As I write this, I am sipping on my self-prescribed daily tonic tea -- a gentle blend of ashwagandha, shatavari, tulsi, oatstraw, nettle leaf + rose petals. I chose these herbs to nourish my nervous + reproductive systems, manage my stress levels, as well as to give my body a boost of vitamins and minerals.
Wouldn't it be miraculous if that was all I needed to do to manage my stress and live optimally? As much as I am an advocate of herbal medicine, I am acutely aware that it is not a cure-all remedy. Herbs are our allies -- they support us in our efforts, but they are not going to do the heavy lifting for us.
I was glad to see a recent article on healythish, titled Ashwagandha Couldn't Cure My Burnout Lifestyle -- Here's What Did. In it the author Adriana Velez walks you through her journey of discovering that herbs were never going to cure her of her stress-inducing lifestyle choices.
I feel that I have been on a similar journey, and decided to share the things that have most helped me in my ongoing efforts to manage stress. Friction and challenge is a dynamic, healthy part of life when maintained at the right levels. The key really is about management, not avoidance.
I aimed to distill each recommendation down to its simplest form. What works for me personally may not be the right solution for you, so I intentionally kept the recommendations broad in scope. Consider what other guidance you would add to this list, and ignore what does not serve you!
1. EAT REAL FOOD -- Real food has ingredients you can recognize, and is as close to its natural state as possible (aka whole foods). While there are a myriad of diets to choose from, the basic principles of what constitutes real food is universal. The best book I've seen on this topic is Michael Pollan's Food Rules: An Eater's Manual. Opting for healthy, whole foods will reduce your body's stress response by strengthening the immune system, stabilizing moods, and reducing blood pressure.
2. MEDITATE -- Meditation calms your nerves + mind. It centers you. It grounds you. And it tends to bring clarity and focus to your intentions. You don't need to sit cross-legged and chant mantras in order to meditate. While that may be the most effective method, there are many other approaches. Personally, I like to take silent slow walks in the woods, practice yoga or play music. The goal is to combine concentration with awareness.
A dao teacher once taught me this analogy.... imagine you are a cup of muddy water. Throughout the day, you get stirred up and and become unclear. When you meditate, the mud particles slowly settle to the bottom of the cup, and you are clear! But what happens when you get stirred up again? Muddy water. And so you must meditate again. Our ultimate goal is to remove the mud from the cup. Meditation won't do that, but it will surely help you recognize the muddy parts of your life.
Further, they taught me that longer is not necessarily better when it comes to meditation. If it only takes you 10 minutes to get truly settled, then why meditate for an hour? It should not be a competition with yourself or others, in terms of who can meditate longer or "better" -- there is no such thing!
3. EXERCISE -- This one seems obvious, but the type of exercise makes a difference if you are aiming to reduce stress. Focus on exercises that raise your heart rate, build muscle, and most importantly that you actually enjoy! Personally, I aim to exercise 5-6 days a week for a minimum of 60 minutes in one of the following ways: gardening, dancing, yoga, running or hiking. A regimented schedule is a sure way to set myself up for failure -- this structure allows me to be spontaneous, listening to what my body needs on a day-to-day and seasonal basis.
4. CREATE + PLAY -- Similar to exercise and meditation, playful creativity gets us into a flow via focused concentration. Our stress and anxiety falls away when we are in a playful mode. Sadly we have become so fixated on productivity and success in our culture, that the concept of play has become tragically trivial. I've been revisiting the lectures of Alan Watts lately, and this one titled Life is NOT a Journey sums it up quite nicely, as well as this talk titled Work As Play.
Personally, I have a lot of work to do in this realm. At some point along the way, I put down my playfulness in favor of what I thought was a more practical application of my creativity. I am working on slowly bringing free play back into my life...
5. LIMIT SCREEN TIME -- Most of us are addicted to our phones and devices, and for good reason -- they are incredibly powerful and useful. I once read that when anthropologists look back on this era of human existence, the greatest innovation of our time won't be technology itself, but how we as a species adapted and learned to manage what we have created. We are deep in the discovery phase and have a lot to learn so that technology works with us, not against us. If you are in a toxic relationship with your device, consider reading the book How To Break Up With Your Phone :)
6. SAY NO OFTEN -- With access to so much information and so many people at our disposal, it is easy to overcommit, overstimulate... basically overdo just about everything. I absolutely love this writing by local herbalist Asia Suler, titled Setting Boundaries to Change Your Reality, in which she writes about setting healthy boundaries, "I knew I’d have more free time, I knew I’d be less stressed and more nourished— what I didn’t expect was for my entire perception of, and participation in, reality to change.... Turns out setting boundaries can be kind of psychedelic." Read her entire writing for some serious wisdom on the power of saying no.
7. REDUCE CAFFEINE + ALCOHOL -- If I were a purist, I'd say kick 'em both to the curb all together!! And if you have an addictive personality, you probably should. That said, everything we consume lands on a spectrum from medicine to toxin -- it all depends on your intention and purpose in bringing those substances into your body, as well as knowing your own limits.
When does it tip from being helpful to destructive? What is your edge? The answers are different for all of us. And the only solid tip I can share at the moment is this... when you buy that cup of joe to start your day, or pour that glass of wine at the end of the day --- pause. Take a moment to ask yourself how you hope that drink will make you FEEL. Then ask yourself how much caffeine or alcohol will make you feel that way, or even better if there is something else that could deliver the same results without any negative side effects (ie: fatigue, depression, anger, dehydration, poor sleep, agitation, wasted money... the list goes on and on).
Over time I have learned that all I really want when craving caffeine or alcohol is a special drink as a ritualistic pause in my day -- to take note of a transition such as waking or the end of work, entering a new environment, or to celebrate the company of a friend.
8. ADAPTOGENS + AROMATHERAPY -- If you are unfamiliar with the powerhouse class of herbs known as adaptogens, read this goop interview with David Winston, herbalist + author of the book aptly named Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina + Stress Relief. There are many ways to incorporate adaptogens into your everyday cooking -- here are a few suggestions. Personally, I drink the tea mentioned above, and add powdered herbs to smoothies.
Also consider incorporating more aromatherapy into your daily rituals. Increasingly I turn to calming essential oils and hydrosols such as lavender, clary sage, palo santo, rose and tulsi to help me breathe and ground into the moment. I keep this Palo Santo + Tulsi hydrosol by my computer, and spritz a little on my face anytime I sense tension building in my neck and shoulders. I also diffuse lavender at night in my bedroom to help me fall asleep.
9. CONNECT WITH NATURE -- Now that you've put down your phone and said no to the things your heart truly doesn't yearn for... maybe it's time to step outside? We all know that dialing into the natural world is good for us -- and yet we don't make nearly enough time to stay tuned in. You do not need access to great expanses of untouched wilderness to get connected. Sitting on a park bench, tending to the garden, cloud gazing, playing with your pet, watching a spider spin a web.... nature is everywhere if you are looking for it. We recently discovered this book on the topic, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, by Florence Williams.
10. SLEEP HYGIENE -- Many of us need to make sleep a bigger priority in our lives. We've been programmed to be productive and/or celebratory late into the night, only to come crashing down on our pillows like a safety net, diminishing our time in bed to a necessary yet inconvenient aspect of life. Some of us are wired and tired, to the point that even though we desperately want to sleep, we are up late into the night with anxious insomnia.
Many of the above recommendations will naturally encourage better sleep: limited screen time, exercise, meditation, avoiding stimulants and alcohol, saying no to an invitation and discovering JOMO (the joy of missing out). Check out this thorough post by wellnessmama, covering a wide range of suggestions to help you improve the quality of your zzzzzs.
We are hosting an upcoming class titled Optimize Your Circadian Rhythms for the Sleep of Your Dreams on September 23rd. We will learn the four lifestyle dimensions to put into place which work synergistically together like a finely tuned orchestra to establish consistent deep sleep and resetting the brain and body for repair, regeneration and longevity.