This might sound familiar. Every morning you wake up, fill an oversized mug with coffee, dash off to work, and frantically get through your day with still too much left on your to-do list. Then you come home late, eat something in a hurry, and plant yourself in front of the TV with a glass of wine.
Welcome to the modern world where there is always too much to do and never enough time. We’re stressing ourselves out 24/7, year after year.
Technology is supposed to help us out, but despite having automated everything we seem to only get busier and have less time. We’re all headed straight for serious burnout and on the path toward disease. This stress isn’t good for us.
What’s Happening in Your Body? Cortisol vs. Oxytocin
Stress is directly linked to that well-known hormone, cortisol. But what exactly is cortisol?
Cortisol is your main stress hormone that activates the “fight or flight” response. It’s made in your adrenal glands and its main job is to help you handle stress (and to save you from a hungry tiger).
But when your life is full of stressful events all day long, you end up flooding your body with cortisol too often, upsetting your hormone balance.
What’s the hormone that has nearly the opposite effect? Oxytocin, which lots of people like to call the “love hormone.” This hormone is the reason why you fall in love with your newborn the moment he or she is born. Oxytocin can be called the anti-stress hormone, as it encourages you to cuddle, hug, and nurture. Generally, it makes you feel great!
While both hormones have essential functions in our bodies, it’s best if they work in balance. With our high-stress lives, we tend to produce too much cortisol and too little oxytocin.
So how do we increase oxytocin and decrease cortisol? Here are some valuable steps to help you reduce stress and increase joy in your life.
1. Recognize what is causing your stress by asking yourself these questions
- Are you overbooked and doing too many things?
- What can you say no to?
- Are you focused on quality nutrition so you have the energy to handle day-to-day stressors?
- Take a look at your career, lifestyle, and relationships. Is there something you can change to reduce your stress levels?
- Are you getting enough quality sleep?
- Are you taking time out to relax and care for yourself?
2. Make one simple change rather than trying to tackle it all at once
It can be tempting to want to do a total overhaul of your life. But resist the urge and stick with sustainable change. Pick one thing you can modify and make it a new habit.
- Can you go to bed earlier?
- How about turn off your cell phone after work?
- Maybe you can increase your nutrition by adding one more vegetable per day.
- Or reduce your sugar intake by replacing one sugary drink with a cup of delicious tea.
Once you’ve integrated this one change into your life, move on to the next.
3. Plan ahead to reduce stress in the moment.
Take the guesswork out of individual stressful moments by making plans ahead of time. Instead of panicking at 5 pm wondering what to make for dinner, create a meal plan for the week. The fewer choices you have to make during the day, the more you can focus on relaxing and enjoying your life.
“I use Sunday as my “set up” day and get my grocery shopping, batch cooking for the week done, look at my schedule for the week ahead and put in my workouts and other forms of relaxation and self-care into my calendar to hold myself accountable. I also use the question, “Will I really care about this in 1 year or 5 years from now?” If the answer is no, I try to let it go and move on.”
You can set yourself up for success by seeing potential opportunities for self-care, as well.
Su Menzies-Runciman, IAWP Certified Wellness Coach suggests that you “…keep some walking shoes in the boot of your car, then if you find yourself with ten minutes go for a short walk – fresh air is a great stress reliever and having shoes ready means you can be spontaneous!”
4. Create boundaries so you have time for self-care
It’s so easy to get overbooked and to feel pressured into saying yes to every request. Take the time to figure out what your boundaries are so you can say yes to the things you love and no to the things that you don’t. You’ll create more space in your life for saying yes to things that bring you joy.
“My best tips are blocking time for self-care and creating boundaries. If we don’t take time to block self-care then no one else will. Women especially tend to say ‘yes’ to helping here and there because we want to help and before we know it we are helping everyone but ourselves. Then we are burning ourselves out and becoming stressed over everything we have said ‘yes’ to and running out of time to do those things on top of our normal to do’s and workload. Of course the more stressed, we put our bodies into the fight or flight mode, the more our cortisol is working to relax us, and then it goes off the charts and can’t soothe us anymore. Creating boundaries and blocking time for self-care helps us to stay in control rather than being reactive in a hamster wheel, spinning. When we are in control we tend to be less stressed, especially if we are blocking exciting self-care time such as yin yoga, time in a salt spa or even just taking a technology time out and enjoying nature.”
5. Connect with others
It’s so easy to get lost in your to-do list and to struggle to pull yourself out of it. But the best things in life involve connecting with other people. Find a way to set aside your worries when you can and focus on connecting with others every day.
Tania Bertolone, IAWP Certified Wellness Coach recommends:
“One of the best ways to reduce stress/cortisol and increase oxytocin/pleasure/joy is to connect with others. Oxytocin is actually a stress hormone. It is released when we connect with others. One of its jobs is to encourage us to connect with one another. Your heart has receptors in it for oxytocin. When it is released these receptors take in the oxytocin which actually strengthens your heart and cardiovascular system. We are social beings and we need connection in our lives.”
6. Practice deep breathing or meditation
Research is beginning to show what many of us already knew. Mindfulness is good for balancing out stress, reducing inflammation in our bodies, and even helping us to manage chronic pain.
Schedule mindfulness practice into your day. You can also learn quick methods that you can use whenever you feel stressed. Take just 5 minutes out of your busy schedule to do breathing exercises or to meditate. You’ll return to work with renewed energy and clarity.
Christina Nagel IAWP Certified Wellness Coach suggests:
“Even just 5-10 minutes of guided meditation or focused deep breathing will increase oxygen to the brain and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system response and create a greater feeling of calm.”
7. While we can’t eliminate all stressors in our life, we can add in more joy
It might seem obvious, but finding pleasure in the small things throughout the day is a simple, yet effective, way to increase your oxytocin. As many wise elders have said, life is too short to spend it stressed out. Find the things that bring you joy. Maybe it’s walking your dog, silly antics with your kids, taking a bubble bath, or reading a good book. Focus on adding more of those moments to your day and you’ll feel the stressors melt away.
Morgan Sheets, IAWP Certified Wellness Coach recommends:
“One super simple, no purchase required, do anywhere technique that helped me greatly and reprogrammed my body from living all the time in fight/flight mode, and that I now share with clients and others to great success, is to have them play what I call the “I spy joy” game.”
To play this joy-increasing game, all you have to do is make a habit of noticing things in your life, your environment, and your day that bring you joy and pleasure.
By spending time focusing on the things that bring you joy with this simple game, you’ll discover that over time you reprogram your nervous system and brain to focus on thinking in a way that produces pleasure and relaxation instead of stress.
Joy Over Stress
Now that you better understand how cortisol and oxytocin work in the body, you can actively focus on creating more joy in your life. Once these two hormones are balanced out, you’ll find that stress isn’t so overwhelming anymore. You’ll also notice more beauty in your life and find pleasure in the small things, just like when you were a kid.
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