Tag Archive for: mental health and stress management

Positive thinking isn’t just a great catchphrase. You can experience the scientific benefits of positivity. If optimism oozes from your every pore, cheers to you! But if your glass sometimes seems half empty, there’s good news—with a little effort, it’s relatively easy to trick your brain to be happy.

A positive outlook supports your immune system, aids in maintaining calm, and helps you adapt to change. Studies on the effects of positive thinking even show links to supporting long-term cardiovascular health.

Eric Kim, research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard says, “Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life challenges.”

Positive thinking activates happy brain chemicals that can optimize your health, coping skills, and quality of life.

How Positivity Affects the Brain: The Science

Positivity affects the brain through chemical messengers. Neurotransmitters—like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin—play a major role in supporting your physical and mental health. They do this by sending instructions from brain cells to your muscles and organs. These chemicals help your brain and body work in tandem—so keeping them balanced is key.

The release of neurotransmitters has many triggers. And some may surprise you—like the plants that surround you. Multiple studies show indoor plants keep you feeling healthier and happier, but the benefits go both ways. You’ve probably heard talking to plants may help them grow better. But why? The theory is that plants may respond to the vibration and tones of the human voice (or music).

You aren’t so different. Just like plants, humans respond to vibration and tones. Life is a sea of rhythms that regulate several cardiac and neurological functions. Music and tones can support the activation of measurable stress-reducing pathways, and may even help maintain healthy heart rate, respiration, EEG measurements, body temperature, and blood pressure already in the normal range. Tones are also tied to immune and endocrine support, which may keep you feeling calm, energized, and in a good mood. All this explains what you already experience for your favorite songs. When you hear that perfect pitch, you feel it from your head to your toes.

If kind words and good vibrations—from music or positive talk—help plants grow, imagine what speaking kindly to yourself will do.

Physical Effects of Positive Thinking

When talking about the benefits of positive thinking, it’s not to encourage “toxic positivity”— invalidating what you’re experiencing by pretending everything is fine. But when a rough patch comes your way, finding the positives is better than allowing negative thoughts to run amok.

Even a few happy thoughts can evoke the following scientific benefits of positivity:

Support the immune system—When your body encounters occasional stress, these stressors can negatively impact your endocrine system and immune response. But your attitude toward stress also affects your immune response. It’s time to look at positivity as a tool that can help lead to health benefits.

Maintain calm—If anxiety is exacerbated by negative and intrusive thoughts, the opposite is also true. Expecting a positive outcome is a helpful formula to support calm, serenity, and balanced mood.

Optimizes resilience—How well you cope with problems defines your resilience. Rather than falling apart during challenges, positivity helps you to carry on and adapt to change.

Your positive thinking is reflected back to you in amazing ways. The next step is to train your brain to be happy, while respecting that all your feelings are valid.

3 Ways to Boost Your Bright Side

Living a healthy, happy life through the effects of positive thinking is appealing. But the world isn’t always hearts and flowers, and a positive frame of mind doesn’t come naturally for everyone.

Training your brain to be happy takes a little bit of work, but it’s your best go-to when life gives you lemons. Here are three ideas to spur positivity:

1. Trigger Your Happy Brain Chemicals

Tailor your lifestyle to fire up those neurotransmitters!

Use body movement to create positive thoughts—Certain body movements release happy brain chemicals. That’s why smiling, even if you don’t feel like it, can make you feel better. Even the simple gesture of holding both arms above your head in a victory stance sends happy signals to your brain. Move in ways that make you feel good—dance, swim, exercise, stand up straight, or just smile.

Listen to tones and music that help release neurotransmitters—Test key tonality and vibrations that work for you. Examples include music, laughter, or applause. To experience some funky tone therapy, listen to binaural beats by playing this Happiness Frequency track with headphones in both ears.

2. Keep a Grip on the Now

It’s easy to be so caught up in the daydream of your past and future that you forget that now is the only time there is. Teaching yourself to focus on the present is possible, and it offers plenty of benefits. It gives you time to calm down, prevents overthinking, and helps you make better decisions. To bring yourself into the moment:

  • Focus on your breath—Feel the air movement, watch your chest rise and fall, and count your breaths.
  • Pay attention to your senses—Focus on what you see, smell, touch, taste, or hear right now.
  • Meditate—Use guided meditation, sit quietly in a traditional way, or focus on white noise. Other ideas are to “feel” the energy in your hands, count the dishes you’re washing, or tally your steps.

3. Be Your Best Friend

Positivity is an inside job. Does the person in your head say nice things to you? Do you talk to yourself the way you would speak to your best friend? Jack Canfield, creator of Chicken Soup for the Soul, says “affirmations are to the mind what exercise is to the body.” And repeating affirmations helps to reprogram your unconscious mind for success.

Your positive self-talk should be simple and believable. Positive affirmations you don’t believe will get you nowhere. Try these techniques:

  • Start small and work your way up—Begin by telling yourself easy and general affirmations:

“I am enjoying the sunshine on my face.”

“All I need to do right now is breathe.”

“I have made it through hard times before.”

  • Get specific—As you become more confident in the positive reality you’ve created, you’re ready to move on to more personal affirmations:

“I welcome good things in my life.”

“I am healing.”

“I am worthy.”

“I can do this.”

Retraining your brain takes effort, but the effects of positive thinking last a lifetime. Even if life is not all roses and sunshine, learn to let the rain water your garden. Then you can sit back and watch your health blossom.

Rest and relaxation are what your body craves after a long day. Feeling occasional stress can stand in the way of the calm you need to recharge your batteries. Luckily, there are calming nutrients found in your diet that help support your relaxation efforts. Whether you’re trying to fall asleep or simply decompress after a challenging day, anti-stress vitamins and minerals are ready to help you relax.

Take Time to Slow Down—Rest is Necessary

In order for your body to work well, you need rest. Relaxation and rest give your body time to recover and recharge after operating all day. It takes a lot of energy to keep your brain and body ready to tackle whatever the day throws at you. So it’s important to give your body time to recoup some of that spent cellular energy.

There is a built-in body system that ensures you rest and recover as you should. It’s called the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). This branch of the nervous system controls calming and restful behavior, like sleep. The PSNS also makes sure your body uses the rest time to perform certain functions—digestion is one.

Vitamins and minerals in your diet can support PSNS function and help you relax. Magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins optimize your body’s ability to recharge and support healthy rest. Take a minute to explore how these calming nutrients play an important role in your quest for relaxation.

Magnesium and Stress: Rest Your Mind and Body

Calm starts with magnesium. It’s known in the scientific community as the “calming mineral” because it plays a critical role in your body’s ability to relax. Your mind and muscles need magnesium to properly rest.

Feeling uneasy can make it difficult to sink into the restful sleep your body needs to power you through your day. Magnesium can help you prepare your mind for rest by optimizing activity in the PSNS, so you can wind down after a long day.

Magnesium also supports the regulation of the sleep hormone melatonin. Maintaining healthy levels of melatonin is essential for directing your body’s sleep-wake cycles. Magnesium optimizes melatonin secretion so you become sleepy at the end of the day and feel rested when you wake up.

And that’s not all magnesium can do to support feelings of calm and rest. Magnesium binds with the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to help put your body in sleep mode. GABA is responsible for turning down nervous system activity so your body can settle down and rest.

As for the rest of your body, magnesium optimizes muscle recovery after exercise. When your muscles feel tight it can be difficult to relax. Magnesium helps support muscle relaxation by blocking calcium from entering the muscle fiber. Calcium transfer is what typically stimulates contraction.

How does this relationship between calcium and magnesium work? The two essential minerals compete for space in your muscles. Calcium triggers muscle contraction, while magnesium does the opposite. When magnesium is present, your muscles can relax, helping you avoid uncomfortable feelings of muscle tightness and cramps.

Rest and calm are necessary for your body to thrive. And magnesium is the mineral that can help your body and brain relax. Help healthy muscle relaxation and sleep with magnesium—the calming mineral.

Zinc: Another Mineral to Manage Stress

Stress is a major antagonist to feeling calm and rested. Enter zinc, the stress-modulating mineral. Zinc supports feelings of calm and rest by helping your brain keep occasional stress under control, making it easier for you to relax.

Scientific research supports the theory that zinc helps your brain manage and respond to occasional stress. Studies also indicate that individuals who acquire enough zinc in their diet experience healthy mood support and maintain feelings of wellness.

Zinc is one of the main essential nutrients that support your mental health, and your body relies solely on your diet for its supply. So it’s important to ensure your nutritional choices can support your daily zinc requirements. Foods rich in zinc include: animal proteins, legumes, and grains. You can also reinforce your diet with a high-quality zinc supplement.

B Vitamins Help Build Brain Health

Your brain is in charge of helping your body rest. It relies on neurotransmitters to send messages throughout your body when it’s time to wind down. Earlier you read how GABA and melatonin influence your ability to sleep and rest. Those are just two examples of neurotransmitters your brain uses to calm you down.

The brain needs chemical building blocks to make the neurotransmitters that tell your body to rest. B vitamins are the precursors to many neurotransmitters. They play a part in the chemical interactions that produce messenger molecules like dopamine and serotonin.

Dopamine is known for its ability to trigger feelings of happiness, reward, and pleasure. And serotonin is a mood-regulating chemical messenger. When dopamine and serotonin levels are within a healthy range, you feel happy and content.

Both of these neurotransmitters affect your emotional and mental well-being. Good mental health is necessary for rest and relaxation. That’s why it’s essential to support the neurotransmitters that maintain a good mood. That way you can help manage the occasional mental stress that may lead to sleepless nights.

B vitamins help maintain the production of the neurotransmitters that can put your mind at ease. Support the manufacture of dopamine and serotonin in your brain with B vitamins from your diet or supplements. And you can optimize your mental health and feel at peace.

Rest Assured, Vitamins and Minerals Support Relaxation

The calming nutrients you’ve just read about help you relax so you can combat occasional stress with rest. Magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins all work to help you decompress after a long day. Your brain and muscles rely on these essential vitamins and minerals to relax. Look for dietary sources or high-quality supplements of these nutrients to help calm your body.

Dietary Sources of Magnesium:

  • Spinach
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts
  • Black beans
  • Dark chocolate
  • Avocado

Dietary Sources of Zinc:

  • Eggs
  • Shellfish
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Legumes

Dietary Sources of B Vitamins:

  • Salmon
  • Spinach
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Legumes

There’s little debate that exercise plays a powerful role in a happy, healthy life. Regular physical activity helps to build strong muscles, improve your cardiovascular and metabolic systems, shape your physique, and even extend your health. Physically, most people feel better when they regularly exercise. But it doesn’t stop there. The psychology of exercising and enjoying physical activities that boost mood can be just as beneficial to overall health. It’s time you explored the emotional benefits of exercise.

Move for Your Mental Health

Shaping mental health looks different for everyone. Increasing positive feelings to help elevate your energy, give you confidence, boost your mood, and enhance your ability to cope with life’s daily stressors is a great place to start. Your mental health influences your cognition, behavior, and emotional well-being—how you think, act, and feel—at any moment. A crucial part of overall health is gaining more control over how you experience the ups and downs of everyday life.

The benefits of exercise on mental health are powerful. In fact, research suggests that exercise can be as effective as other remedies in maintaining a healthy mental state. This happens by supporting the growth of nerve cells and optimizing their connections within the brain—not simply because it helps tone your physique and improve your self-confidence. A lifestyle shift to try activities that boost mood and bolster your mental health can be a fun way to reap the rewards of reduced stress and a resilient mindset.

The psychology of exercising gives insight into what motivates you to get up and move and how to fit regular activity into your day. If you’re already a habitual exerciser, you’re probably familiar with one of the most common reasons exercise can be so fun—it just feels good. That’s you experiencing the emotional benefits of exercise. But, what’s behind that euphoric feeling that floods your body after a long run and helps you bounce back after a tough day?

Physical Activity and Brain Chemistry

As an infant, you were loved and adored by parents and family members. Being doted on by your primary caregivers flooded your brain with positive neurotransmitters—a powerful, happy combination of chemicals that helped give you feelings of safety, love, and pleasure through responsive interactions.

As you grow and develop, you carry this same innate need for positive feelings of well-being. And though physical activity may not exactly mimic the soothing feeling of receiving love from a parent, the emotional benefits of exercise produce some of the same combinations of chemicals—poignant tools for living a full and balanced life.

The crucial interplay of communication between your brain and body is a result of neurotransmitters and their essential role as messengers. They create a link to your nervous system tied to your emotions, motivation and drive, pain response, focus, energy levels, and your ability to tap into the positive aspects of the human experience. Common neurotransmitters that play a role in exercise and mood for greater mental health include:

  • Serotonin is a messenger that impacts your entire body. As an important regulator of mood and cognition, it’s responsible for creating an overall feeling of well-being and happiness. It also reboots your brain while you sleep and affects digestion.
  • Dopamine is your primary motivation chemical. It helps to promote ambition, drive, and attention. Plus, it assists to regulate important responses like movement and learning, as well as impacts your emotional state. Maintaining basic self-care, including daily exercise, is the most efficient way to ensure optimum dopamine levels.
  • Norepinephrine is associated with the fight-or-flight response when your body senses danger. It helps you react to stress and exercise by increasing heart rate and plays a role in breaking down fat to provide energy for your body.

Digging Deeper into Exercise’s Feel-Good Factor

If you’ve ever been motivated to hit the gym simply because it feels good—there’s a great explanation why. Hint: it’s not just the flood of endorphins common with this exhilarating feeling. Endocannabinoids (produced naturally in the body) are chemical compounds that are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier to bind to neural receptors. They are actually responsible for the rush you feel after a great work out.

Aerobic exercise increases the production of several neurotropic factors—growth factors of the nervous tissue. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is among them, playing a central role in protecting existing neurons and stimulating the growth of new ones (a process called neurogenesis). BDNF actually helps you grow new brain cells. The more BDNF you have, the more you support the growth and development of your nervous system.

During exercise, BDNF is produced and works with the endocannabinoid receptors in the body to effectively block pain and create that feeling of bliss commonly known as a runner’s high. The presence of new neurons gives you an increased level of responsiveness to be more in touch with your experience. And the unique protective ability of BDNF makes your existing brain cells more resilient and less affected by stress on the body. Stress from regular exercise causes a chain reaction that feels good, helps make you more resilient to feelings of stress and anxiety, and actually helps you bounce back from the outside stressors of life faster than before.

BDNF also boosts serotonin production. And it’s reciprocal—higher levels of serotonin stimulate BDNF expression—creating a dynamic cycle that ignites feel-good senses from physical activity alone.

The Mental and Emotional Benefits of Exercise

It’s true, exercise helps to stimulate your mood on a chemical level, but the mental and emotional benefits of exercise also transform your day-to-day mindset. Whether you have a set fitness routine, are a seasoned weekend warrior, or want to experience the positive impact of daily exercise, you may recognize these benefits as you increase your physical activity.

  • Improved self-esteem
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Easier weight management
  • Improved sleep quality
  • Pride in accomplishments
  • Improved body image perception
  • Enhanced ability to cope with stress
  • Stronger interpersonal relationships
  • Increased mental alertness

These practical benefits of exercise can increase your satisfaction, gratitude, and connection—all major mental-health wins.

Go the Distance with Aerobic Activities that Boost Mood

If you haven’t adopted a favorite aerobic activity, it’s a good time to try something new. Any form of exercise helps to overcome feelings of anxiety and increase well-being, but research shows the best activities that boost mood kick your heart rate up a bit. Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise creates more robust and longer-lasting changes to your neurobiology. That’s right—revving up the treadmill speed can enhance your ability to cope with challenging situations.

  • Moderate intensity exercise—50-60 percent of your max heart rate (find your max by subtracting your age from 220)
  • Vigorous intensity exercise—70-85 percent of your max heart rate

Add intensity slowly, if necessary. Carry a backpack on your hikes, set goals to swim a faster lap, take fewer breaks between sets in the gym—anything to increase your heart rate as you become more physically fit. Achieving your personal exercise goals is an unbeatable investment in your well-being.

Keep the Momentum

A healthy habit of regular exercise creates ongoing, mood-boosting effects to build your momentum and tackle your fitness goals. If the first step to fitness seems difficult, try these motivational tips to mentally prepare for your next sweat session.

  • Action precedes motivation. Don’t wait until you feel like exercising—just do it. Schedule your workouts ahead of time, set out your gear, and don’t think too much, just start moving.
  • Be mindful of screen time during exercise. Engaging on social media or checking your phone constantly forces you to multitask during your workouts. You may become overwhelmed or distracted and lose your intensity and drive to continue.
  • Recruit a friend. Working out with a buddy enhances social connection, can push you to strive for greater intensity, and makes you accountable for your goals. Plus, a shared fitness goal is great motivation.
  • Make your workout fun! Finding the right type of exercise is a must. Try new activates and workouts, and switch up your routine to keep you motivated. The more engaged you are in your workout, the more likely you’ll be to show up day after day.

If you’re looking to improve your overall health and find a natural way to cope with daily stress, find some activities that your boost mood. Positive emotional benefits of exercise await on the other side of an intense bike ride, a long run, a night of dancing, or a competitive tennis match. Make your move toward better mental health today.

Over the course of the year, seasons change, daylight varies, and—depending where you live—snow or rain may be eminent. But even in milder climates, you might find yourself affected by the “winter blues” from the lack of sunshine inherent with shorter days. This phenomenon is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). You may notice shifts in habits and feelings of well-being as the days grow longer and shorter.

So, no, you’re probably not stuck in a bad mood or going crazy. There’s a legitimate reason for feeling down when there’s less sunshine than normal. Learn what causes seasonal affective disorder and 10 ways to cope with the most common symptoms.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder is a biochemical imbalance in the brain. SAD is prompted by shorter daylight hours and less exposure to the sunshine your body uses as a sign to produce chemicals and hormones for wakefulness or sleepiness.

It’s estimated 10–20 percent of people globally are affected by SAD. Those living far from the equator are more likely to experience SAD, and the disorder is four times more common in women than men. Generally, you become less prone to SAD as you age, with 18-30 being the most at-risk age.

A number of symptoms and behaviors point to seasonal affective disorder, including:

  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Loss of interest in activities or social events
  • Problems with sleep—both oversleeping and difficulty getting restful sleep
  • Overeating and craving simple carbohydrates
  • Changes in weight
  • Loss of energy
  • Restlessness or nervous habits

These symptoms are associated with SAD, but they also could be signs of a condition beyond the winter blues. It’s recommended to consult your health-care advisor if you experience any of these symptoms long-term.

The Science Behind SAD

Let’s shine a little more light on SAD. Seasonal affective disorder is caused by fluctuations in your circadian rhythm (your internal, biological clock). That’s why you’re more likely to experience SAD the further you are from the equator—the shorter the day, the greater the effect.

Your retinas normally receive special cues from exposure to sunlight, triggering the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Reduction in sun exposure causes a dip in this naturally produced brain chemical. With SAD, there are seasonal fluctuations in the regulation of serotonin levels in the brain, as well. Most people know serotonin for its mood-balancing properties, but it also helps your body maintain health from your bones to your bowels.

Insufficient light in the day may also cause an overproduction of melatonin, the hormone responsible for your sleep-wake cycle. So, condolences to those who live in Juneau (Alaska’s capital city) who receive only six hours and 22 minutes of sunlight during the winter solstice. Others have it even worse. Rjukan, Norway doesn’t naturally receive sunlight six months out of the year. 

Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

SAD isn’t new. The disorder was first reported by scientist Norman E. Rosenthal in 1980 from The National Institute of Mental Health. Over time, studies and trials have found effective ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder.

Try these tips if you feel SAD symptoms. Even if you haven’t felt symptoms due to shorter days, anyone can benefit from these holistic lifestyle tips.

Seek Professional Advice

Common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder overlap with depression. If you think you’re experiencing depression, seek medical attention. For milder symptoms, consult your health-care advisor. Either way, it’s always good to talk with professionals before making lifestyle changes.

Eat A Healthy Diet

Eating a variety of wholesome foods is central to a life of good health. Certain nutrients, like vitamin D, help your body with normal bone mineralization, which might be affected by less exposure to the sun’s rays. Magnesium and coenzyme Q10 are used by the body to generate energy in your cells, and B vitamins play an important role in maintaining a healthy metabolism. Here are a few sources of these beneficial nutrients:

  • Vitamin D: fatty fish, cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, and foods fortified with vitamin D
  • Magnesium: green leafy vegetables, avocados, bananas, raspberries, nuts, and seeds
  • B vitamins: whole grains, red meat, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds

One key indicator of seasonal affective disorder is craving simple carbohydrates like non-diet soda, baked treats, and breakfast cereals. These foods provide little satiety and often lead to more cravings. Reach for healthy fats, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources. They’re more satisfying, and often include valuable nutrients like those listed above.

Make Sleep a Priority

There are many reasons to savor a good night’s sleep. Maintaining proper sleep habits is a lot of work, but the physiological benefits to restful slumber are well worth it. First, maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle. Go to bed at the same time every night whenever possible, and set a waking alarm for the same time every day, seven days a week. This means no cheating on the weekends. Keep in mind, it can take four days to recover for every hour of “sleep debt” accrued. So, waking up at the same time will help your body adjust, and you should start to feel naturally tired at the end of the day.

Second, avoid invigorating activity within an hour of bedtime, and abstain from stimulants like coffee in the evening. Cocktails are off-limits, too. They can help you fall asleep, but alcohol inhibits REM sleep cycles. Find a screen-free, calming activity that works for you. Try meditation, writing in a journal, listening to music or a podcast, reading a book, or simply brewing the perfect pot of caffeine-free tea.

Beat the Winter Blues

The shorter the days, the more cognizant you need to be about spending time outside while it’s still light. Set a reminder. Otherwise, by the time you remember to head out, the sun may already be down. Try to take a brisk walk at lunch, go for a run, take phone calls outside, or do whatever you can to grab some time outdoors. Even in colder climates, you can find the motivation to get outside on the snowiest days.

It can be challenging to sneak in outdoor time. But, with the extra energy you’ll have from high-quality sleep, backed by fuel from healthy foods, your body will be up for the task.

Work It Out

For many folks, summertime means exploring their surroundings by foot without a second thought. As the days darken, it’s harder to carve out time for these activities. If you find yourself adventuring less as the days shorten, commit to working out several days a week to compensate. Adequate exercise is one of the best ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder. There are many physiological benefits to working out, and it’s another excuse to keep moving when the couch starts calling your name. Plus, working out can be a social activity, which has its own SAD-stomping benefits you’ll read about later.

You don’t have to drive to the gym to enjoy the benefits of a good sweat session. When it’s pitch-black out and the last thing you want to do is leave the house, there are plenty of workouts you can do at home.

Build a Brighter Day

If you’re like those living in Rjukan who seriously lack natural light sources, sometimes you have to make your own sunshine. There are various light therapy lamps available—nightstand lamps, glasses lined with gentle blue lights, even full-blown luminary saunas. Studies show that getting bright light first thing in the morning after waking, is better than light therapy later in the day. While this kind of SAD solution doesn’t work for everyone, it has been shown to be effective in several studies. So, it’s well worth a try to beat the winter blues.

Make Time to Socialize

A healthy social life brings a host of mental and physical benefits and is a great solution to cope with seasonal affective disorder. Bonus: it pushes you out of the house (or, if it’s your turn to host the party, spurs some extra cleaning). Socializing is associated with better overall health, and maintaining a larger social network is a key predictor of positive mental health outcomes throughout life.

Invite friends over for a snack tray social, casual trivia night, or hunker down with board games. Whatever you do doesn’t have to require a lot of effort or expense. Being together is enough to help tackle SAD symptoms.

Find Your Zen

Meditation has benefits beyond bedtime routines. Even a minute of mindfulness can bring a calm detachment, returning your mind to the present, and reminding you to keep calm and carry on. To help find your Zen, try this breathing exercise:

  1. Assume a comfortable, relaxed position and close your eyes.
  2. Breathe slowly, taking pauses between exhale and inhale.
  3. Clear your mind and count out 50 breaths.
  4. Each time a thought pops into your head—and, inevitably, many will—pause counting.
  5. Continue breathing and recite the phrase “I am aware of ______,” listing the object of your thought.
  6. Once your mind is clear again, resume counting breaths.

Serve Others

Donating your time in the service of others has many physical, mental, and social benefits. This makes it one of the best ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder. Taking your mind off your problems to focus on caring for others is a natural way to relieve the stresses that build up from lowered serotonin levels. Gratitude helps you deal with anxiety and grief by contributing to your brain’s release of dopamine and serotonin.

Write a Letter

Writing to friends and family is a good way to keep in touch, and it’s a wonderfully unexpected surprise for the recipient. Hand writing takes more effort than typing, but that’s the point. The brain processes differently when writing longhand versus typing. That’s because there’s more method and nuance when you pick up a pen. If you’re not sure where to begin, try writing a gratitude letter to yourself as a small reminder of why you’re grateful.

A Brighter Tomorrow

If you find yourself in the rut of seasonal affective disorder, remember there’s light at the end of the tunnel—literally. Seasons eventually change and longer, brighter days are ahead.

As you figure out the best ways to cope with seasonal affective disorder, you’ll notice how much overlap there is in the above list. Writing gratitude letters in the evening checks several boxes, as does volunteering to pack food at a local charity. So, focus on addressing your SAD symptoms in ways that fit your life.

Setbacks are to be expected. Don’t get discouraged. It’s natural to get frustrated when your body doesn’t just work the way it should. But it’s important to focus on your whole self, taking care of your body and mind. Bonus points if you do it all year long and not just when the winter blues set in. Ask for help if you need it, reach out to friends and family, or talk to a medical professional. Before you know it, even the darker, shorter days will look better and brighter.

Stress is part of the human experience. Since the evolution of early man, you’ve been hard-wired to encounter stressful situations. And though threats from predators may not be common in modern life, the fight-or-flight response has not been left behind. Evolutionary mechanisms for survival are useful tools for long-term health.

By harnessing the power of stress, you can empower your health. It’s true, a certain level of stress can be quite healthy. And given it is nearly impossible to escape stress in your daily life, this is good news. There are ways to utilize the benefits of short-term stress to create a calmer, more relaxed mindset. Purposeful stress—or good sources of stress—can activate cellular pathways that support greater resilience to other stresses.

Too Much Fight or Flight

Moments of crisis trigger complex physiological adaptations deeply engrained in your DNA. When you perceive your safety is in danger, these instincts prepare you to react. Short-term stress response spurs action through a flood of hormone responses. A sudden surge of cortisol and adrenaline produced in the adrenal glands prepares you to react quickly. But as the danger lessens, the parasympathetic nervous system presses the brakes on this excitatory response, helping to bring you back to baseline.

At optimal levels, stress hormones make you feel alive and activate better performance and focus. But when you are unable to return to a state of calm, or if your stress response is activated too often, the effects of chronic stress can take a physical and psychological toll. This negative impact can lead to a variety of health issues.

From Distress to Eustress

Your perception of negative circumstances ties directly to your behavior and the regulation of physiological responses. Adopting an optimistic outlook can change your mental and physical health for the good. By shifting your mindset in moments of stress, you can reframe how you handle these experiences.

Eustress is “good stress,” or normal-to-moderate psychological stress that’s actually beneficial. It helps activate genetically encoded pathways to help you deal with stress. The more you experience life with a positive attitude, new challenges will provide opportunities for growth, focused attention, and activation without expending all of your resources. In its best form, eustress can induce a state of flow—complete immersion and enjoyment in the process of an activity.

Some attributes of eustress include:

  • lasts a short period of time
  • energizes and motivates
  • feels exciting
  • increases focus and performance

Good sources of stress can include a job interview, riding a rollercoaster, the thrill of a scary movie, traveling, or even a first date. These experiences mobilize and stimulate you, making you anticipate what’s to come. Eustress is part of the joy of being human.

Find Your Edge with Short-Term Stress

Avoiding stress altogether isn’t the answer to better health. Many scientists believe building a resilience to environmental stress is the best way to fight back and live healthier.

Evolution has equipped you with an amazing system to handle daily stress. But your physiologic response—how hormones react to distress—is thrown off balance with too much stimulus. Short-term stress can amplify your life for the better, but raised levels of cortisol sustained over long periods can lead to poor health. Paradoxically, introducing voluntary bursts of controlled stress can help increase your stress tolerance.

A Life of Greater Resilience

The ability to cope with physiological stress depends on cellular-level adaptations mixed with your mental perception of difficult situations.

Of course, always consult with your physician before diving into a new routine. But if you’re healthy and excited to experiment with benefits from short-term, stress-inducing practices, give one of these five options a try. You may just open a new gateway for enhanced performance, better health, and a rewarding new adventure.

1. Eating to Adapt

Hormesis is a mild stress response that’s adaptive at a low dose and toxic in large amounts. A hormetic response can cause adaptations in cells and organisms to make them stronger and more robust. Foods you eat mimic this beneficial response to toxins and the transformative effect they can have on your health.

Toxic plant compounds are designed to affect the nervous system of insects and animals in the wild. But in humans, they have the possibility to make you stronger. Nutrient-dense plants have built-in defense mechanisms that can induce a healthy, manageable stress response. Phytonutrients from plants, despite being slightly stressful to the cells, precondition your body to respond to future stress by activating adaptive cellular stress-response pathways. Basically, a little poison can go a long way for improved health. See an example about liver detoxification here.

Common Compounds Found in Plants

  • Saponins—quinoa
  • Lectins—soy and potatoes
  • Gluten—wheat, rye, and barley
  • Anthocyanins—berries
  • Resveratrol—grape skins and red wine
  • EGCG—green tea
  • Sulforaphane—broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables
  • Catechins—cacao

People sensitive to these compounds shouldn’t consume them. If you have existing gut issues, talk with your health-care provider or nutritionist about the best strategy to incorporate healthy, mild stressors into your diet. If consuming a plant-based diet is problematic, cooking with herbs and spices is a great alternative.

2. Born to Move

A difficult workout can scratch your ancestral itch to move. Long gone are the days of scavenging for food or hunting for game to simply survive—activities your body was designed to do.

Today’s more sedentary lifestyle suppresses the all-day-long movement you instinctually crave. Regular exercise is essential for mental and physical health. It gives you more energy for life and serves as a buffer against the effects of stress and mental health issues by enhancing your brain’s endorphins—it’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters.

Movement and exercise of your skeletal muscle also creates oxidative stress in the body, triggering your defense response system. As it repairs, your body becomes stronger, creating a greater level of endurance. However, too much exercise can lead to chronic stress, so it’s important to listen to your body and exercise in the way that’s right for you.

3. Turn Up the Heat

Have you ever wondered why fitness clubs and health spas offer dry and steam saunas? It may seem counterintuitive to crank up the heat and endure the discomfort of a profuse sweat session.

Heat stress is a hot topic in many fitness and health circles today, but it’s been a regular practice in countries like Finland for thousands of years. The ancient practice of purification and healing by heat bathing has taken on modern significance. This lifestyle addition can induce feelings of relaxation and pleasure—whether used after a workout or as its own activity. Heat bathing is also associated with a calming effect and enhanced mood.

But heat stress is no joke. Regular, short-term exposure to extreme heat can have several positive health effects, including making you more resilient to biological stress.

Here are a few of the benefits of exercise and a regular, healthy sweat:

  • Triggers an increased release of growth hormone
  • Increases blood flow to skeletal muscles (muscle profusion) to help recovery and restore glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, and oxygen more efficiently
  • Enhances endurance and supports cardiovascular health
  • Increases red-blood-cell count
  • Improves thermoregulatory control
  • Enhances efficiency of oxygen transport to the muscles
  • Supports healthy insulin sensitivity

With these compelling benefits, regular hyperthermic conditioning (intentionally heating yourself up) may just be the new habit you need for added endurance, improved health, and greater well-being.

4. A Cooler Way to Be Healthy

If you’ve ever stepped outside on a frigid winter’s day, you know how quickly your body reacts. Shivering begins almost immediately. Extreme cold is another hormetic stressor that can do wonders for your body.

Cryotherapy—exposing the body to extremely cold temperatures for a short amount of time—triggers cellular responses that can build physiological resilience. In the right doses, cold can affect the brain, immune system, and metabolism in amazing ways that may be worth the initial shock to your system.

Cold exposure has been found to have a positive effect on the sympathetic nervous system, helping to improve mood and anxiety. It’s also a powerful antidote for the negative effects of chronic stress.

The metabolic response to cold therapy exists for one purpose, to warm the body. As you shiver, your muscles contract involuntarily in an attempt to produce heat. Another process, non-shivering thermogenesis, causes norepinephrine—a hormone and neurotransmitter—to ignite a bodily response to create more mitochondria. As your body heats back up, it converts adipose tissue (fat) into a more metabolically active form. So, a cold dip could even be an exhilarating way to support weight maintenance.

Here are some ways to experiment with cold exposure:

  • Schedule an appointment to test a cryotherapy chamber
  • Construct a cold-water plunge tub in your backyard
  • Crank the temperature way down for the last 60 seconds of your morning shower
  • Add ice to your bathtub and take the plunge
  • Dip into a cold river or lake

5. Fast for Metabolic Flexibility

Fasting—abstaining or limiting your consumption of food and drink—can seem contrary to healthy behavior and stressful for your body. After all, you need nutrients to feed and energize your cells. But taking periodic breaks from feeding may be the healthy strategy you need to boost resilience, energize and rejuvenate your body, and create favorable metabolic health changes.

As you fast, liver glycogen stores (carbohydrates held for later use) are depleted. This forces your body to flip a metabolic switch to shift your energy balance and mobilize fatty acids. In a fasted state, your body liberates fat stores and produces ketones as an alternative energy source to its preferred one—glucose.

Over time, metabolic stress from switching from a fed to a fasted state causes adaptations to improve metabolic and homeostasis function, enhance autophagy (the cells’ clean-up process), and support healthy weight management.

Common types of fasting include:

  • Time-restricted feeding or intermittent fasting—limits food intake to certain designated times of day without reducing the number of calories you consume. The popular 16:8 fast limits food for 16 hours each day with an eight-hour feeding window.
  • Alternate-day fasting—fasting every other day or consuming a small amount of food on “fasted” days.
  • Prolonged fasting—a longer fast that usually exceeds 48 hours. This method should only be practiced with supervision from your healthcare provider.

Reconsider Your Healthy Routine with Stress Benefits in Mind

How humans experience stress has changed throughout history, but your evolutionary biology remains. You have the power to leverage stress-response to transform your health, enhance your performance, and change your mind about discomfort. Experiment with stress tolerance by adding purposeful stress into your health routine today. It’s a great way to help you experience the lasting benefits of short-term stress.

Individual sports take mental toughness. They demand you set personal goals, manage stress, build self-confidence, and develop focus. Team sports build comradery and group empathy, but it takes a strong mindset to compete—at any level—alone on the court. These hurdles, once conquered, make the benefits of individual sports plentiful.

Consider swimming for example. You determine your goals in the water. Do you focus on your stroke or how many laps you want to swim? The water shuts out the world, leaving you with only your stroke and your thoughts. Left without distractions (earbuds or a monitor to watch), this is a good time to focus on yourself and explore why you’re swimming in the first place.

The challenge is to find the mental toughness to keep swimming—digging deep for inner motivation. It’s important to identify why you’re competing and how to improve your performance. Personal goals can range from setting a world record to improving upon last week’s swim.

Let’s take a deep dive into individual sports, how they develop mental toughness, and the ways error management benefits your performance.

Benefits of Individual Sports

Humans are inherently social. Like most mammals, social tendencies develop through interaction with others. Sports help develop social hierarchies and positive self-esteem in a group context. Playing with others is a way to channel aggression into constructive activities.

Individual sports address different aspects of personal development. Athletes who participate in traditional and non-traditional solo sports—like tennis, swimming, rock climbing, cycling, or bowling—don’t rely on teammates for motivation or performance assessments. They set and pursue their own goals. Bearing the responsibility for achievement, solo athletes must push themselves to establish a healthy, competitive mindset. This can be as simple as setting small, obtainable goals. Or in the grander scheme, it can mean doggedly pursuing more ambitious ones.

Most sports help develop fine and gross motor skills, agility, endurance, and hand-eye coordination. But many more unique benefits of individual sports are revealed to dedicated participants. That’s because solo sports also require an additional layer of mental development, along with physical fitness. Your success and failures are yours alone. As you embrace and overcome personal setbacks, strengthening your coping skills and resilience, you develop self-esteem and confidence.

Long hikes, easy swims, or bike rides are all individual sports great for relaxation and reducing stress. They can clear your mind, offer perspective, and allow time for self-reflection. Any form of exercise supports cardiovascular and pulmonary health, can help reduce stress, and build confidence for future exercise.

Mental Toughness and the Tools for Solo Sport Success

With non-competitive sports—like trail running, rock climbing, or weightlifting—individuals set goals and determine how to achieve them. Take a trail runner participating in a 50-mile race. The primary goal is to reach the finish line. But to accomplish it, the runner must meet a series of benchmarks ranging from strategy (pacing, hydration, stretching) to sessions (breaking the run into segments). Each runner must identify personal strengths and pitfalls and create a running plan to best meet his/her needs.

To prepare for the 50-mile race, the runner has to train physically and mentally. Taxing events like ultramarathons require a strong, healthy mindset during the training and competition phase. Mental toughness is how you respond to discomfort or manage an obstacle or challenge. The key to developing mental toughness is to strengthen your willingness and channel optimism.

Willingness is your commitment to endure physical challenges and power through discomfort. Multiple factors determine willingness, but the best indicator is having a specific goal you want to accomplish. If the trail runner can envision crossing the finish line at the end of the 50-mile race, they can develop the mental fortitude to push through discomfort.

Optimism is the power to visualize and believe in your ability to reach your goal. It bridges the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Optimism shapes your short- and long-term goals. It’s motivation to train each day, coupled with the unyielding belief you’ll finish the race.

Mental toughness is developed through a willingness to do the hard work, combined with the optimism to believe you can achieve your goals. Just like your hands develop callouses from hours of work, mental toughness strengthens your competitive advantage while training and competing.

Solo, but Not Alone

Even when you compete for yourself, you still benefit from the support of coaches and teammates. Coaches share their expertise to help you to train and develop to your furthest potential. They guide your workouts and provide encouragement. And teammates give you a competitive edge. They help you set goals, breed healthy competition, and challenge you to work harder.

To Err is to Grow

Identifying errors while participating in solo sports is key to improvement. And the benefits go beyond just your performance while engaging in the activity. Golf is a good example for tracking errors during play.

Golf can be a frustrating game. Even if you’ve never played before, golf presents a serious of pitfalls that can put you in a foul mood. From errant tee shots to missed putts, it’s easy to play but extraordinarily difficult to master. Join a foursome for a full 18 holes and you’re not just competing against the other players—you’re challenging yourself.

Imagine it’s a beautiful morning and you’re teeing up on the first hole. You grab your golf club of choice. After a couple of practice swings, you adjust your glove and prepare for your first drive. You smoothly raise your club behind you, engaging a series of muscles (external abdominal obliques, gluteus maximus, pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, and forearms), and swing.

If everything goes right, you’ll connect with the ball and send it flying towards the hole. The average golfer (76 percent of all amateurs) will swing a club 100 times through 18 holes. That’s 100 opportunities to analyze your performance in real time, make adjustments, and experience good and horrible shots.

Essentially, golf is a game of error monitoring—the process of assessing performance, making adjustments, and recognizing pitfalls. Researchers have studied focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM) meditation in conjunction with error monitoring. FA is your mind absorbing contextualized information in the moment. OM is your mind in a state of calm where it processes collected information. Evidence points toward a higher level of error monitoring when golfers can balance their FA and OM.

Golfers who can identify errors in their game are more likely to predict conditional stressors and self-regulate stress. By absorbing the moment, a golfer may have a better outcome (i.e. a more successful shot) than those who are indifferent to the situation. Specifically, when a golfer focuses on the shot ahead instead of the whole round of golf, they perform better and achieve a stronger level of overall satisfaction—even if the outcome is diminished performance.

Error monitoring is not only identified in golf. Numerous solo sports have real-time error monitoring. Mountain bikers make split-second decisions while navigating rocks, tree roots, and other obstacles. Kayakers experience the same immediate error monitoring maneuvering through rapids. Successful solo athletes have developed this common skillset to optimize their performance.

And the benefits are not limited to sports—developing error monitoring transcends to work and home life. Tracking your performance in real time can assist with decision making, organizational skills, and self-calming techniques.

Finding the Balance

Participating in solo sports is an opportunity to focus on yourself and your performance. Regular training can improve cardiovascular health, motor skills, and general health. In addition, the benefits of individual sports extend to improving your mental acuity for additional success.

From fly fishing to everyday life, balance shapes success. As you build up and come to rely on your own motivation, mental toughness, and error management, you’ll carry the personal skills to accomplish your goals. Individual sports can help your mental strength outside of the activity with improved mental focus which can assist in other aspects of your life.

Your body may be about 60 percent water, but you’re 100-percent cells. They make up your whole body, but still act—and react—individually. That’s very apparent when it comes to stress. Individual cellular stress responses are very different than the way your whole body responds to a stressor.

You’re likely all too familiar with those bodily responses to psychological stress. Many people have an intimate knowledge of the tension, increased heart rate, and possible gastric gymnastics. But you might not be full acquainted with how your cells respond to stress—or even how cellular stress differs from everyday stress.

It’s time to better understand what your cells go through and how they react. And also come to grips with the role your decisions have and how you can use selective cellular stress to help support your overall health.

What Stresses Cells Out

One way to look at stress of any kind, is as something that upsets a delicate balance. In daily life, that means frustrating delays impacting your deadline or unexpected expenses upending the budget.

Your cells crave balance so much that maintaining homeostasis is their operating principle. A cellular stress response is triggered whenever cellular balance is thrown a bit out of whack or when the serenity of homeostasis is even threatened.

That’s why many cellular stressors are best described as environmental changes in or directly around the cell. And your cells are hard-wired to react to their environments. Some changes are good and necessary. It’s actually an essential part of how your body runs—from nutrient distribution to energy production and more. But some environmental changes are more worrisome to the cell than others.

Take the following list of most common cellular stressors, for instance:

  • Temperature Increase: There’s a good reason your body sweats. It’s kicking on the evaporative cooler (your skin) to maintain a good operating temperature. Your cells thrive in a certain temperature range. Throw off that thermal balance with a little extra heat, and your cells start the stress-response processes you’ll read about momentarily.
  • Exposure to Toxins: Cells are tiny pouches containing many chemical reactions. Any interruption to this chemistry—especially by toxins, but even by nutrients that may act like a toxin—throws a wrench into normal operation. That’s enough to trip the stress-response wire.
  • Lack of Energy Resources: Your cells contain the machinery to manufacture energy from your diet. But if you fast or limit calories, cellular environmental conditions change enough to trigger a stress-response process called autophagy—more on that later.
  • Oxidative Stress Accumulation: A certain amount of reactive oxygen species (ROS) are common in cells. They’re a byproduct of energy production in the cellular mitochondria. Too many of these particles floating around tips the balance and creates oxidative stress—and accompanying reactions—in your cells.

You are also a source of stress for your cells. Your lifestyle decisions determine a lot about the cellular environment. So, when you make a thousand different decisions—exposing yourself to toxins, deciding to adopt intermittent fasting, failing to stay hydrated, or consuming a high-fat diet—your cells may pay a stressful price.

And your daily and chronic stresses can impact your cells. That makes stress management and healthy habits key to keeping your cells calm and happy.

Equal and Opposite Reaction—Your Four Cellular Stress Responses

Most of the negatives of stress—at a cellular or macro level—come from the way your body responds. Consistently high levels of cortisol are correlated with chronic stress and account for some of the ways stress hampers your health. Your cellular stress responses can be just as harmful.

Let’s start with the worst news first: sometimes your cells’ response to stress is just to say “enough is enough” and die off in a process called apoptosis. This, obviously, is not always ideal. But it’s could actually be worse—after all, it’s a natural process and part of human development.

Apoptosis could even be described as a type of sacrifice. The process acts to hopefully avoid the more devastating cell death eventually caused by a stressful stimulus. That’s because it has less of an impact on surrounding cells. But stressing your cells to the point where they opt for apoptosis or succumb to the stress is still the worst-case-cellular-stress scenario.

Cell death may be necessary to destroy damaged cells. The good news, though, is there are other signals telling cells they should continue living.

One of the better signaling outcomes involves cell repair mechanisms. Stress can damage proteins by making them unfold—and DNA can even be harmed. The answer to impaired proteins? Signaling cells to release a different set of proteins. These helpers repair or contain the damage to help return the cell to normal.

Autophagy was mentioned above, specifically in connection to fasting. This important cellular stress response is used more for cleaning and recycling than repair. When proteins degrade, autophagy further disassembles them into component amino acids the cell can use again. Even though it translates literally to “self-eating,” autophagy is a natural and important part of maintaining optimal health. (Want to dive deeper into autophagy? Read more about cellular renewal processes.)

Adaptation is the final approach your cells typically takes to stress. Adapting, which start in the DNA, involves complex processes with several cellular pathways. It’s a lot to digest, but the end result is pretty simple and very positive—resistance and resilience.

Using Cellular Stress to Your Advantage

Your cells’ ability to adapt to or spark cellular-cleaning processes in response to low-level stressors creates an exciting opportunity. And it’s one you can capitalize on to support your cellular and overall health.

The most common way to take advantage of cellular stress resides in the realm of nutrition.

Intermittent fasting evangelists advocate longer periods of zero-calorie consumption partly due to ties with autophagy. Here’s how the logic for this conclusion flows: Research supports the connection between the cellular recycling process and caloric restriction or abstention. The benefits of autophagy for supporting and maintaining optimal cellular health are also well established. And, since cellular health plays a big role in overall wellness, that intentional stress becomes a boon instead of a burden.

Nutritional science has also uncovered the role some nutrients can play in strengthening your cells through stress. These molecules—mostly falling under the phytonutrient label—originate from plants, where they have protective effects. These same abilities help the phytonutrients act as a mild toxin, which activates beneficial cellular stress responses.

So, don’t just fear stress—use it to your advantage. Think of all this as exercise for your cells. Overcoming a small, controlled amount of stress strengthens and promotes resilience. And that’s another important way to help support your health.

Music is powerful.

Think back on the epic-ness of experiencing your favorite bands in concert, or the nostalgia of listening to an album you revered in high school. Or stifling the urge to dance to your favorite song while shopping. Nothing’s quite as validating as your tunes echoing through the food court or down the baked goods aisle. Music speaks to the soul. That’s part of how music is calming and can help you relax, pump you up during a run, or even help you focus at work or school.

Thanks to science, this emotional range isn’t just anecdotal. Listening to music comes with tangible benefits, including a direct correlation between music and stress relief. Understanding the chemical reactions in your brain relating to sound is key to unlocking the calming magic of music. Even if you already know how awesomely powerful music can be, now you can explain it with sound science.

How Sound Harmonizes with Your Mood

Sound waves affect hearing, one of your five primary senses (scientifically called audition). Hearing is intrinsically linked to many of your body’s physiological reactions. Your ear drums pick up sound from a variety of sources, like birds chirping, a friend’s voice through a cell phone, the chime of an oven timer, or your amped-up workout playlist. The brain converts these sound waves into electrochemical nerve signals—and this is where sound really strikes a chord.

Sharp, loud noises trigger your brain to release cortisol, increasing your heart rate and priming the fight-or-flight response. The sound of a familiar or foreign voice will set off a different chemical cascade, and your brain and body respond accordingly. And though it used to be vital to survival, such a well-developed auditory system is now far more useful for communication. With the concerns of humanity shifting from wildlife to the workweek, your ears are tuned less to leopards and more to Def Leppard.

So, how does music reduce stress? Scientific evidence shows music affects your body like any other sound. Rhythms, beats, and audio samples often imitate nature, and the power of voice carries through both analog and digital means. Your ears signal your brain to produce dopamine, whether it’s Johnny Cash crooning or a favorite uncle cracking another bad joke.

Depending on the track, songs can impact:

  • dopamine, DHEA, cortisol, and other hormone levels
  • heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure
  • the psychobiological stress system
  • perceived stress levels and mood
  • post-task mental and physical revitalization
  • alertness and energy levels

With such an array of physical and chemical effects, it’s no wonder there’s a strong correlation between music and stress relief. Many of these same chemicals are linked to emotion, making music another sure way to master your mood.

Beat Stress with BPM—Beats Per Minute

Music can reduce stress and positively affect your body in a variety of ways. You may find yourself asking, “Is this true of all music?” “Does the scale make a difference?” And what if you can’t stand classical compositions—will they still help you focus?

As it turns out, taste has a lot to do with it. The same piece of music affects listeners differently based on listening tendencies, what they grew up rocking, and various attachments to the song. Perception is a powerful indicator for how sound will affect an individual. This is quite similar to how your experiences shape the unique wiring of your brain. So, if you don’t like folk music, there’s no shame in staying away from twangy ensembles.

Before you jump into how beats per minute (BPM) impact stress, there are other predictors to determine how a song may affect you—whether it’s funky or flat, good for studying, or a party anthem. Major tones are often associated with happy, predictable, poppy songs, while minor tones seem to be sad, more complex, and dissonant. This carries over to speech and vocals, too. As a fun experiment, search for your favorite upbeat song in minor on YouTube and hear the mood flip. Take on Me by A-Ha sounds like an unreleased act from Phantom of the Opera.

A song’s tempo has a lot to do with its potential stress-busting effects. Every piece of music is measured by beats per minute (BPM). Songs range from a very slow 35–45 BPM up to a heart-fluttering 200 BPM. For reference, the average popular song pulses around 116 BPM, and 120 is often considered the sweet spot for pop. You can find any song’s BPM through a quick online search, or through a free service like SongBPM.com.

Studies show listening to music you can’t stand is a recipe for disaster at any tempo. But listen to an artist or album you love, and you’ll experience the calming powers of sound. The slower a song, the more likely you are to experience deeper breathing, lower blood pressure, and a lower heart rate. Faster music has the opposite effect—pumping up your vitals and propelling you to move.

Speaking of music you love, set aside time this week to ignore your social feeds, close your eyes, and enjoy a deep listen of a favorite album. Purposeful listening lets you experience every track as the artist intended, and it’s a great way to add a meditative moment to your day.

Measurements for Every Occasion—Music to Relieve Stress or Pump You Up

The inextricable link between music and stress relief lets you use sound to create a productive rhythm for each part of your day. Whether preparing for a test, exercise circuit, or bedtime—all it takes is the right range of BPMs.

  • Rise and shine. Many people have their favorite dance-worthy song set as their alarm—and they’re doing morning right. Aim for a bright and poppy tune, around the 120 BPM mark, to wake up on the right side of the bed every day.
  • Sweat it out. Nothing starts the blood pumping like a custom workout playlist. Exercise routines vary in intensity and time, so curate a range of heavier, upbeat tracks that range between 120-160 BPM. More motion = more beats.
  • Eco-commute. The average person walks at a convenient 120 steps per minute. Jamming music in this range will help you keep pace through hills and road bumps. Pedaling a bicycle calls for the same pace—unless you’re fighting the wind, which means upwards of 160–180 BPM.
  • In the zone. Like musical tastes, finding the creative flow state varies from person to person. Instrumental music around 50–80 BPM is an ideal range for studying, working, or reading. Your brain falls into a productive rhythm in this range.
  • Sauté success. Once again, the trusty 120 BPM is recommended for a perfectly paced dining experience—any faster and you’ll be rushing to chow down. The true key to pairing food with music is context. Find flavorful tracks to fit the mood of the meal.
  • Breathe deep. Like the creative flow, mellow tunes around 50–80 BPMs can induce a meditative state. Find instrumental music that relaxes you. Clear your mind and focus on measured breathing to slow down your thoughts.
  • Sweet dreams. Music around 60 BPM can induce alpha brainwaves—ideal for relaxation and sleep after listening for 45 minutes or so. Decompress with the right soundtracks to enjoy stress-free slumber.

More Stress-Relieving Solutions

Find harmony in stressful moments with both quick fixes and long-term solutions:

  • Mindfulness through meditation provides fast relief.
  • Stepping outside for even 20 minutes can trigger many beneficial physiological reactions.
  • Expressing gratitude increases feelings of happiness to put problems in perspective.
  • Exercise is one of the best ways to work out anxiety and temporarily lower blood pressure post-workout. Always bring your music library along for the circuit.

Healthy habits also play a significant role in how you feel, think, and perform:

Some amount of stress can be productive, such as the nudge of anxiety prompting you to study for a concerto or attend band practice. But if you find yourself chronically stressed, consult with your trusted health-care provider and mental-health advocate.

More Than a Feeling

Life has its highs and lows, but no matter what happens, you can always turn to a favorite tune to brighten up the moment, finding stress relief through music. Spend time creating your own “stress less” playlist so you always have tracks to turn to for some extra feel-goods. You can even make collaborative playlists with friends, a true win-win—discovering awesome new music and maintaining social connections, which are key indicators of lifelong health.

So, next time you’re debating if those concert tickets are really worth the price, whether you can make the time to go, or if it’s worth the drive—whatever the excuse—now, you can justify it with science. Just make sure you pop in earplugs before you rock on.

Your brain is hard-wired to protect you from harm—especially in the face of real (or even imagined) stress. The initial response to a stressful situation provides a burst of energy to help you respond to the perceived threat. That’s partially why occasional stress and anxiety can help provide the motivation you need to tackle a big work project, study for a test, or start a new job.

Stress is caused by external stimuli (also called a trigger), while anxiety is part of the internal response to stress. And even though stress is an unavoidable part of life, humans aren’t well-equipped to endure prolonged periods of stress and anxiety. So, unmanaged stress or chronic anxiety can wreak havoc on emotions, memory, and overall health.

COVID-19—the disease caused by the novel coronavirus—and the information overload it has caused, has increased worldwide levels of stress and anxiety. The human brain is complex and provides the unique ability to imagine threats to your health, including how this virus could cause harm. The majority of people with COVID-19 recover and only experience mild-to-moderate symptoms—body aches, fever, and cough. But the uncertainty of how it will impact physical, financial, and social health (and that of loved ones) has led to unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety.

How Stress and Anxiety Work—A Refresher

Human ancestors needed the fight-or-flight response to survive their harsh world. When fearful or stressed, a rush of adrenalin prepared them to flee dangerous situations or fight to defend their ground and survive. In a modern society it’s rarely needed for actual survival.

Stress causes a chain reaction that begins in your protective brain. When you experience an event perceived as fearful, the amygdala—an almond-shaped mass located in each brain hemisphere—kicks into gear. This complex mass of cells helps regulate survival instincts (fight-or-flight responses), emotions, hormonal secretions, and memory.

Research suggests that the amygdala is also involved in the anxiety process. People with anxiety disorders are thought to have over-reactive amygdalae. The amygdalae are part of a larger network within the central nervous system that regulates the physiological effects of stress and anxiety.

The body’s stress response system is designed to engage when needed and disengage when the threat has passed. Feeling anxious and stressed is part of this temporary process to help keep us alert for signs of danger. But persistent stress and anxiety can become problematic and interfere with physical and mental health.

An ongoing global pandemic creates conditions for persistent stress. So, it’s important to understand how the COVID-19 crisis could potentially affect your mental and physical health and find ways to manage the stress and anxiety you’re feeling.

How Information Overload Contributes to Stress and Anxiety

The world has evolved from just using the internet for work or school. Now it’s a conduit for entertainment, a way to meet and connect with people, and an outlet for world-wide news. And it’s all at your fingertips, 24 hours a day.

For many, a good morning routine starts with reading a newspaper, scrolling through social media posts and news feeds, watching the news, or listening to the radio. But is this a healthy way to start the day?

A 2014 survey conducted by National Public Radio (NPR), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health found that 40 percent of those surveyed reported feeling stressed during the previous month. These respondents also mentioned reading or hearing news reports as a contributing factor.

Most people haven’t lived through a global pandemic as deadly as COVID-19. Almost everyone’s way of life has abruptly changed due to a tiny little virus—not visible to the human eye—that has caused a global health and financial crisis. And it’s made many fearful of the unknown.

The modern, 24-hour news cycle provides a continuous flow of rapidly evolving information from around the globe. News about COVID-19 is everywhere and not limited to credible information sources. Blogs, websites, and social media accounts are filled with opinions and information that may or may not be accurate.

This relentless flood of information makes it difficult to distinguish between what’s reliable and useful, sensationalized, full of half-truths, or blatantly false. When you factor in the mandated social distancing that keeps loved ones apart, financial struggles, and the fear of the unknown, it’s no wonder that people feel overwhelmed and powerless. And this contributes to more stress, anxiety, fatigue, and feelings of helplessness.

It’s normal to feel frightened and anxious in stressful situations that you can’t control. And the good news is there are aspects of life you can control and strategies you that can try to help you manage and alleviate stress and anxiety.

Stress is a cycle with many phases and symptoms. You can change the way you manage stress and that can help improve the way you feel. It’s important to pay attention to your physical and mental health, and recognize the signs and symptoms of stress in your loved ones. That way you’ll know when to seek help.

 Identifying Signs of Stress

Everyone experiences occasional stress, but it’s the response to stress and anxiety that makes the difference. The symptoms of persistent, unmanaged psychological and physical stress are many. Here are a few noteworthy examples:

  • An increase or decrease in activity or typical energy levels
  • Difficulty sleeping or relaxing
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Frequent headaches
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Changes in appetite
  • Heightened alertness
  • Feeling more irritable or angry
  • Excessive worrying
  • Feeling depressed or unusually sad
  • Feeling tired
  • Inability to have fun or experience pleasure
  • Preferring to be alone
  • Feeling anxious, fearful, or confused
  • Difficulty making decisions and thinking clearly
  • An increase or decrease in the use of alcohol, tobacco, or in the misuse of legal and illegal drugs

Long-term activation of your body’s stress-response system can increase the risk of developing serious health problems. That’s why it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress and take appropriate action to manage them before they spiral out of control.

Tips for Managing Information-Related Stress During COVID-19

You may not be able to control the world to remove stress, but it’s possible to change the way you respond to stress. And that can make all the difference in how you feel. Reducing stress often provides immediate relief and can provide long-term benefits for your health. Learning to cope with stressful situations now can even help make future ones easier to manage.

Like you read about above, information is important, but also can become overwhelming. Find a balance between staying informed about the COVID-19 outbreak while maintaining sanity and lower stress levels. Spending too much time watching and worrying can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety.

Start by setting limits on how much time you spend online or watching the news. Also, identifying the “why” behind unhealthy media habits is the first step toward breaking the habit.

Don’t just limit your time stewing in the news of the day. Limit the sources of information to quality, credible outlets. Information can change rapidly as more is discovered about this virus. That’s why it’s vital to find accurate and trustworthy sources. Knowing the facts can help you protect you and your loved ones, and bring a sense of calm to help you mentally manage through trying times.

Good sources of for information about outbreaks from infectious diseases include:

  • Your physician
  • State or local health departments
  • Government health agencies
  • International health organizations (like the World Health Organization) are good sources

Take a Calming Deep Breath and Learn Strategies to Cope

Instead of disappearing down the rabbit hole of information overload, there are activities you can do and habits you can adopt to help fight the extra stress of the pandemic.

  1. Socialize, share, and safely see others: Most people are social. That’s why it’s been so difficult to quarantine or social distance from friends and family. Social support is a critical component of healthy relationships and resilient psychological health. Your network of family and friends play a key role in your daily life and you play a role in theirs. This emotional support system is there for you in times of stress to bolster you and help push through hard times.

Talk with family, friends, or loved ones who may be experiencing similar stress and anxiety. A study in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy found that individuals who were able to successfully write or verbally express their stress-related feelings experienced significant improvements in their own physical health.

Connecting with others to share reliable information, express feelings, and voice concerns may help you develop healthy strategies to better cope during stressful times. If you can’t safely be with family and friends physically, find ways to connect virtually. FaceTime, ZOOM, Google Hangouts, and many other video chatting options are available for virtual visits. Or do it the old-fashioned way, through a phone call, a text, email, or letter—whatever works best. You could also consider joining an online coronavirus support group.

  1. Designate periods of time each day to unplug from devices: Turn off the TV, smart phones, and other connected devices. The information will still be there when you’re ready to reconnect.
  2. Schedule regular times to relax your body and mind: You have many options: Meditate, do yoga, breathe deeply, practice mindfulness, take a bath, read a book, enjoy a hobby, listen to soothing music, gently stretch, or go for a walk or run. Exercise is especially helpful to relieve built-up stress and reduce the accompanying muscle tension.
  3. Dose up on nature: Research shows that spending time outdoors relieves stress and lowers stress hormones. When you’re outside enjoying nature, blood pressure and heart rate decrease, mood improves, feelings of anxiety and stress diminish, and mental clarity improves. During the COVID-19 pandemic, enjoying the outdoors also provides a good way to socially distance.
  4. Focus on healthy choices: Making healthier choices to care for your body will have a positive impact on your overall health and well-being. Skip the fast food line and strive to prepare and eat regular, healthy meals with plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean protein sources. And don’t forget to stay hydrated. Ensure you’re tucking in for the recommended amount of sleep (7-9 hours) each night. Also, wash your hands regularly.

If you just can’t seem to control the stress and anxiety you’re feeling, and it’s impacting your health and daily life, please seek help from a professional healthcare provider. A health professional can help bring clarity to what you may be feeling, and provide you additional coping tools.

Take Care of Yourself

Learning new ways to decompress and find stress-free moments in everyday life is important for long-term health anytime. But this is especially important during a global pandemic.

It’s understandable to feel anxious and worried about what’s happening in the world, and what could happen to many aspects of life. The most important thing to remember is to listen to what your body is telling you—know what you’re feeling inside—and give yourself what you need, when you need it. Strive to remain hopeful, celebrate successes even if they are small ones, express gratitude and love, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you need it.





















Stress is a fact of life and so is cortisol—your constant companion during stressful situations. Cortisol is there for brief stressors, like when you wake up late and have to rush to work. And cortisol is with you when stress is more long term, like when you are dealing with a chronic illness.

There’s a lot to know about your body’s primary stress hormone. That’s because it does a lot more than make you feel overwhelmed. Check out this list of cortisol facts and see all that this hormone can do.

  1. Cortisol is a Hormone that Travels in the Blood

Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted into the blood as a response to stress. Anything stressful can make cortisol levels to rise. It can be commonplace, like stress at work or at home. Or it can be stress from physical treats like a car accident, a hard fall, or any encounter with danger. Elevated cortisol is part of your body’s natural reaction to these stressful situations.

It’s the main chemical messenger that can relay instructions or information from one part of the body to the other during times of stress. That’s probably why cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone.”

Usually cortisol levels peak when stress is high and returns to normal when stress subsides. Spikes in cortisol can help your body perform under pressure. But when cortisol concentration stays elevated for too long, some body functions can be negatively impacted.

  1. Adrenal Glands Manufacture Cortisol

Sitting on top of each kidney are the triangle-shaped adrenal glands. Since kidneys filter blood, it’s an ideal place for producing this hormone. That way, cortisol has an easy path from the adrenal glands into the bloodstream.

Even though cortisol is made in the adrenal glands, they can’t release it into the bloodstream on their own. The adrenal glands wait for special instructions from the brain before they secrete cortisol into the body.

  1. The Pituitary Gland Controls Cortisol Release

The adrenal glands’ commands come from a small, pea-sized region of the brain called the pituitary gland. From its location in the center of the brain—behind the eyes—it controls the release of many hormones in addition to cortisol.

The pituitary gland and hypothalamus work together to detect stress. To help you cope with a stressful situation, the pituitary gland can change the amount of cortisol circulating in your blood. And if levels rise or fall out of the normal range, the pituitary gland can adjust the amount of the hormone released by the adrenal glands.

  1. Almost Every Kind of Cell in the Body Has Cortisol Receptors

Chemical messengers like cortisol can only act if their target cell has a receptor. That’s what allows them to bind and deliver the message. One reason such a wide range of cortisol function exists is because nearly every kind of cell has cortisol receptors. So, cortisol has the ability to effect change in most areas of the body.

  1. Cortisol Promotes Energy Efficiency

Glucose is the compound your body needs to create cellular energy (ATP). Carbohydrates are easiest food for your body to pull glucose from. Fats and proteins are trickier and require more steps.

Under normal circumstances, your body stores fat and protein for energy reserves. When your body is stressed and needs as much energy as possible, cortisol steps in and helps turn fats and proteins into more easily usable glucose. In doing this, cortisol makes your body more fuel efficient by using fats and proteins from your diet for energy immediately.

The process of converting fats and proteins to glucose is called gluconeogenesis (gluco = glucose, neo = new, genesis = create). It’s an alternative pathway your body can use to make glucose from non-carbohydrates.

Gluconeogenesis increases the amount of available glucose when your body needs energy the most. By converting fats and proteins into sugar, your brain maintains a steady supply of glucose while still allocating enough energy to power your muscles, heart, and lungs.

Without cortisol, your body would burn its own muscle and fat tissue for energy. Instead, cortisol functions to protect your muscles and necessary body fat during periods of high stress.

  1. Cortisol Can Contribute to Weight Gain

Many people turn to food when feeling bogged down by stress. This craving for fatty, sugary foods is actually the result of a prolonged increase in cortisol levels.

Elevated cortisol stimulates the release of extra insulin, which can cause your blood sugar to drop off. To bring blood sugar back up to the normal range you crave food with lots of carbs. This temporary fix with sugary food will bring your blood sugar back up, but it can also create a damaging habit.

When stress and cortisol increases last a long time, so is insulin and the craving for fattening foods. Over time, using sugary foods to balance blood sugar can lead to insulin resistance and weight gain.

Note that it is not cortisol itself that triggers weight gain. But the consequences of prolonged cortisol level elevation and the effects on insulin and blood sugar can lead you to pack on the pounds.

  1. Immunity Can be Affected by Cortisol

To power your body through stressful times, cortisol slows down some body functions. Unfortunately, your immunity is one of those systems that is put on the backburner. So, it’s not surprising that studies have shown elevated cortisol levels temporarily suppress your immune system.

Cortisol does this by pulling resources from the cells that fight off germs. White-blood-cell production decreases, giving room for viruses and bacteria to take hold. Swelling (your body’s natural reaction to infection) also decreases during times of stress. That’s partly because cortisol puts the cells that promote swelling (B cells and helper T cells) in short supply.

When cortisol levels drop and your immune system comes back online, it’s got a lot of work to catch up on. Dormant viruses use periods of lowered immunity to infect the body. That’s why you might feel sick after prolonged stress.

  1. Memory Trouble and Cortisol are Linked

It’s hard to think clearly when you’re stressed out. If you’ve ever been running behind and couldn’t find your shoes or your car keys, you know this to be true. Heightened cortisol levels can cast a haze over your memory and make it difficult to recollect important information.

Ironically, cortisol actually assists in memory formation. Which explains why some of your most frightening experiences remain vivid memories. But when it comes to recall skills (the kind you need for a test or to remember someone’s name) cortisol has the opposite effect.

Cortisol binds to receptors in the hippocampus and amygdala—the memory hub of your brain. A lot of cortisol circulating in the blood overwhelms your brain. And the flood of stress hormones makes recalling information difficult.

One scientific experiment showed that people can recall information better once cortisol levels start to go down. The findings of the study support the idea that trying to calm down when feeling stressed can improve your ability to remember information.

Taking deep breaths, stretching, meditating, and positive affirmations are all activities that can reduce cortisol and help you calm down. Try pausing for a minute to relax and breathe the next time you are feeling stressed. It could be the trick to helping you remember what you need.

  1. High Cortisol Levels Negatively Impact Bone Growth

Cortisol diverts energy to muscles and the brain. But what part of the body take a hit? Bones are one. Their growth comes to a halt as a result of increase in the stress hormone. And while your bones don’t grow in length as an adult, they do rely on growth mechanisms to stay strong.

Bone-building cells called osteoblasts turn off when cortisol levels are high. Osteoblasts reinforce bones by depositing calcium and collagen into the skeletal structure. Without osteoblasts working during peak cortisol levels, their counterparts (osteoclasts) wreak havoc on bone tissue.

Osteoclasts reabsorb calcium from bones. Demineralizing bones makes them weaker and more prone to breakage. So, long periods of stress can eventually weaken bone tissue. That’s why it is so important to keep cortisol levels within a normal range—for the sake of your bones as well as the rest of your body.

How to Lower Cortisol Levels

Cortisol and stress go hand-in-hand. So, reducing the amount of stress in your life can ensure cortisol levels stay in a healthy range. And, generally speaking, less is more when it comes to cortisol.

Try some of these activities to keep cortisol in check the next time you’re feeling stressed:

  • Prioritize exercise. This can be walking, swimming, gardening, or playing with your kids.
  • Incorporate daily meditation. Take a few moments to tune out your stresses and tune into your body and mind.
  • Focus on deep breathing. Full, deep breaths can reduce cortisol and help you calm down when you feel overwhelmed.
  • Practice yoga. This form of stretching combines meditation and exercise, which adds up to relaxation.
  • Find helpful distractions. Work on your favorite hobbies, serve someone in need, or complete a manageable task around your house. Being productive can turn your thoughts away from what is stressing you out.
  • Get a restful night of sleep. Cortisol levels are cyclical. When you don’t sleep enough, cortisol stays elevated and can leave you feeling even more stressed.
  • Eat a healthy meal. Fill your belly with a good meal made of whole, nutritious foods to fuel your body.
  • Learn to say “no.” This one is hard. Don’t take on more responsibilities than you can handle. Avoid spreading yourself too thin and prioritize the most important tasks.