STRESS IS WHAT YOU FEEL when you disturb a yellow jacket nest while pitching a tent. More often, however, that fight-or-flight response is triggered by something more insidious than angry ground wasps: an unreasonable boss, a 30-year mortgage, or a pack of Tiger Cubs that wandered away in pursuit of a “cute” raccoon.
Whether you are a Scout leader, volunteer, or parent, you know the many faces of stress. No matter the source—bees or bosses—your body responds the same way, with muscle and jaw tension, rapid pulse, sweaty palms, and obsessive worry. “In any situation that feels like a threat, your brain instructs the adrenal glands to release cortisol, a hormone that provides a burst of energy to either fight or flee,” explains Dr. Florence Comite, an endocrinologist in New York City. But when this primal fear response is turned on indefinitely, this stress hormone can do harm.
Chronic stress compromises our immune systems and has been linked to the common cold, high blood pressure, heart disease, and more. “High cortisol in your system disrupts your sleep,” says Comite, author of the new book, Keep It Up (Rodale Books, 2013), about fighting the diseases of aging. “Both cortisol and sleep deprivation reduce your ability to metabolize carbohydrates, leading to high blood sugar, lower testosterone, and increased fat storage around your middle.”
High stress also factors into anxiety disorders, alcoholism, and depression. According to the Public Health Service, about 50 percent of mental problems reported in the United States are stress disorders, and most of those are related to the brain’s ancient fear system.
But stress and cortisol have an enemy, too: action by you. You can take the bite out of stress by asserting control. Here are some practical ways to beat the stress monster.
Eat a nutty sandwich. Almond butter spread on whole-grain bread makes a stress-busting snack. Whole grains contain tryptophan, an amino acid that turns into the calming neurotransmitter serotonin, while almonds are rich in both zinc and vitamin B12—key mood-balancing nutrients that are typically depleted by cortisol.
Sweat. Physical activity boosts production of feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins. Chopping wood, planting a garden, or taking a hike in the woods will do it just as well as playing tennis or running a 10K. But regular, formal exercise has even greater benefits: it improves mood, can increase feelings of self-confidence, give you a sense of control over your life, help you sleep better, and, studies show, ease symptoms of anxiety and mild depression as effectively as prescription medication.
Pray for calm. University of Mississippi researchers report that religious rituals such as attending church or meditating can lower cortisol secretion by up to 25 percent. You can also develop your spiritual side and reap stress-reducing benefits by taking a walk in the woods or volunteering to help people.
Avoid email addiction. How many times a day do you check your email on that smartphone attached to your hip? Sure, technology streamlines life, but it also adds to our stress. De-stress tip: Stop looking at your screens at least two hours before bedtime. Computers, tablets, and phones with self-luminous displays can make it harder to fall asleep. A 2012 study at the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that a two-hour exposure to a backlit display could cause a 23 percent suppression of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep/wake cycles. Shut down the tech earlier to sleep better and ease stress.
Put a value on the key areas of your life. Many of us say family, friends, and community are valuable parts of our life, yet we spend most of our time focused on work. When work life becomes troublesome, the resulting stress can become overwhelming. By building a healthier, more equitable balance in your life—your home, your work, your family, and your Scouting activities—you create a buffer against stress. If one part of your life heads south, the strength of the others will prop you up.
Walk the dog. Spending time with a dog provides more stress relief than being around a two-legged companion, according to researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Plan like a quartermaster. Planning is the most important thing you can do to avoid stress, say many psychologists. In fact, a survey of 3,000 psychologists determined that planning your day, your week, and your year was the most effective stress-management technique. Schedule a regular time daily or weekly to check in with yourself and plan ahead. Doing so will give you a much-needed sense of control, reduce stress, and conserve energy needed for when the unexpected happens.
Learn to how to say “no.” This is a tough one for Scouting volunteers, who by virtue of their “helpful, friendly, obedient” nature and on-the-job training are accustomed to saying “yes” to more and more. But anyone with too much on his or her plate will experience more stress if they don’t develop the ability to say no to more without regret. That’s where good planning and learning to delegate can help.
Lastly, know this: Stress is not a sign of weakness. It is, instead, a physiological call to action. Dr. Robert Epstein, a psychologist and author, says that 25 percent of our happiness hinges on how well we’re able to manage stress. So manage it … with a smile.
Jeff Csatari’s books, including the new The Belly Off! Workouts, are available for 20 percent off at rodalestore.com using the code “Scout” at checkout.