It’s no secret that your lifestyle affects both stress and pain levels. A healthy lifestyle is going to lower your stress and cause you less pain. On the other hand, an unhealthy lifestyle will be high in stress which will either eventually cause pain or exacerbate any pain you already have.
I’ve already tackled this concept a few times here on the blog. In the past, I’ve covered very specific examples of some of the common ways we stress ourselves out and cause ourselves pain.
The Components of a Healthy Lifestyle
Today, I want to use broader brush strokes and break lifestyle into 6 categories. Chances are good that you’ll be more balanced in some categories than you are in others. This is normal.
Diet – Do you eat a generally healthy diet, or is it high in fat, sugar, and processed food? A healthy diet is one in which you get an adequate amount of nutrients from a variety of sources and limit your intake of stimulants and other foods that cause inflammation. Overly restrictive diets are not healthy. Diets that leave you feeling hungry are not healthy. Diets that leave you feeling lethargic aren’t healthy either. Diets that offer a variety of fruits, vegetables, protein sources, and carbohydrates are healthy. (Note for the carb obsessed: without carbs, your brain and body don’t function very well because carbs are your body’s energy source.) No one diet is right for everyone. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something diet related.
Activity level – By now everyone knows that a sedentary lifestyle is not healthy. But can you be too active? Yes. Your body needs rest too; taking breaks periodically throughout the day is good for you. Resting is especially important at the end of the day when you need to be winding down and preparing your body and mind for sleep. (More on that in the next category: Sleep) So just how active is active enough? Well, that depends on many things: Your current health, any injuries you may have, whether your activity is varied (good) or repetitive (bad), your enjoyment of any particular activity, and whether a particular activity or environment is a pain trigger for you (i.e. for those with migraines, fibromyalgia, etc.)
Sleep – There’s more to good sleep than just the number of hours of shuteye you get each night. It’s important to have good pre-sleep habits like taking time to to wind down with relaxing music/light reading/warm bath/etc., writing out tomorrows to-do list or doing a full brain dump (so those thoughts don’t keep you awake), going to bed at the same time every night (I know. It’s hard. As a night owl, I fail at this one with fair regularity). You also need to consider how many times you wake up each night and why; was it bladder, pets, heat/cold, hunger, hormones, etc.? Then you need to decide if there is anything you can do to prevent the wakings such as limiting beverages before bed, installing a dog door, using different bedding, changing the thermostat, eating a light snack, etc. Accept that sometimes you’ll wake for no apparent reason; when it happens, simply do a quiet activity like meditation, self-reflection, or prayer. Now ask yourself: Did I dream? You should. Do I feel rested in the morning? You should. Do I feel discomfort in my body when I wake? You shouldn’t. If you wake with pain, do you need a new pillow, a new mattress, or is there something funky about your sleeping posture? Other things to consider are the amount of stimulants like caffeine you take in before bed, how close to bedtime you engage in vigorous exercise, how much you nap (especially if you have trouble falling asleep), how dark your sleep environment is, and the temperature of your sleep environment. Oh dear, it looks like I’m gonna have to write a whole post about sleep aren’t I?
Pace – Despite how much our culture may value speed over efficiency, I can’t for the life of me understand why. Rushing causes needless errors… as anyone who’s rushed through an exam and gotten questions wrong that they actually knew the answer to can vouch for. Not only does rushing through things cause avoidable mistakes, it also causes someone to have to take the time to correct those mistakes. That is, if the mistakes are caught; and the repercussions of not catching them in a work situation could be devastating. Needless mistakes aside, rushing also stresses your body and mind and puts it into fight or flight mode. Fight or flight decreases memory and communication skills which lead to a greater incidence of mistakes. Your life has enough opportunities to make mistakes and get its fight of flight fix, doesn’t it? Do you really need to give it more? Reminder: The solution to rushing is not going slow, it’s pacing yourself, like a marathon runner does. Marathoners don’t rush off the blocks like a sprinter does, because they know they will give out long before the finish line if they do. Instead, they aim to maintain a moderate pace throughout most of the race. You can put the same concept to work in your life. Don’t multitask. Give yourself ample time to finish projects, arrive at your destination, etc. Pacing yourself also includes keeping a moderate (i.e. not over-packed) schedule. Pacing is the key to balancing this category.
Variety – Think of your life as a meal plan. If you have a varied meal plan, you’re relatively happy. You get to enjoy lots and lots of different types of food based on what sounds good, what’s available, and what the rest of your household want to eat. However, if you eat the same thing each day of the week, i.e every Monday is Meatloaf Monday – unless meatloaf is your absolute favorite dish, you’re gonna get pretty dang sick of meatloaf after while. Mealtime will no longer be something you look forward to, it’ll be something you dread. You’ll also start dreading Monday more than you already do. Same goes for Pork Chop Tuesday, Spaghetti Wednesday, etc. Nothing sucks the life out of your life the way getting stuck in a rut does, so change things up once in a while. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can even change things up on a more regular basis.
Risk – There are many things that you can do to reduce your risk of injury and stress and none of them should surprise you: Wear safety gear, drive defensively, pay attention to your surroundings, avoid extreme sports, maintain a moderate or mindful pace, allot adequate travel time, avoid illicit drugs, avoid overuse of alcohol or prescription drugs, and avoid smoking cigarettes.
Do one or two categories really stand out as being particularly balanced in your life? Congratulations! Give yourself a pat on the back. Are there a couple categories that could use some major overhaul? Congratulations! You’re normal. Now all you have to do is pick one category and start making some small changes to bring that category back into balance. Each time those changes become habit, make another small change. Pretty soon, you’ll notice that category being much more balanced and it won’t have seemed like the enormous undertaking you thought it would.
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