Sardinia, Italy, is a place where time seems to stand still. The residents of this Blue Zone region are renowned for living long, healthy, happy and relatively stress-free lives. They have a saying, (which has since been popularized in the Julia Roberts movie, Eat, Pray, Love) that seems to capture their relaxed approach to life. The inhabitants of this unhurried island speak of “dolce far niente,” which means “the sweetness of doing nothing.”
Why it’s so hard to find peace of mind
That sentiment seems a far cry from the pace of life most people are subjected to these days. Most of us live demanding lives with endless to-do lists and little downtime. Travel writer Pico Iyer, author of The Art of Stillness, captures our modern dilemma well when he writes:
“We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, and our nights off – our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, our email, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.”
Incessant demands have a way of undermining our peace of mind. Unfortunately, most people in our culture experience severe stress on a regular basis. This chronic pressure and strain can take a huge physical toll.
In fact, stress is frequently described as a “silent killer.” Its reputation is well deserved since it is leading factor in no less than six of the top ten causes of premature death including cardiovascular disease, accidents, diabetes, cancer, obesity and suicide.
Why stress is a silent killer
Stress wreaks havoc on the body because the body’s “fight or flight” response floods the bloodstream with hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. These chemical secretions help the body respond to immediate threats by providing a sudden burst of energy. But in doing so, other vital systems (like immunity, digestion and repair mechanisms) are shut down. Worse still, the continuous presence of cortisol and adrenaline in the bloodstream damages blood vessels, promotes inflammation and depletes the adrenal system.
Here are several ways that chronic stress undermines your well-being:
- Suppresses your thyroid
- Leads to hypertension
- Impairs immunity
- Lowers your metabolism (which increases fatty deposits around your abdomen)
- Interferes with nutrient absorption and digestion
- Leaves you more vulnerable to oxidative stress
- Encourages unhealthy habits (like binge-eating and drinking)
- Raises your risk for many cancers
- Disrupts normal cognitive functioning. In contrast, relaxation techniques (like meditation) can help rebuild your brain
Tips for finding stillness (and busting stress)
Stress management is a health imperative. But how can you find peace of mind and stillness when your environment is so chaotic and filled with all-consuming demands? One place to start is to take a lesson from Blue Zone residents.
More specifically, there’s nothing wrong with downtime. Life is not a race, it’s a mystery to be savored. Take the time to walk in the sand on the beach, enjoy a beautiful sunset with your significant other or listen to the birds singing in the morning. It’s not just okay to carve out an hour or two every day to set the hustle and bustle aside — it’s downright healthy!
Here are some other evidence-based ways of de-stressing and finding peace of mind:
- Meditate. As clinical psychologist Sameet Kumar explains, “Meditation actually alters how the brain reacts to stress.” Meditative techniques help you focus on the here and now, which turns the dial down on the kind of mental chatter that feeds worry. That little reprieve can allow your mind and body to renew themselves.
- Take “micro-breaks.” Perhaps you can’t get off the workaday treadmill for very long, but even a few five-minute breathers daily can help you wind down and recharge. Maybe you tend to a plant in the office for a few minutes, engage in some stretching activities, or you take a few moments to reflect on what you are grateful for. Carving out a few minutes of downtime daily could just be a life-saver.
- Exercise. Vigorous activity helps to neutralize stress hormones. When you exercise, your body produces endorphins, which are chemicals that alleviate pain and promote feelings of well-being. Breathing hard is a good sign your body is producing stress-busting endorphins. But soaking in a little beauty can help you relax too. So, whenever possible choose activities in a scenic setting such as park, nature preserve or near the water.
- Eat calming foods. The mineral magnesium is considered nature’s chill pill. Great sources include almonds, spinach, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, wild-caught salmon and Brussels sprouts. Most Americans are deficient in this vital nutrient, which helps modulate the stress response system. Limiting caffeine and drinking herbal teas (particularly chamomile, peppermint and lemon balm) can help soothe your nerves too.
- Music and dance. The residents of Blue Zones are famous for their love of music and dance. Extensive research shows that the right kind of music encourages the production of alpha brain waves, which are correlated with states of relaxation. What types of music are best? Studies suggest most people chill when listening to classical, light jazz, folk and easy listening pop. But everyone has their particular favorite style of music. To relax, choose the music you enjoy most.
Serenity and peace-of-mind can seem elusive, but there are places in the world where people have not forgotten how to relax. Dan Buettner, who has studied extensively the lifestyle habits of Blue Zone residents, believes that certain ingredients seem to be key when it comes to finding the tranquility that is the foundation of deep happiness and well-being.
In summarizing these factors, Buettner explains that “Diet does tend to be the entrance ramp for better health.” Likewise, having rich networks of social support and getting plenty of mindful physical activity are things that nourish the body, mind and soul. It is when we are embedded in environments that provide such sustenance that we flourish.
Can you relate to feeling stressed? If you’re feeling overwhelmed and would like some further insights about finding stillness you can check out Pico’s Iyer’s amazing TED Talk video here:
— Scott O’Reilly