04/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Stress Less, Restore More

We all know that stress is killing us. Or at the very least, aging and annoying us. It's wearing out our adrenal glands, graying our hair, lowering our immunity, disrupting our sleep, and building our bulges. But how can we battle a cultural cornerstone? What are we, if not busy?

Dr. Andrew Weil, in his comprehensive guidebook Natural Health, Natural Medicine, breaks stress reduction down into two groups: stressful things we could do less of, and relaxing things we could do more of.

  • Less noise, caffeine, aggressive music, agitating news, and dwelling on upsetting thoughts
  • More deep breathing, exercise, yoga, stretching, massage, body work, visualization, meditation, chanting, hypnosis, spearmint or chamomile tea, and guided relaxation

So that's a good start. Well, duh, you might say. But I hate herbal tea. I'm busy with grad school. The dog needs surgery. And I'm trying to run a marathon. So, I don't have time for any extra activities. Not even breathing? Nope.

Well, then you might look at your lifestyle in more detail. How could it be optimized? If you reduce stress and restore your energy, you'll be more productive while doing less.

Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier, author of Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life, says you should select your stressors, "cultivate the beneficial ones and eliminate the unbeneficial." He says that unbeneficial stress is:

  • 10% environmental: air pollution, water pollution, noise.
  • 20% psychological: worry (generally self-imposed) about uncontrollable events, unrealistic goals, dissatisfied feelings.
  • 70% nutritional: wear on the body due to overconsumption of low-nutrient, chemically tainted, hard-to-digest "food."
  • That's a very large proportion assigned to nutrition. Our diets are the main things stressing us out? More motivation to follow Michael Pollan's dictate: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

    Brazier goes on to outline beneficial stress: things that strengthen and stimulate the body, often en route to a worthwhile goal. Exercise, for example. Running laps is stressful for the body, but your increased strength means that day-to-day walking won't register as stress. Working late to finish a project might garner rewards that ease your life afterward. Strengthening your willpower affects many areas of your life. Just make sure you recover properly.

    And I wouldn't be a yoga teacher if I didn't mention your mental state. The old half-full, half-empty thing. It's not what you do, but how you do it. "Relaxing" activities like yoga, gardening, or music can be stressful, if you're straining and criticizing yourself the whole time.

    A lot of us lock into our martyr complexes: we're proud of how much stress we can endure (even if it's unnecessary), or we enjoy the workaholic lifestyle because we can avoid our personal issues. Listen, really listen, to the monologue that's running when you're stressed. Question each line: is it really 100% true? See where you have the opportunity to choose a different path. Be kind to yourself.

    Stress less, restore more. Mantra for the day.