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by Vanessa Voltolina
According to The American Institute of Stress, unmanaged stress has been connected to 75 to 90 percent of medical visits. As the summer approaches, many of your friends and family are probably taking time off to relax and veg out. But if you’re in the throes of a busy season or major life changes, taking a break may feel like a time waster. Find out why it's healthy to unplug, and check out some fun seasonal ways you can do so.
What Is Stress?
While stress may get a bad rap, at its core, it’s not all bad for us, says Heidi Hanna, who holds a doctorate in holistic nutrition, and is the author of "Stressaholic."
In fact, Dr. Hanna says stress actually stimulates us to grow in very positive ways. The problems associated with stress come into play when we become stuck in a chronic pattern of stressing without allowing time or energy for adequate recovery.
Why Take a Break?
While a little bit of stress is normal, chronic stress triggers a system-wide inflammatory response that is harmful to our bodies and brains, increasing both heart rate and blood pressure while decreasing our immune functioning. "This makes us much more susceptible to illness, and may even speed up the development of diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia," adds Hanna. So even if you feel like taking time for R & R is seemingly less productive, know that it’s ultimately helping your body fend off illness.
Chronic stress also impacts our overall mood and enjoyment of life. "When I am stressed, I feel tense, irritable and my patience can drop to that of a two-year-old," says Kelsea Brennan, an NYU and Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC) trained life coach. "I know I'm not the only one who feels like this." Without stress, Brennan feels "light, friendly and generally happy," which may be the case for the rest of us, too. So why should you take time to de-stress? Your "quality of … life, and the quality of the world you live in, depends on it," says Brennan.
How to Unplug Right Now
Close your eyes and take a moment to imagine a world with less stress. "I guarantee there would be fewer car accidents (due to calmer driving), there would for certain be less disease, and people would be kinder to one another," says Brennan.
But even if you’d like to stress less, how do you get started taking small, practical steps towards a happier, more relaxed you? Try one -- or all -- of these five ideas for a seriously healthier summer season:
"Seriously, meditation is a game changer," says Brennan. Outside of remembering to practice it, this method takes zero effort. Just sit down, close your eyes and breathe. "Meditation is usually the last thing you want to do -- when it's the very thing that could help you the most," says Brennan. This summer, begin a daily meditation practice. Find a favorite spot -- it could be on your patio, at the beach or in your living room -- and practice for about five minutes, preferably in the morning; it can keep you calmer throughout the day.
"It's amazing what a walk in nature, or even just around your neighborhood, can do to your energy," says Brennan. Dr. Hanna agrees, adding that getting outdoors is one of the best ways to boost positive endorphins in the brain and initiate the relaxation response, which balances the normally amped-up stress response. Whether it’s a walk to get some fresh air, or even just spending more time by well-lit windows, you’ll be amazed at the difference it can make.
Step up "play dates."
It may sound silly, but schedule this time in your calendar, suggests Brennan. "Play dates can mean you go to the beach or park, or perhaps take a fun art class." While you may be hesitant at first to do something out of your normal routine, you won’t regret it. Finding a cheap and simple way to experience something new, or something that you haven't done in a really long time, can give you new perspective, says Brennan.
Be more social.
Contrary to what your boss says, water cooler chat is not a waste of time, says Hanna. "It actually allows the brain to shift into a more relaxed state for a few moments, assuming you keep the conversation stress free," says Hanna. These positive social connections decrease toxic stress hormones, like cortisol, in the brain. So during the warmer months, take the opportunity to plan outings with friends, and find a reason to get out of the office for a social lunch with colleagues.
Amp up activity.
"As the weather starts to improve, take time to get outside and move your body, at least every 90 minutes," says Hanna. "Sitting for long periods of time actually engages the stress response as circulations becomes hindered. Even just a few minutes of standing, stretching or gentle walking can improve energy and boost brainpower."
Vanessa Voltolina is a former online editor for NBCUniversal. Her work has appeared in several national publications, including Weight Watchers and SHAPE.
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