Q: When I lie down to sleep, my brain won’t turn off, no matter how tired I am. What can I do?
A: There’s nothing like trying to force yourself to wind down and fall asleep to make it nearly impossible to do just that. Instead, try one (or all!) of our three favorite ways to put your mind in the right place for relaxation and rest:
1. Harness the power of the list. Keep a notebook next to your bed so you can get those deadlines, logistics and to-do items out of your brain and onto paper. Spending a few minutes outlining your next day’s tasks will help you shake off the feeling that you’re forgetting something, and you’ll score sleep-friendly peace of mind.
2. Ditch the screens. We know you’ve probably heard this before, and for good reason: Staring at bright screens in the hour or two before bed stimulates the brain and inhibits the production of melatonin—bad news for your sleep. Give yourself plenty of time to unplug from technology by wrapping up email and social media at least a couple of hours before bed.
3. Practice guided imagery. Before bed, find a comfortable position (either sitting up or lying down) and begin to deepen and relax your breath. Close your eyes and spend a few minutes visualizing yourself in a serene, beautiful, pleasant place. Think about the senses as you imagine the place—if it’s a beach, “feel” the sand under your feet and “hear” the ocean breeze and the crashing waves. Try to stay in this blissful spot for at least five minutes, breathing deeply and letting your mind relax.
Q: I pack on the pounds when life gets crazy. How can I stop stress-eating?
A: Many people think stress-eating is just about the comfort of food itself—those (temporarily!) happy-making carbs and fat grams giving us a few minutes of bliss. But while that’s part of it, it’s not the whole story. When you’re stressed, what your brain really craves is action: for example, getting up to grab a bowl of chips, lifting each one to your mouth and munching it. And repeated addictive behavior like turning to food in moments of stress actually changes your brain circuitry to recognize that action as your automatic response to stress.
The good news is that you can rewire your circuitry by replacing your stress-eating habit with one that gives your brain an action and a high—without loading up on the calories. It’s pretty simple: walking. Research has found that even a short (i.e., 10- to 15-minute) walk can reduce snack cravings. Next time you’re tempted to tear open the M&Ms, walk for a few minutes or do another short activity, like a few push-ups. Chances are you won’t need the candy anymore.
Q: I’ve had two autoimmune disorders, and I’m working at a high-stress job. Could the stress bring on yet another one?
A: It’s true that stress can be an important factor in your risk for disease, but your question also highlights an important point: “Stress” is often conflated with “stress response.” Think about it: Stress is totally normal. In fact, it’s what keeps life interesting and what motivates us. It’s how we respond to it that can make or break our health.
So the real question is, how do you handle what you have to do at work? Do you gear up, giddy for the adventure of the day’s challenges? Or do you panic and freeze up with dread? Neither reaction is right or wrong, but it’s just a reality that one can keep you grounded and happy, and the other can get your blood pressure rising.
That doesn’t mean that if you tend to freak out in the face of stressful situations, you’re doomed. You actually have a say in the way you react to stressors, and the healthy-reaction muscle is one you can build through mind-body practices such as meditation, yoga and mindful breathing. In fact, Dr. Roizen once had a patient with both arthritis and the autoimmune skin condition psoriasis, and one of her doctors was about to put her on three powerful (and side-effect-causing) medications at the same time. She learned to meditate and live in the moment and was able to control her stress so well that she eliminated many of her symptoms and didn’t need the drugs.
You quiet your stress response best not when you unplug from the world but when you unplug your stress response from the stressor.
Q: I’m pretty high-strung, but I don’t want my kids to grow up unable to handle stress. How can I teach them to deal with anxiety in healthy ways?
A: Ah, the old “Do as I say, not as I do.” Unfortunately, kids learn far more from what they see than from what you say.
The answer to your question is in large part figuring out what will empower you to manage your stress so you can set a great example for your little ones.
My favorite prescription is very simple: Solve the problem. Don’t avoid it. Have the conversation you need to have, take the actions you haven’t yet taken, or plan out when you will—procrastination only feeds your anxiety, so getting into a habit of tackling issues head-on and crossing them off your worry list is a great way to live a more relaxed life.
I know not every source of stress can be neatly checked off the list in five minutes (especially chronic stressors like caregiving or managing money), so you do have to figure out what works for you. But it’s also important that you learn to recognize when you’re stressing out and to take action so that you feel more present and solid.
We’ve already talked about meditation, yoga, guided imagery and walking, so here’s another strategy: Stop for a second and focus on your breathing. Now look down. See anything moving? Probably not. That’s because most people take short, shallow breaths that come from the chest. Now rest one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Take a deep, five-second inhalation and feel your belly button moving out and your chest expanding. When your lungs feel full, exhale slowly, taking about seven seconds to let out the air; you will pull your belly button toward your spine to force the air out of your lungs. Do 10 of these deep breaths in the morning, 10 at night, and as many as you need throughout the day when life starts getting nutty.