Posts Tagged ‘Stress Reduction’
Memorial Day weekend used to be the traditional kickoff for summer getaways. But for millions of Americans, going on a vacation or even taking a few days off here and there is a luxury they can ill afford. Among the 20 most developed countries in the world, the United States ranks dead last when it comes to recreation.
Unlike in Europe, where paid vacations of 20 to 30 days annually are the norm and guaranteed by law, the labor standards in this country generally do not require employers to provide such benefits. What’s more, even those lucky Americans who are entitled to paid time off often forego part of it.
There is no doubt that American workers, including millions of immigrants who have chosen the American way of life, have a particularly strong work ethic. But countries like Sweden or Germany, not exactly known as slackers, have fared well with their mandatory vacation policies, without losing their competitive edge. In fact, according to the latest report on global economic competitiveness by the World Economics Forum, the U.S. came in only fourth behind Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore. And even Canada, a country that is arguably closest to us in culture and lifestyle, mandates a minimum of 10 days vacation time per year for all its workers.
So, what makes Americans so much less inclined to quit work and relax for a few weeks or even just days on end?
For low-income workers it’s primarily a question of money. Those are typically the ones with the least benefits, including paid vacation or sick leave time. For others it’s fear they could be passed over for promotions or even lose their jobs if they are absent too often or too long. Some think it’s not worth the extra hassle to tie up loose ends before they leave or catch up after they return. And there may be a few who just don’t know what to do with themselves outside of work.
What’s often not discussed is that not taking time off regularly can lead to serious health problems. The results are comparable to chronic stress, when there is no reprieve not just from one’s workload but also from repetitive routines.
Often people get into a mindless routine at work and home, which can be broken if they distance themselves once in a while, says Dr. Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard University, in an interview on the health benefits of vacationing and travel with CNN. Uninterrupted routines tend to result in boredom, which hinders creativity and mindfulness, she says, and is therefore counterproductive. By contrast, having new and interesting experiences on a trip, for example, can be brought back to the workplace and enhance one’s performance.
But it’s not just mental health that must be restored on occasion. Chronic stress takes its toll on the body’s ability to resist infections, maintain vital functions and even the ability to avoid injuries, according to Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor for psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and contributor to Psychology Today.
“When you’re stressed out and tired, you are more likely to become ill, your arteries take a beating, and you’re more likely to have an accident. Your sleep will suffer, you won’t digest your food as well, and even the genetic material in the cells of your body may start to become altered in a bad way.”
And mentally, she says, “not only do you become more irritable, depressed and anxious, but your memory will become worse and you’ll make poorer decisions. You’ll also be less fun to be with, causing you to become more isolated, lonely and depressed.”
For these reasons and others, your vacation, should you decide on taking one, must not end up causing you even more stress.
If you travel somewhere away from home, I recommend choosing a destination that is truly different from your familiar surroundings. It doesn’t have to be a deserted island, just unlike what you’re used to.
Leave your smart phone and laptop behind, so you cannot be reached from the office and won’t be tempted to “check in” every so often.
Don’t get involved in too many activities, even though they seem fun, if they turn your vacation into another hectic event.
Live in the moment and make the most of each day. Focus on all the things you never seem to have enough time for such as leisure, pleasure, conversation, etc.
If all or most of this seems impossible to you, perhaps it’s time to rethink your priorities.
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Even Going on Vacation Can Be Scary.”
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).
Southern Europeans are among the healthiest and longest living humans on the planet, according to studies on quality of life and longevity in different parts of the world. Considering the economic crisis that has taken hold of the region over the past few years, this seems almost a paradox. Experts have long suspected that good eating habits as well as a slower-paced lifestyle are largely responsible for these advantages.
A recently completed study from Spain has now confirmed some of these assumptions. It found that people who followed what is called the “Mediterranean diet” could lower their risk of heart disease by up to 30 percent.
As the name indicates, the Mediterranean diet is based on the culinary cultures of countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. It consists mainly of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, lean meats, whole grains, olive oil, nuts and also wine with most meals.
Even by comparison to Northern Europeans who have a similar or even higher standard of living, Southerners show overall lower rates of heart disease. One of the reasons for this may be that olive oil and nuts contain monounsaturated fats, which are more conducive to maintaining artery health than saturated fats in butter and lard, more commonly used in the north.
For the study, over 7,400 participants between the ages of 55 and 80 were assigned slightly different diet regimens. All were at an increased risk of developing heart disease at the outset of the study because of other illnesses such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure as well as weight problems, family history and poor lifestyle choices. Surprisingly, those who were given olive oil and a selection of nuts in addition to their regular food intake did best in improving their health condition.
The benefits of the Mediterranean diet seem also applicable to age-related mental health. In a separate study, researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center in New York found that participants who followed the dietary guidelines most strictly could cut their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40 percent. The reasons are similar to those for heart disease. Experts believe that uninhibited blood flow to the brain, enabled by good heart functions and unobstructed arteries, is crucial for the prevention of mental decline.
Of course, it would be naive to assume that dietary improvements alone would make us altogether healthier and let us live longer. For instance, to prevent heart disease, it is not only important to eat right but also to exercise regularly, manage stress, get enough sleep and also have loving relationships in one’s life. We affect our health not only by the way we eat but also how we behave, said Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California. It’s not just one thing that will make us well but a “spectrum program” of choices, as he calls his comprehensive approach to disease prevention and better health.
One of the most important aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle is having close ties with family and friends. Sharing meals, taking time for conversation, celebrating special occasions surrounded by loved ones – all of that contributes to people’s well-being.
“Study after study has shown that people who are lonely and depressed and isolated – and I think that’s a real epidemic in our culture – are three times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love and connection and community,” he said in an interview. “In part this is because when you are feeling lonely and depressed, you’re more likely to smoke, overeat, drink, work too hard, abuse yourself in different ways, as a way of just getting through the day.” In the end, he added, what matters most is your overall way of living.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
It’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.” But for many Americans the holiday season brings considerable stress, anxiety and even depression. What should be an opportunity to slow down, take a vacation, focus on family and friends, often turns into an annually reoccurring hassle that is more of a burden than a relief.
It’s no wonder that so many people have a sense of dread rather than excitement about the holidays and find themselves completely frazzled by the time it’s over, says Elisabeth Scott, a stress management expert at about.com. According to a poll she conducted, 80 percent of respondents said they were more stressed during the holidays than they would like to be.
“All of the baking and entertaining, shopping, wrapping, relatives we don’t often see (sometimes for good reason), and holiday cards can add up to a schedule packed with extra activity and responsibility. Pair that with high expectations that most of us carry for the season, as well as the debt that often lasts for months afterwards, and you have a recipe for stress,” says Scott.
Stress is also one of the reasons why so many people get sick around the holidays. It’s not just flu season that catches up with you, it’s also that the heightened stress weakens your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria. Studies have shown that when test participants were subjected to elevated stress levels, their bodies almost stopped producing infection-fighting antibodies and their natural defenses went down.
Stress can make you more susceptible to illnesses from colds and flu to chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, according to WebMD. Studies found that chronic stress can ‘age’ the immune system and potentially increase the risk of any number of serious health conditions, including cancer.
It doesn’t have to be this way. “This year can be different,” says Scott. “Try a combination of cutting back on activities, taking shortcuts, and adjusting your own expectations for the season. You can enjoy the holidays to the fullest without maxing out your energy, schedule and credit cards.”
Most importantly, you need to take care of your health, if you want to make it through the holidays in one piece. That starts with sound eating habits, regular exercise and getting enough rest.
Stress increases your need for nutrients because stress makes it more difficult for the body to digest properly, says Cindy Heroux, a registered dietitian and author of “The Manual That Should Have Come With Your Body” (Speaking of Wellness, 2003). “The more malnourished you become, the more severely stress will impact both your body and your mind,” she warns.
To prevent that from happening, health experts recommend eating plenty of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables to keep so-called “free radicals” at bay. Free radicals are reactive biological compounds that can damage DNA and suppress the immune system and are associated with many diseases. It is believed that stress plays a significant role in the increasing presence of these compounds.
Exercise, of course, is a great way to find relief from stress. “Exercise can decrease stress hormones like cortisol and increase endorphins, your body’s feel-good chemicals, giving your mood a natural boost. [It] can take your mind off your problems and either redirect it on the activity at hand or get you into a zen-like state,” says Scott.
In addition to following a balanced diet and exercise regimen, you also must set time aside for rest and relaxation. If necessary, you have to say ‘no’ and cut back on preparations or activities if they overwhelm you. “You don’t need to try every activity offered, go to every party thrown, or do everything the ‘Martha Stewart’ way in order to make your holiday special,” says Scott. Don’t become so busy that you no longer enjoy what is supposed to be fun and give you pleasure. Stick to what’s important to you, the things you would really miss if they weren’t included, and don’t measure yourself by other people’s expectations. After all, it should be a wonderful time for you, too.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.