There is a certain mental fidgeting that sets in around this time of year; we look back on the months that have come before, worrying that we have not done enough things in too little time, and not done them well. Some of us haunt our friends’ social media feeds, grumpily perusing their too-happy vacation photos from sunny places, while we sit in either real or proverbial gloom and sleet. After a year like 2016, much seems uncertain, and some develop end-of-year insomnia worrying about it all. This much overthinking starts a slow and steady buildup of stress and anxiety. Before we know it, the coming year is ruined in our minds, before it has even begun. Numbers of suicide attempts tend to peak just after January 1, according to Eve R. Meyer, longtime executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention.
Giving yourself tools to manage stress from the outset of the year will make it easier to let things go and identify and then address unhealthy patterns. Stress is one of the top three health care costs in the U.S. (behind heart disease and cancer), and stress-related problems account for up to 80 percent of visits to the doctor. Only 3 percent of doctors routinely talk with their patients about how to reduce stress, said a 2012 study by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in the Archives of Internal Medicine. "Almost half of Americans report an increase in psychological stress over the past five years,” according to lead author, Dr. Aditi Nerurkar. “Stress is the elephant in the room. Everyone knows it's there, but physicians rarely talk to patients about it.” In fact, stress management counseling is last, behind counseling for nutrition, exercise, weight loss and smoking – but in our exhausting world of technology, expectations and often cruel intentions, perhaps it should be first.
Meditation expert Dawn Lorentz, whose corporate wellness company Self Reboot helps large companies’ employees learn breathing and yoga to reduce stress, told Salon that starting the new year off with a stress-identifying “body scan” is a healthier beginning to 2017. “The bills won’t stop coming, there will never be more hours in the day, and your work and family responsibilities will always be demanding.” Lorentz paused. “But you have a lot more control than you might think. Stress management is all about taking charge: of your lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and the way you deal with problems. No matter how stressful your life seems, there are steps you can take to relieve the pressure and regain control.”
Lorentz knows workplace stress well. “I’m a corporate burn-out,” she said with a smile. “I worked for many years in a fast-paced, high-stress corporate real estate job where deals sometimes took 24 hours to close, and then you were expected to stay out all night and celebrate afterwards!”
After working long and stressful hours took a serious toll on her health in the form of migraines, jaw pain, hair loss and more, Lorentz was prescribed countless pharmaceutical drugs that waged a war against each other in her body, offering no relief. She had jaw surgery to correct the TMJ, but it only got worse. She remembers thinking, “If I couldn’t figure out how to get well, I wanted to kill myself. It was that bad.”
Soon after, Lorentz visited an acupuncturist, who told her she had “bad chi” but was able to help her; she began practicing yoga and meditation, and her whole life changed. Some years later, she left the corporate real estate world, and dedicated herself to helping employees in corporate America feel better through stress-reduction techniques.
On a recent, unseasonably warm winter day, Lorentz and I sat facing each other in Salon’s studio. “Where do you hold stress in your body?” she asked me. Lorentz explained that the most common areas people feel signs of stress are in the jaw (resulting in clenching, grinding teeth during sleep, and TMJ, or temporomandibular joint pain), the head (tension headaches, migraines), the neck and shoulders, stomach (reflux, peptic ulcers, IBS, and even food allergies) and lower back.
“The human body is well adapted to deal with short-term stress, but if it remains on high alert for an extended period of time, you can grow vulnerable to some serious health problems,” said Lorentz. Major body control mechanisms respond to stress in different ways, from the nervous system's "fight or flight" response release of adrenaline and cortisol to the endocrine system's release of stress hormones triggering the liver to produce more blood sugar, to give you that kick of energy in the moment of perceived danger. Here, friends, is the start of your 2017 muffin-top (it’s not just all the holiday cookies and wine) — and worse, excess blood sugar can lead to diabetes. Other dangers of unmitigated stress involve the cardiovascular and immune system, digestive system and musculoskeletal system.
Leading me through a series of breathing exercises, shoulder rolls and arm movements in a chair -- which are designed to be done in one’s office during prescribed five-minute breaks -- Lorentz told me that taking short breaks during workdays are good news for workers and employers. Studies show decreased medical costs, less absenteeism, and an increase in productivity in workers who take measures to reduce stress daily during the workday.
Medical costs decrease approximately $3.27 for each dollar a business spends on wellness programs, according to the 2013 Aflac Workforces Report, and companies that implemented a wellness program for their employees, such as in-house yoga, meditation or chiropractic care experienced a 28 percent reduction in employees calling in sick, according to the Institute for Healthcare Consumerism. Seventy-six percent of wellness program participants say they’re happier, healthier, more energetic and have lost weight. To this end, Lorentz and Self Reboot have partnered with companies and insurance providers like Cigna to help over 40 brands, including Forbes, Lukoil, Major League Soccer, MaxMara, Morgan Stanley and Ralph Lauren.
Lorentz's top tips for stressing less and savoring more of your life in 2017? First, move. “Our bodies were made to move, not to sit at a desk for eight hours,” she said. Try a 30-minute walk between meetings on a lunch break, or take a yoga or spin class.
Second, check in on your emotional wellness. “Having an optimistic approach to life and accepting things you can’t change is hard at times, but employing the six Happiness Habits recommended by therapists is a methodology for change.” Having gratitude daily, practicing self love and care, making sure your basic needs are met, being kind to others, and meditating are among those practices.
And finally, be attentive to your nutritional wellness. “Eat foods closest to their natural form, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and legumes,” said Lorentz. “Stay clear of processed foods or foods high in sugar.”
Also, Lorentz suggests keeping a “basic needs” weekly journal at the start of 2017 and beyond in which you address what you eat and when you eat it, how much sleep you get, whether you exercise or not daily, how much water you drink, and if you have practiced mindfulness. “After a week of keeping an honest journal of your basic needs, you can usually see why you feel low energy, fatigued and blah,” she said.