Guest Column: Join the voices for recovery part 3: get stressed

RBC | Have you heard about the wonderful mental health benefits of social connection, laughter, and eating well? No? Go read parts 1 and 2 of the Health Partnership’s wellness series in celebration of Recovery Month!

In the third part of our Recovery Month Wellness series, we’re focusing on another foundational element of mental and emotional health—stress. As a society, we’ve come to categorize stress as universally bad. However, as humans have developed, the stress response has been necessary for survival. The increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing (i.e. the “fight or flight” feeling) are intended to help you respond effectively to dangerous situations.

Unfortunately, some modern threats feel never-ending: work, money, illness, relationships, etc. These things can make it hard to remember how to downshift, but this week, we’ve got two tricks to re-wire an overloaded brain for better mental health. And surprise—they involve opting in to healthy stress. That’s right—some stress is good for you! Making new friends, falling in love, raising children, and starting a new job are all stressful, but can also be rewarding. When you view good stress in a positive way, you are empowered—both physically and emotionally—to handle the less savory challenges that you will inevitably face in life.

Get Active, Get Strong—Literally!

Exercise is physically stressful, but it’s the oldest trick in the book for improving your mood, clearing your mind, and boosting your energy, not to mention all the other well-known physiological benefits.  When you fatigue your muscles, you experience increases in chemicals that help you recover; the physical benefits come along with emotional ones. Endorphins bring you pleasure. Serotonin ups your mood. Dopamine satisfies you. Glutamate and GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) clear your mind. It is no wonder that many people managing mental health problems see exercise as a vital part of their recovery.

You don’t have to spend hours at the gym to reap these benefits. Just one hour of moderate or vigorous activity a week is associated with lower levels of mood disorders, anxiety, and substance use. This could be a brisk lunchtime walk, a casual volleyball game, or a fitness class at your local rec center or college. This could also be a great opportunity to spend some time with friends and meet new people; exercising with people you enjoy can be a huge factor for sticking with it.

embrace something new

As an adult, you might think that your brain is finished developing, but it is constantly being shaped by your interactions with your environment (including nutrition—see last week’s installment). New connections form in your brain when you learn, old ones can be strengthened by practice, and weak connections dissipate with underuse. Just like a muscle, your brain needs to be challenged regularly to maintain proper function.

When stress comes in the form of an interesting challenge, you give your brain the opportunity to do what it likes to do best. Learning doesn’t have to mean going back to grad school or embarking on a journey to understand bitcoin; it can be as simple as working on a jigsaw puzzle. Try cooking a new meal. Read a new book. Learn some words in a new language. As you gain confidence in discovery, you may also find it easier to see more stressful things as manageable challenges. Learning takes patience and practice, and so does recovery. Take pride in this re-structuring process and look for more opportunities to surprise yourself as you grow.

There are many paths to wellness and recovery. Stay tuned for Part 4, where we explore the other side of stress: regulation and relaxation. To celebrate September as Recovery Month, view our full calendar of events at www.ncchealthpartnership.org/news/calendar!

Special to the Herald Times