By Luis F. Sierra, Ph.D., R.Y.T.
In our society when we think about stress we think of the big stuff—the large, life-altering incidents that turn our lives upside down. But stress can come at us from every angle during even the most routine parts of our daily lives. Of course, a house fire, a car accident or a devastating medical diagnosis for ourselves or a family member are all stressful situations that must be navigated, but trying to get mittens on your toddler, getting milk in your coffee when you ordered cream or hitting an extra long red light on the way to an important meeting are also potential stressors. Stress can even occur as a response to the good things in life that we wish for, like your team winning the Superbowl, earning a promotion at work or having a baby. And this can make the landscape of stress confusing.
When we talk about managing stress, it is important to identify and understand just exactly what causes the stress, what are the circumstances surrounding it and how we respond to it. When you face the fact that you are feeling stressed out, the question becomes not so much where to place the blame for the stress, but instead, “What is going on in me that makes this stressful?” This is where we begin to understand exactly what it is that makes a certain situation stressful and allows us to examine, “What can I do to respond to stress more skillfully in a wholesome way?”
There are a lot of very unskillful ways of responding to stress. You can drink too much alcohol, you can overeat, you can go around blaming the world for it, you can try to run away from it. But really understanding the what and why of the stressor and the stress means you have to look more closely at yourself. And awareness of ourselves—mind, body and heart—is one of the ways in which we can begin to do that.
At The Foundation of CVPH’s Stepping Out For Your Heart event on February 6, I shared simple practices to help participants begin to understand sources of stress and cultivate qualities of mind and heart that allow them to be present in their lives, with greater balance, strength and a sense of well-being. Through mindfulness practices many have found it is possible to develop and cultivate coping skills to manage life’s inevitable stressors in a different way, learning how to understand what contributes to well-being and what doesn’t.
When it comes to heart health, there are many intersecting variables—genetic predisposition, diet and lifestyle—but much of our overall mental and physical health is strongly influenced by the choices we make, and managing stress and making choices that contribute to our well-being as opposed to undermining it will build a foundation for good health. And just like learning to ride a bike or developing any other skill, building that foundation takes practice.
A quote I often turn to is, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So, the good news is, you can actually make the changes. But the bad news is, you’ve got to make the changes. Here are some simple suggestions to skillfully and wholesomely manage stress and begin building your healthy foundation:
- Deep breathing: At the Stepping Out For Your Heart event I invited participants to take part in a guided awareness, eventually ending with breath awareness. For some people it is very uncomfortable to pay that close attention, for others it is a great opportunity for a nap, some find they have never paid that close attention to their mind, bodies, hearts; but becoming aware of your breathing and making it part of your daily routine can decrease stress, increase energy and even improve immunity during cold and flu season.
- Eat well: Many common foods cause inflammation, just like unregulated stress, and both undermine good health. Making good food choices doesn’t mean not enjoying a nice donut every now and then with your coffee, but it might mean not eating six donuts.
- Take a break: Yoga, meditation and mindfulness exercises all offer moments of downtime.
Luis F. Sierra, Ph.D., R.Y.T. 500 recently retired after nearly 30 years as a Hatha yoga and mindfulness instructor. He is a certified Integral Yoga teacher, Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 500 hours) Yoga Alliance and mindfulness instructor. He has completed both the Professional Training and Teacher Development Intensive in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Stress Reduction Clinic, University of Massachusetts (1995-1997). He also completed the Integrated Study and Practice Program (ISPP) at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Barre, MA from 2009 to 2010 with Andrew Olendzki and Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia, mentored by Christina Feldman and continues studies in this field. Luis works privately with people of all ages dealing with heart disease, cancer, dementia, addiction/recovery, anxiety and other chronic health conditions. He also adapts yoga and mindfulness based practices for businesses and organizations interested in contributing to staff well being. He will continue to do presentations for cardiac rehab four times a year on stress management.