Cultural Stress is Literally Killing Us

Here’s how to live longer, healthier, happier

I was recently interviewed by Authority magazine on the topic of cultural stress—which is the ubiquitous stress of modern living.

We all know the things that stress us out: work, bills, debt, economic insecurity, traffic, the 24-hour news cycle—most of it negative. In addition, there are the “normal” life stressors: relationships, illness, accidents, aging, and death. To these, add environmental toxins, noise, crowding, poor diets, lack of exercise, lack of social support…These are physical stressors, even if we’re not aware of it. In fact, most of us have more stress than our bodies can handle. Stress even invades our sleep, interrupting the body’s vital rest and repair functions.

Because cultural stress is so deeply embedded in our society, it might seem impossible to mitigate. But it is imperative that we do so because stress is both a trigger and an aggravator of our most debilitating diseases: from hypertension and cardiovascular disease to cancer, diabetes, depression, anxiety, kidney failure, and even neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

While you may not be able to do much about the external forces that are stressing you, you can compensate for their effects by giving yourself—body, mind, and spirit—the additional care you need to prevent illness.

Digital detox

One of the simplest techniques I recommend is to give yourself a periodic “digital detox.” That simply means disconnecting yourself from media for a certain period each day, week, or month. Put your phone in the glove compartment while you’re driving. Go offline each night at least an hour before bedtime and turn your phone off, or shut it in a drawer, when you go to bed. Consider spending one day a week completely offline. Instead, enjoy the company of others, or relax and recreate in the beauty of nature.

Practice stress management

This can be as simple as “mindful breathing,” which can be done for a few minutes several times a day—when you wake up, while you’re driving, waiting for an appointment, and before going to sleep. All you do is take a long, slow, deep breath through the nose, followed by a long, slow exhale.

Breathing through the nose is key. Research shows that long, slow nasal breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for normal body repair and maintenance functions, including digestion, mood, sleep, and cardiovascular and mental health. Stress, however, triggers our sympathetic nervous system, putting us in “fight or flight” mode. While we’re in “fight or flight” mode, normal bodily repair and restoration functions are curtailed, or shut down entirely, saving energy to respond to danger. This is not healthy as a chronic condition. Our body’s deferred repair and restoration activities eventually catch up with us. So practice long, slow, nasal breathing, and reliever yourself of some stress.

Mindful breathing may be the simplest, most accessible stress-reduction technique, but there are many others—from yoga to kickboxing to positive self-talk. The simple act of reading positive statements every day has been shown to reduce stress.

One additional note: Don’t worry about adopting someone else’s stress-reduction strategy. If yoga isn’t your thing, try something that is. It could be salsa dancing, or walks on the beach at sunset. What’s important is that it makes YOU happy.

Create community

In a world that is often mediated by technology, don’t forget the importance of a true social life that includes human contact and human touch. Our species evolved in close physical proximity to others who knew and loved us. We haven’t outgrown that need for physical connection.

Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of contact as simple as a hug for reducing stress. Studies have shown that hugs increase oxytocin production—one of the “feel good” hormones. Hugs also can relax tense muscles, reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol (and with it, blood pressure), and improve mental outlook.

March to the beat of a drum—any drum!

Physical activity itself is a stress reducer. In addition, depending upon the exercise, it improves circulation, increases lung capacity, builds muscle, burns calories, improves flexibility, and gets you “out of your head,” which is where a lot of our stress is generated. Physical activity also builds self-confidence and empowerment. Knowing you can run a mile, or execute a roundhouse kick, or spin a partner around a dance floor reinforces the sense that you can handle life’s other challenges.

Revive your inner toddler

Remember who you were as a child? Chances are you were seldom stressed. Even if you were attempting a new and challenging activity, fraught with failure, like learning to walk, or talk, or ride a bike, your life was mostly fun! That’s because toddlers live in the present. They play. They’re not overly concerned about what people think of them—so long as they have the love of one or two primary caregivers. For toddlers, even the simplest activities can take on the air of an adventure. That’s because so much of it is new: they’ve never done it before! You, too, can add novelty to your life. Take a different route, or transportation mode, to work. Try a new sport or activity. Prepare a new dish. Invite an unfamiliar co-worker to lunch. Remember that life is too short to be taken so seriously. Lighten up and enjoy it!

Practice self-care in the kitchen

Before there was medicine, there was food. Even today, the vast majority of drugs, healthcare, and skincare products are made up of natural ingredients…found in food! So treat yourself like royalty when you prepare a meal and sit down to eat. And, by the way, sit down to eat! Give yourself a balanced diet, rich in vegetables, whole grains, “embryonic” foods (such as nuts and eggs), and other unprocessed foods. If it’s colorful, it’s probably healthy. Reduce or eliminate your intake of ultra-processed foods—and that includes common “staples,” such as breakfast cereals, chips, candy, and artificially sweetened beverages. A study reported in JAMA found that these correlate with an increased risk of early death from all causes.

As I told the Authority magazine interviewer, “I hope that my research on cultural stress can bring more awareness to the incredible amount of harm we are doing to our physical and mental wellbeing, and how we can combat it through practicing daily forms of wellness and self-care. I want to encourage a philosophy that self-care is healthcare, and if we make self-care a daily practice in our lives, we can revolutionize our physical and mental well-being.”

To your health!

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