By Jennifer Scott
For some people, anxiety is something you have to manage on a daily basis. For others, anxiety pops up out of nowhere, especially around stressful times like the holidays, weekends and vacations. Personally, I fall somewhere in between these two. Dealing with chronic anxiety means I have to stay committed to healthy activities that help. Yet, even with these strategies, there’s something about the holidays that can quickly derail my mental health goals, despite my best efforts.
As Verywell Mind explains, holiday stress is predictable. I know it’s coming each year, but for some reason, it still creeps up on me. After years of this catching me off guard and struggling with episodes of anxiety around the holidays, I’ve finally realized how much it helps to simply anticipate vacation stress. This realization has been life-changing, which is why I felt it was so important to share how powerful it can be. Because when you accept that vacation stress will happen, you can find strategies to handle it and even keep it from turning into full-blown anxiety.
Strategy #1 – Keep Up with Healthy Habits
Wait, weren’t we talking about anxiety?! The truth is that many people underestimate the role our habits play in managing stress and anxiety. Being active, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough rest are all habits that keep you healthy physically, but they also keep mental health in check. This doesn’t mean you should do anything drastic! In fact, the nutrition blog Lively Table recommends not starting a diet over the holiday season. Instead, aim for balance, with healthy breakfasts, extra helpings of vegetables, and supplements that fill out your nutritional needs.
It’s also a good idea to consider supplements that help with anxiety, such as CBD oil. CBD oil comes from the cannabis plant, but it doesn’t contain the psychoactive chemical THC. What this means is that it delivers a calming effect without the high feeling you get from using marijuana. When it comes to buying CBD oil, the best quality can often be found through a CBD dealer who comes highly recommended, or through a marijuana dispensary that also sells CBD products, which may include capsules and edibles in addition to oils.
Strategy #2 – Lean on Your Support System
As much as personal habits can help you manage anxiety, no one should try to cope without the help of a strong support system. And while many of us spend extra time with family during holidays, weekends and vacations, all that family time may lead to extra stress — not support. This is one of those stressors that you can anticipate, which means you can have a plan for how to handle it. If you’ll travel to visit family and will be away from your support network, stay in touch with those who can help most by calling and texting. Just be sure that your data plan will have you covered, as you don’t want to get hit with overage charges, especially around the holidays. If you need to make changes such as adding more data, survey your provider’s unlimited phone plans before the season gets hectic.
Strategy #3 – Embrace Acceptance
Even when you have the healthiest routine and the best support system, stress during your periods of time-off will still happen. This is why Greater Good Magazine encourages acceptance. Accepting stress may sound unconventional, but it’s actually a smart way to protect your mental health. Along with acceptance, it’s also important to have realistic expectations around those days without work routines. You can’t do everything, so focus on setting limits that put your top priorities first. For example, if you have a long list of personal and family responsibilities, consider whether some events are absolutely necessary or if certain ones can be skipped. If spending money on gifts during the holidays is a stressor, talk to family about having a more minimalist holiday so that your budget gets a break.
Setting these limits is actually one of the best ways to take control over a hectic weekend or holiday schedule. Of course, stress will still happen, even with the best strategies. However, when you confront it head-on, the stress becomes more manageable and the joys of the season will outweigh the anxiety.
Why do you breathe a sigh of relief when a stressful situation is resolved? Why is deep breathing or stretching your neck so relaxing?
Be thankful to your vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the body. It contains ‘vagabond’ nerve fibers driving the ‘rest and digest’ response to key organs and body systems. This is the key pathway for our brain to connect with the entire organism and deactivate the ‘fight and flight’ response leading to anxiety and stress.
What is the Vagus Nerve?
The vagus nerve wanders throughout your body and in so doing connects your brain to a number of vital organs in your body, including your gut, lungs and heart.
It is the key component of the parasympathetic, ‘rest and digest,’ part of your autonomic nervous system. The other component of the system is the sympathetic, ‘fight or flight,’ response. An imbalance or lack of control of your autonomic response leads to anxiety and chronic stress. The sympathetic nerves are the gas pedal, revving you up, while the parasympathetic or vagus nerve puts the breaks in motion and slows you down.
The vagus nerve is key to feeling a sense of calm. When you stimulate the vagus nerve, feel-good hormones like prolactin and oxytocin are released. As a result, you feel less anxious and depressed, experience less tension headaches and form stronger social bonds.
It also controls many functions in your body that happen unconsciously. So, a well-functioning autonomic nervous system means better blood glucose and blood pressure control, better digestion and immunity, and less inflammation. You will also experience better heart health and less allergies.
On the other hand, if your vagus nerve is not functioning well, you may experience weight gain, digestive issues, depression, anxiety, and chronic inflammation. Even, the so-called invisible disease or dysautonomia, affecting millions of people globally.
What is the Gut-Brain Connection?
The vagus nerve extends into the digestive system. In fact, close to 20% of the vagus nerve cells form connections with the digestive system and send messages from the brain in order to control movement of food along the gut. In addition, the bacteria in the gut communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve, which not only affects how much food is eaten, but inflammation and mood as well.
As a result, stimulating the vagus nerve can improve digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome. On the other hand, damage to the vagus nerve can cause digestive issues such as diarrhea, bloating, nausea and slow down the emptying of the stomach.
Can the Vagus Nerve be Stimulated?
As a medical treatment, the vagus nerve can be stimulated to treat a number of diseases including medication-resistant epilepsy, treatment-resistant depression and anxiety disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
To stimulate the vagus nerve, an electrode is implanted along the right side of the vagus nerve, thus providing regular activation of the vagus nerve.
Unless you are a yoga master, you cannot directly stimulate the vagus nerve, but you can do so indirectly to relieve anxiety and depression. Do it yourself in 4 natural ways:
Breath Slowly and Deeply
Most of us don’t breathe well. We either breathe too fast; about 10 to 14 breaths per minute, or we breathe too superficially; from the chest instead of the diaphragm. Thus, we short-change ourselves from the life-giving force of the vagus nerve.
By breathing deeper and more slowly, we are able to stimulate the vagus nerve, and thus reduce anxiety. So, how exactly can you practice abdominal breathing? It’s actually quite simple: When you are breathing, think about slowly filling your abdomen up like a balloon. This will make you naturally inhale slowly. Then, slowly exhale.
How often you practice slow abdominal breathing depends on you. You can make a daily routine of it by fitting it into a daily meditation or yoga practice. On the other hand, you can also just practice it whenever you feel on edge. Just 3 cycles of slow abdominal breathing can work wonders for activating your vagus nerve!
Because your gut and your brain are intimately connected via the gut-brain axis, whatever affects your gut also affects your brain and its connections such as the vagus nerve.
So, by taking good care of your gut, you’re also taking care of your vagus nerve. One way you can take care of your gut is by practicing intermittent fasting. Much like you need to give your body a rest in order to recharge, intermittent fasting gives your gut a break from digestion, so it can recharge. In fact, research shows that intermittent fasting increases your heart rate variability, which is a measure of the activity of your vagus nerve.
An easy way to begin intermittent fasting is to stop eating, snacking or drinking alcohol after 7 p.m., and not resume eating or snacking until 7 a.m. the next day.
Stretch and Exercise daily
Participating in daily physical activity has tons of benefits, one of which is stimulating your vagus nerve. Activating your parasympathetic nervous system decreases your stress and anxiety levels, your anger, and even inflammation.
However, there is one caveat when it comes to physical activity; it should be done regularly and include moderate cardio and strength routines, which provide a sufficient increase of the vagal tone without overexerting yourself. This is because when you exercise too intensely, your vagus nerve activity actually diminishes.
Yoga is an ideal type of practice since stretching in certain yoga poses has a proven beneficial effect on heart rate and blood pressure, especially stretching the neck in the cobra pose.
Be Aware and Empathetic
In today’s technology driven world, we can feel isolated despite social media. Research has demonstrated that when you feel socially isolated, your vagus nerve function decreases.
But the good news is that there is a remedy for this; face-to-face interactions. The same study found that when those who felt socially isolated were engaged in fact-to-face interactions with others such as family and friends, the vagus tone increased.
Not able to have face-to-face interactions right now? Not to worry! By practicing mindful framing, a mindfulness practice that transforms your anxiety into vital energy through visualization, you will increase self-awareness and become more empathetic towards people in your family, at work and other acquaintances.
Or you can practice loving-kindness mindfulness, projecting warm feelings of love, empathy, and forgiveness toward others in four stages; first with friends and loved ones, then strangers who are suffering around the world, then your enemies and those you hold grudges against, and finally, yourself.
By naturally stimulating your vagus nerve, you will have at your disposal a powerful tool to relax and rebound from anxious thoughts and life’s stresses. Discover how your mind can control your body by sending the right signals to your heart, your lungs and your gut, while creating an aura of peace and relaxation around you.
Can you imagine your life without emotional peaks and valleys? Sounds impossible, right? What’s possible is to increase your emotional control through enduring changes in lifestyle.
When you wake up relaxed and energized from a good night’s sleep, ready to take on the day – that’s serotonin kicking in.
When you feel depressed, overwhelmed by your daily responsibilities and challenges, you may have a deficit of serotonin.
What is serotonin?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that carries messages between neurons. It plays an important role in regulating your mood, controlling your appetite, helping your blood clot, helping you concentrate, regulating your body temperature, and ensuring a good night’s sleep. As a result, when we have normal levels of serotonin, we feel emotionally balanced and alert.
On the other hand, if we have low levels of serotonin, we may have trouble remembering things, feel depressed, crave sweet or starchy foods, feel anxious or irritable, have trouble sleeping or have feelings of low self-worth.
What is the link between serotonin and depression?
Researchers have linked low levels of serotonin in the brain with depression. Back in the 1960s, researchers hypothesized that low levels of serotonin in the brain led to depression. However, this hypothesis has now been debunked.
Instead, it appears that several other factors are also involved in depression. These include:
- Having a family history of depression
- Having a hectic lifestyle and having a high level of stress in your life
- Your relationships at home and in the workplace
Nevertheless, if you have low levels of serotonin, you may be at increased risk of depression. This is where SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) may be helpful. SSRIs are medications which increase the uptake of serotonin in your brain.
Too much of a good thing is bad for us though. Serotonin syndrome is a potentially life-threatening condition that can occur if you take too much of an SSRI or if you take many SSRIs at the same time.
If you are looking to recharge your batteries, and need a little extra boost, here are 4 simple ways to naturally boost your serotonin levels:
Bask in bright light
When you go outside for a stretch or even just to gaze at nature, you may have noticed that you tend to come back recharged and better able to concentrate. This is because our brains produce more serotonin when we spend time in bright sunlight.
Is it cloudy outside? Still head outdoors! Even on a cloudy day, the light intensity is still typically brighter than your typical indoor lighting. Alternatively, invest in a high-intensity luxe lamp that simulates bright sunlight.
Eat a healthy diet
Adding more fruits, vegetables and legumes can contribute to a healthy gut. But did you know that having a healthy gut can also boost your serotonin levels?
More than 90% of our serotonin is produced in our digestive tract. Thus, by eating fiber-rich foods which promote gut health such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes we are naturally boosting our serotonin levels.
Foods that are high in tryptophan can also boost your serotonin levels. This is because tryptophan is converted to serotonin in your brain. What foods tend to be high in tryptophan? Protein containing foods such as nuts, lentils, tofu, chicken, fish and eggs.
However, boosting your serotonin levels is not as simple as incorporating protein-rich foods. This is because tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids, in particular the branched chain amino acids for access to our blood-brain barrier, before it can be converted to serotonin in our brain.
How can one overcome this obstacle? Eat more plant-based proteins such as seeds and nuts. Plant-based proteins contain less branched chain amino acids, hence they are better absorbed through the blood brain barrier.
Engage in regular exercise
It can be hard to get into exercise mode, particularly if you are down in the dumps. Everything seems like a struggle, particularly working up the motivation to break a sweat. When we exercise, both aerobic and strength, the activity of serotonin in the brain is revved up and the levels of tryptophan in our brain rise.
If fitting exercise into your daily routine seems too difficult, begin with baby steps. Commit to just 5 minutes of a vibrant walk a day for one week. Then the next week, increase it to 10 minutes. Before you know it, you will have built up to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, and reap not only increased serotonin levels but numerous health benefits as well.
Be mindful of your thoughts
Just like the saying goes “You are what you eat”, you also become what you think! In a study conducted on healthy participants, those who were told to recall happy memories showed increased serotonin production in their brains. On the other hand, those who were told to recall sad memories showed decreased serotonin production in their brains.
It can be very tempting to ruminate on sad events when we are suffering from depression. But by finding happy things to focus on, we may be able to achieve a happier state of mind.
To think happy thoughts, begin a gratitude journal, practice mindfulness, focus on your strengths rather than your perceived weaknesses, and reminisce about the good times in your life.
Life has its ups and downs. By naturally boosting your serotonin levels, you will be able to experience more “highs” than “lows”. Start right now on the path to feeling happier, more alert, and refreshed every day.
Have you realized that you are not the same person you were five years ago? Some aspects of your character and values may have been impacted by unforeseen learning experiences!
Life offers us a continual stream of new possibilities for growth and expansion. There is a good chance that your work, social and personal life requires you to adapt to our ever-changing world.
Ideally you want to acquire relevant knowledge while avoiding all the noise that generates our environment. You can be up-to-date without over-stretching your mind or causing unnecessary anxiety following 5 easy steps.
Embrace the trial-and-error process
When you take on a new challenge, it can be exciting at first, but as you dig in, you might find your self drowning in uncharted waters.
Let’s imagine that you are building a personal or professional website. You might spend a lot of time on figuring out how to create different features, and you will certainly make mistakes. It’s okay to get a little lost in the process and let yourself run into problems and errors. Trial and error is a great way to construct a new, valuable skill set for future use.
The next time you try to build a website, you will know not just what to do, but also what not to do. You have learned from your mistakes, the most fundamental way of learning. Every misstep is an opportunity to learn a lesson, improve, and move forward.
Find the right environment
Take a moment and consider where you focus best and get your job done with ease and pleasure. For some, a coffee house with background music and chatter is ideal, others prefer a quiet place while some people need the pressure of the office environment.
Irrespective of working for yourself or a company, don’t hesitate to personalize your workspace to suit your needs. The days of one-size-fits-all learning (or work) environment are fast fading.
Instead, we now seem to understand that to achieve impactful wisdom, we should value the unique environmental needs and learning styles of each individual.
Reading should become a pleasurable activity. You must acquire the discipline of reading, in print or digitally, while reducing audio or video content. Reading does a few things to help you enhance learning.
First of all, your brain is focused on the information at hand. You let go of superfluous or unhelpful thoughts in order to concentrate. While reading you can either stop and reflect or accelerate and skim through words and sentences. You are actively controlling the information flow, while audio and video learning is a more passive approach.
Secondly, delving into a good book automatically brings fresh vocabulary, ideas and perspectives into the forefront of your consciousness. And more importantly, it helps hone your visualization skills and imagination capabilities.
When you acquire data through the written word, you improve your writing and oral communication skills. Your daily life and conversations can bring out opportunities to express and connect your new perspectives to the world around you.
As you sit down to complete a task, it can be tempting to enforce high expectations to master a new skill in one go. Yes, it’s commendable to have goals, but respect for your mental and physical boundaries should be front and center.
If you push yourself too hard, adverse outcomes can occur, such as:
- Inability to make decisions
- Lack of focus
However, if you incorporate breaks into your learning process, you give your mind (and emotions) the much-needed space to refocus and refresh.
Being mindful of our concentration patterns allows us to optimize our learning style in a significant way. A leader cannot expect his team to perform and be balanced without letting their minds and bodies recharge and relax. The introduction of a mindfulness practice is a way to increase learning readiness in high-performing organizations.
A night of restorative sleep can offer clarity and bring cohesiveness to the learning elements you have acquired throughout the day.
As you problem-solve or attempt to master a new skill, sleep may seem like the last thing you should do. Often, we can feel a strong desire to power through until we figure everything out.
But in reality, ‘sleeping on it’ can bring a valuable boost to our learning curve. A recent study has confirmed that a good night’s rest can protect already stored memories while improving the access and organization of knowledge in the brain.
In essence, becoming a life-long learner requires daily habits that replace intensive data, information and knowledge gathering with a focus on acquiring wisdom with the right coordinates of time and space.
Have you ever seen yourself as a leader, the boss of your life? Wouldn’t be great to coast stress-free through your personal, family and work responsibilities and goals?
Those who lead successfully their life and businesses rarely display stress despite everyday challenges and overwhelming agendas.
To become a truly effective leader with the right mindset, learn and practice how to control your time, actions and spaces.
Focus on one thing at a time
How can you efficiently concentrate on something when your phone is vibrating, and your e-mails are stockpiling?
The key is time blocking. To time block, you section your day into segments of activities. For instance, just between 8-9 am and 4-5 pm you might answer e-mails (then leave them untouched for the rest of the day).
This simple approach will substantially increase your available time for focused work without continually shifting gears, keeping you and your goals on track. Tomorrow will come, and the remaining messages will be answered.
Some benefits of time blocking include:
- Increased focus on tasks
- Balanced workload
- Task prioritization
- Bolstered sense of accomplishment
Work at your peak energy hours
Many people nowadays are able to have flexible work hours. If freedom of time is your case, it’s worth noting whether you are more productive in the morning, afternoon or evening.
Some people thrive when they dig in first thing upon rising. However, some may prefer to enjoy a workout, relaxed coffee, and breakfast with their family before answering calls and handle requests.
Be mindful of your life’s overall values and when you accomplish at your best.
Create and maintain boundaries
When you head home at the end of a long workday, it can be all too easy to stay in overdrive. Instead of indulging in a movie with your kids and being in the moment, you might be tempted to start worrying and acting on your to-do list.
See yourself as a leader who needs to get things done but with the ability to define when, where and with whom to accomplish them. Create boundaries for yourself and others, not just for focused work but also for well-deserved downtime. Often, if someone knows that you are not available after a specific time of day, respect for your boundaries will be formed.
When the space and time of everyone are acknowledged, teamwork and creativity improve. Some problems require solo work, while other tasks can only be achieved through cooperation and convergence of the minds. Let’s be surprised when closing and opening these gates of creativity.
Avoid wasting time
We want to please others, to help others, to work in teams, but we waste precious time without a well-defined purpose when meeting with someone to accomplish a task.
Have you ever sat through a meeting while you know that you would be more productive if you could get back to your desk?
Meetings are the prime example of a time-wasting activity. Meetings are helpful when there is a powerfully clear agenda with an eagle-eye focus on targets. But in reality, meetings can often pull people off track with conflicting agendas, either behind the scenes or in the open.
If you do have a meeting, do your best to keep it short and sweet. In essence, you want to get in, express crucial points, get feedback and decide next steps.
Say ‘no’ often
“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” Warren Buffet
See yourself as a leader, a natural born achiever. But control your desire to be everywhere and everything to everyone because it will not help you attain quality leadership.
Remember, it’s okay to opt out. American hedge fund manager, James Altucher, gave this golden piece of advice, “If something is not a ‘Hell Yeah!’ then it’s a no.”
Give yourself permission to prioritize and stick to only that which will serve you best. Keep in mind, you can only give and be productive if your energy is not depleted.
Only if you are in control of your life you will be able to avoid unnecessary stress. A highly effective leader values time, defines boundaries and acts when the iron’s hot. Keep your mind sharp and focused but find time to go home and discover the smoothness and refreshing feeling of a cool iron.