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The Top 5 Ways to Reduce Stress and Reclaim Your Peace of Mind

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We all know that stress can have a negative impact on our minds and our bodies. It can increase our risk for heart attack and stroke, and it can also detract from our quality of life and from our mental well-being. Constant stress can chip away at our relationships and even prevent us from succeeding in our careers. Most importantly, stress prevents us from being present, joyful, and connected to the world around us.

Doctors and therapists often encourage people to decrease stress and "stop and smell the roses," but how can you accomplish this when your day-to-day life is hectic and overwhelming? A vacation in Hawaii would probably do the trick, but most of us don't have the time or the money to jet away to the beach whenever life gets stressful.

Luckily, there are simple lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce stress and improve your quality of life. Consider the following:

1. Exercise. Getting active is probably one of the best things you can do to decrease stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and in the early days of mankind, this release of cortisol and burst of adrenaline helped us to escape from dangerous situations. Whether running from sabertooth tigers or hunting a wild animal for dinner, early humans relied on their stress response. It notified them of scary situations and helped them to get away safely.

Of course, today's humans aren't faced with wild animals, but rather with stressful meetings or hour-long traffic jams. However, our stress response is still the same, and we still need a way to work off all this excess energy and adrenaline. In fact, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that working out (even when you don't want to) has powerful stress-reducing benefits. It can also protect against anxiety and depression.

2. Consider adding supplements to your diet. Most of us don't get the vitamins and nutrients we need from our diet (this is especially true if you tend to subsist on fast food and prepackaged fare). Hence, it's important to add in supplements, and many of these actually are purported to have stress-busting benefits. For example, you might consider phosphatidylserine, lemon balm, or kava kava root. Vitamin D can help to support your immune system (which can help to stave off illness and keep your physical health on track), and vitamin E or vitamin C might be a good addition due to their antioxidant properties. Just be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning taking any vitamins or supplements.

3. Reconsider your diet. If you want to enjoy heart-healthy food without sacrificing taste, you might try the Mediterranean diet. From omega-3 fatty acids to antioxidants, the Mediterranean diet has long been known for its nutritional benefits. Think fish, healthy fat, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. You might also consider cutting out sugar, as this will only give you a false sense of energy followed by a huge crash. Instead, reach for a healthy snack like almonds, egg whites, or lean protein whenever you need a boost of energy. Eating healthfully will not only keep you physically fit, it will also help you to think clearly and stay motivated throughout the day.

4. Get plenty of sleep. A lack of sleep can take a toll on our mental well-being and on our waistlines. A recent study found that people who sleep less than five to six hours a night are more likely to be overweight, and people who don't get enough sleep tend to overeat the next day. Ensure that you get enough sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene, which means going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, even on the weekends. Sleeping in an extra 30 minutes won't wreck your schedule if you want to catch some ZZZs on Saturday morning, but don't overdo it or you might find you are twice as drowsy on Monday.

Keep your bedroom dark and quiet (invest in a white noise machine if you have noisy neighbors) and don't exercise or drink alcohol right before bed, as both can interfere with sleep. Additionally, a recent study found that watching TV or using a smartphone or tablet before bed could disrupt the body's production of melatonin (the sleep hormone), so avoid falling asleep to Letterman. Instead, try reading, mediating, or taking a hot bath.

5. Try visualizing with a breathing exercise. When you feel overwhelmed by stress, picture a place that makes you happy and restful, whether it's a snowy mountaintop, a peaceful ocean, or even just your childhood home. Take a deep breath in through your mouth and as you do so, repeat a positive mantra. (Consider using a phrase that is around seven syllables, such as: "I am strong, open, and free.") As you breathe in through your mouth, take in positive and powerful and energy, and as you exhale throughout your nose, release any negative energy or stress that is stuck in your own body. Do this exercise whenever you feel like your thoughts are racing or your day is getting out of control. It will help to you to get centered and present, and when you come back to your day, you will have more energy, focus, and patience.

Stress is an unfortunate fact of life, but with these tips, you can help to reduce it and reclaim your life.

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