Experts share natural ways to reduce stress, increase joy

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There’s no magic pill to cure all ills, but there are secrets to feeling better.

The collective advice of the 100+ experts who presented talks, taught classes, demonstrated their services, and exhibited their wares at the second annual Edinburgh Wellbeing Festival made for a simple prescription: Greater awareness leads to better choices.

While topics ranged from meditation and yoga to gut health and menopause, all talks conveyed that thoughts and feelings influence our physical health and vice-versa. If we can understand the interplay and become aware of the signals, we can take steps to improve our quality of life.

And coping mechanisms are in demand.

Stress is epidemic today: 85 percent of adults in the UK admit they regularly worry about money, work, and health concerns, and more than half of us are concerned about the effect this has on our health, according to a survey by digital health company Forth.

Dr. Rangan Chatterjee

“You want a bit of stress to help you perform,” says Dr. Rangan Chatterjee, author of “The Stress Solution” and host of BBC1’s “Doctor in the House.” “There is a sweet spot,” but if you go over that too much cortisol is released and it kills nerve cells in your hippocampus (the brain’s memory centre), which contributes to Alzheimer’s disease.

Stress presents in lots of ways.

“Mood and sleep habits are directly related to your gut health,” said Charlotte Maberley, a pioneer in the gastronomy field who developed the first Masters-level program in the field (at Queen Margaret University). “The biome (digestive bacteria) is responsible for your bodily functions and your wellbeing.”

Her website, Food Connects, explains, “The gut and brain are linked. The gut is lined with neurons that can influence our emotions and feelings. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in mood, is made in the gut.”

If the bacteria in your digestive system is out of balance, you could suffer bloating, gas, pain, skin issues, sleep issues, tiredness, and a low or irritable mood.

“The body is always trying to correct the imbalance, [but] we digest less effectively when we’re stressed. If you can’t break [the food] down, you can’t access the nutrients,” Maberley said. “Being kind to your gut means being kind to yourself.”

There’s more to the abdomen than gut health, and it also has to do with being kind to yourself.

The abdomen is called “the second brain” because it is directly connected, through a neural pathway, to how we experience a moment, according to Dr. Avinash Bansode, who is a foremost teacher on mindfulness through Mindfullybeing and in his role as the mindfulness chaplain at University of Edinburgh.

“When we’re on autopilot, the emotional part of our brain is activated — fight or flight — and we can’t operate in a kind manner under that frame. We get so caught up in the brain of thinking that we stop using our other senses,” said Dr. Bansode, noting that while breathing is the most basic function of life, it is often overlooked. “Oxygen is information for the body and the emotions. When we fail to notice (what’s happening around us), we don’t have a choice. If you’re on autopilot, it’s like you are trapped. The more aware you are, the more chances you have to make a skillful choice. ”

Slow, deliberate deep breathing is a way to connect with all of our senses to become more aware. In that moment we can assess the self and the environment. Then we can make an informed choice of how to think or act.

Dr. Avinash Bansode

This practice of mindfulness translates to kindness, he said. In the Western culture, the head is the “mind,” but in Eastern tradition, the “heart” is the mind. So “mindfulness” translates to “heartfulness.”

Luckily we don’t have to carve time out of a busy schedule to remember to breathe; it’s just a matter of remembering to be mindful about it. Other methods for wellbeing aren’t automatically slotted into life; they do take time and that’s often time we don’t have.

“The erosion of downtime is one of the biggest stressors in life. It’s like living on a treadmill and when you get off, you realise you haven’t gotten anywhere,” Dr. Chatterjee said. Our brains need downtime to help us solve problems and be creative.”

Dr. Chatterjee shared stories of patients who were suffering physical ailments from general stress. They didn’t expect to hear his advice: Do something you love. Spend time with a friend. His patients were doubtful but followed the doctor’s advice. One adult revisited his childhood hobby of a train set and another met a friend for coffee on Sunday.

Their physical and symptoms of stress decreased. How is this possible?

“We’re suffering from deficiencies in passion and deficiencies in friendship,” he said, because we’re not taking time for the experiences and people that bring joy and meaning to our lives. This “not enough time” issue negatively affects our wellbeing. It’s vital to discover what these are for ourselves, and then actually schedule them into the diary as priorities. This process aligns our actions with our values, and gives us a sense of purpose.

“Having no meaning and purpose in your life is an inherently stressful life,” according to Dr. Chatterjee. “Having a strong sense of purpose is associated with all kinds of positive life outcomes: lower risk of heart disease, lower risk of stroke, earning more money, being happier, all kinds of things.”

Julie Montagu is a living example of this.

“I’m here because I don’t want anyone to feel as bad about themselves as I felt about myself. I figured) if yoga can help me feel better about myself maybe that can help others,” said Montagu, who is a down-to-earth yoga and healthy eating leader whose TV stints include commentating the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. “I was doing it for me, and I knew I wanted to give this gift to others.”

Montagu shared this experience as part of a panel discussion for wellness practitioners that also included Hollie Grant, who owns and runs two pilates studios and writes for Psychologies magazine.

“Follow your passion. Start small. Work your way up,” was Grant’s plain advice, adding that when she launched her business she bartered for services and borrowed free space. “Nobody starts with a big business. You have to start where you are.”

Solid advice for wellbeing matters, too.

TAKE-AWAYS

  • Balance your biome by eating more live fermented food and a wide variety of whole foods, ideally organic.
  • Move your body through exercise and opt to stand rather than sit, whenever possible. Standing activates the leg muscles and reduces the inflammatory response.
  • Manage your breathing by noticing when it gets shallow, likely from stress. Try Julie Montagu’s 4-4-4 calming routine by drawing in your breath for a count of four seconds, holding it for four, and exhaling for four. Dr. Chatterjee favours a 3-4-5 set of counts. See what works for you.
  • Check in with yourself to be aware of how you feel mentally, physically, spiritually throughout the day. Once you understand what you feel and, perhaps, why you feel it, you may be more informed on how to improve anything negative.
  • Meditate to start your day, either sitting in focused silence or listening to a guided meditation. You’ll be better prepared for whatever the day brings.
  • End each day with gratitude by answering these questions, as Dr. Chatterjee’s family does daily:
    What did I do today to help someone? What did someone do to help me? What did I learn today?

Photos by Liza Horan

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