and quinoa, beans, and dairy.
- Eat complex carbohydrates. Fiber-rich complex carbohydrates such as those in whole grains and starchy vegetables slowly release serotonin, a mood-boosting chemical in the brain.
- Try to avoid sugar and foods that quickly convert to sugar in our bodies such as foods made with white flour like bread and noodles. These foods may initially seem filling and give us energy initially but they can increase inflammation in the body, which is often associated with illness and disease. Sugar can leave you with a quick spike of energy but can then lead to a drop in your blood sugar. Low blood sugar can cause fatigue, cravings, and irritability.
- Drink water. Being dehydrated causes headaches and drowsiness, which can affect your mood.
- Limit or avoid caffeine. Caffeine can increase feelings of nervousness and irritability, trigger panic attacks, cause trembling and shaking, and increase other symptoms of stress and anxiety. If you regularly consume caffeine, slowly decrease your intake. Quitting all caffeine abruptly may cause headaches and irritability.
Exercise promotes both physical and mental health. In fact, several studies have found that for some people exercise can work just as well as medications to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression and in some cases the effects last longer than medication. Exercise can aid in reducing stress and anxiety in a number of ways. To start, exercise releases serotonin and endorphins, which are chemicals in your body that makes you feel good. Exercise also increases energy, improves self-esteem, improve alertness and concentration, and helps with sleep. In addition, exercise is a great way to release built up muscle tension caused by frequent stress.
To reap these benefits, try exercising for at least 30 minutes three to five times a week. You don’t need to join a gym, pay for a class, or even buy workout clothes. Exercising can be just about anything that gets your body moving. Yoga, hiking, spin classes, ballet, walking, and martial arts are all effective forms of exercise. Go for a ten-minute jog before or after work. Walk up and down a set of stairs for five minutes and then walk briskly for five more minutes. Get creative! Exercise for our purpose here is just moving the body, being sure to include movement that raises your heart rate, as well as those that are more relaxing.
Improving one’s nutrition and exercising regularly are simple solutions that can have a great impact on one’s health, stress, and anxiety. Start by making small changes to your diet and exercising a few times a week and gradually work your way to a healthier lifestyle. By making healthier physical choices, your mental health will benefit too.
If you are unable to perform typical exercises, talk to your physician about exercises that are right for you. If your relationship with using drugs or alcohol stems from chronic pain, check out options such as gentle yoga.
Yoga can be practiced at any time and you do not have to feel stressed in order to do it. In fact, practicing a little bit each day can help you better handle stressful times. Yoga helps loosen tense muscles in the body and helps you improve your focus, balance, and ability to relax. Many people view yoga as an exercise for extremely flexible people who can bend their bodies like contortionists. However, there are simple poses that beginners can easily complete.
Before beginning Yoga
Here are three things to keep in mind as you go through the many poses and stretches of yoga:
- Practice deep breathing. This will help calm your mind and keep your focus on the exercise. You may want to take a minute to practice deep breathing before beginning your stretches. Continue deep breathing throughout the exercise. With each stretch, you should exhale and push yourself further into the stretch. When a pose or stretch becomes difficult, bring your thoughts back to your breath. Imagine your deep breaths traveling to areas of your body that are being challenged.
- Stay in the moment. Keep your focus on your body and your breathing. Try to let thoughts of the future and past go and remain in the present. By practicing staying in the moment, you will improve your focus and concentration. This will also allow you to get the most out of the exercise and fully relax.
- Think about uniting your mind and body. With each pose and stretch, visualize yourself as strong and sturdy, while still focusing on your breathing.
Simple Standing Poses
Below are some simple poses that you can practice at home. While these exercises are meant to strengthen and stretch your body, do not continue a pose if you experience sharp pain. You can do these poses in order, switch up the order or pick and choose which ones you like.
Stand up straight with your feet together. Spread your toes and stand firmly, distributing your weight evenly across both feet. Lift your kneecaps by tightening your thighs. You hips should be directly aligned with your ankles. Tuck your tailbone under, towards the floor, and keep a straight spine. Let your arms hang by your side, palms facing in. Pull your shoulders back, lifting your chest. Look straight ahead, and hold this pose for 2 minutes. Remember to take deep breaths.
When you are in mountain pose, be aware of every part of your body from head to toe. While this pose may feel like you are just standing, when done correctly it should use every muscle in the body. This pose helps strengthen your legs and abdomen while also improving focus, balance and alignment of the spine. This pose is the foundation for all standing poses.
From mountain pose, place your feet hip distance apart. Lift the kneecaps by tightening the thighs. Then, slowly lift your arms up over your head. Roll your shoulders back, lifting the chest. Straighten your elbows wrists, and fingers, stretching your hands up towards the ceiling. Your palms should be facing and your arms should be parallel. Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed. Look either straight forward or slightly up. Focus on the energy moving from your fingertips down to your feet. Hold for 1 minute. Slowly bring your arms down to your sides, exhaling. Repeat 2 more times.
Upward salute helps align the back and prepares the back for more complicated stretches. It also stretches the abdomen and arms and improves digestion.
Standing Forward Bend
While standing straight, move your feet about six inches apart. Keeping your legs straight, exhale and bend forward from your hips. Try to keep your back straight and feel your torso pushing forward as you move towards your feet. Place your palms on the floor in front or beside your feet. If you are unable to touch the floor without bending your knees, cross your forearms, holding your elbows, and hang. With each exhale, push your torso closer to the floor. You may also slightly bend your knees and straighten them again to deepen the stretch. Hold for 1 minute. Then, inhale as you slowly pull your torso up, back to a standing position. Repeat this 2 more times.
Standing forward bend strengthens the hamstrings, thighs, and knees. It also improves digestion, stimulates the liver and kidneys, and reduces fatigue and anxiety.
Place your palms on the floor in front of you and step back one leg at a time. Yours hands should be shoulder width apart and your hands and feet should be aligned. Straighten your arms and legs, pushing your bottom towards the ceiling. Press your thighs back and push your heels towards or into the floor. Both your hands and feet should be firm on the floor. With each exhale push your heels more into the floor, stretching your back and legs. Keep your head in line with your arms; don’t let it hang. Hold for 1 minute. Repeat this 2 more times.
This pose helps energize the body. It stretches the shoulders, hamstrings and feet while strengthening your arms and legs. This pose can relieve a headache, help with sleep, relieve back pain, and calm the mind.
Upward Facing Dog
From downward dog, slowly move your body forward, towards your hands, and lower your body the ground until you are lying on your stomach with your palms placed down and elbows bent. Then, leading with your head and chest, push your upper body off the ground and straighten your arms. Your hands should be placed firmly on the ground with your chest lifted high. Press your shoulders down and back. Your hips should be slightly lifted off the floor while you legs remain straight and on the floor. Look straight ahead or slightly up. Hold for 1 minute. Repeat 2 more times.
Upward facing dog strengthens the chest and abdomen while relaxing the shoulders and improving posture. It also increases lung capacity, which can help with asthma.
From upward facing dog, lift your bottom and lean back, siting your bottom on your heels. Straighten your arms and extend your arms, hands, and fingers forward. Rest your forehead on the floor. Press your palms into the floor and your bottom into your heels. Remember to continue your deep breathing. Hold for 1 to 5 minutes.
Child’s pose is a very calming pose that lowers blood pressure, releases muscle tension in the neck and back, and calms the mind. This is one of the most calming and stress reducing poses in yoga.
Simple Chair Yoga
If you find that the poses listed above are too much, try these stretches while seated in a chair. These chair exercises are also great for people dealing with depression and find it difficult to get moving.
Inhale while bending forward, shoulders drawn away from the ears, and chest pulling towards the thighs. If you feel comfortable, allow your arms to hang over your knees, letting their weight draw you closer to your thighs. Breathe here for five or six breaths, feeling yourself becoming more and more grounded with each exhale. Forward bends release tension that is held in the upper back and neck.
With your left arm behind the back of your chair, draw your right arm to the outside of your left thigh, grabbing hold of your thigh gently if you can. To deepen the pose, exhale and turn your head over the left shoulder, keeping your spine straight and your shoulders away from your ears. Hold for a few breaths. Exhale and release. Repeat on the other side. Spinal twists strengthen the spine and increase blood flow.
With your feet slightly apart, breathe in and raise both arms. Exhale and twist so your left arm reaches past the inside of your left knee and your right arm goes up into the air. Breathe in and feel the stretch in your side body. If you feel tension in your neck, pull your chin to throat. Exhale and release. Repeat on the other side.
Remember, it is not so much that you have a body, but you are a body.