Weekly Challenge Up Your Endorphins

I recently invited a friend to join me for a yoga class. I asked her what she is presently doing in her life for stress relief. Her brow furrowed and a long silence followed. She couldn’t name a single thing. Now maybe she is just a more chill person than I am but I NEED regular stress relievers just to make it though life with a smile on my face at least some of the time. You guessed it-- our challenge for this week is for you to participate in some kind of stress relief activities daily. Here are a few ideas (most are from Reader’s Digest) to consider:
1. Sniff some vanilla or lavender

      Certain aromas can lift your mood by influencing the production of endorphins the brain's "feel-good" chemicals. For example, the scent of vanilla helps reduce anxiety, which is often associated with depression. According to a study at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, patients undergoing MRIs who breathed vanilla-scented air reported 63 percent less anxiety than those who breathed unscented air.
         To get the endorphin-boosting benefits of vanilla, add a drop or two of vanilla to some herbal tea or cocoa, light some vanilla-scented candles, or add vanilla essential oil to your bathwater.
         In another study, conducted on college students, inhaling the aroma of lavender essential oil improved symptoms of depression and insomnia You can dab lavender oil on your wrists and temples or diffuse it in the air or sprinkle it on your bed linens.
2. Take a group exercise class

      Group exercise has some distinct advantages, according to a recent study. Not only will friends encourage you, but the shared effort may give your endorphin levels an extra boost. Researchers in 2009 found that college crews who rowed in synchronization had an increased rush of these feel-good hormones compared with those who rowed alone. But all exercise is good, whether solitary or with others. Invite a friend along for walking, skipping, dancing, aerobics and running. The rhythm of continuous exercise releases endorphins and encourages reflective thought.
4. Seek out daily laughter
         It's been observed that children laugh about 300 times a day, whereas adults laugh, on average, only about five times each day. The more we laugh, the better our perspective. Problems also seem to shrink, bringing an increased sense of energy. Over the centuries it has been claimed that laughter is one of life's greatest medicines; as the Bible says, 'a merry heart doeth good like a medicine' (Proverbs 17:22).
         Laughter is sometimes described as 'inner jogging'. Research has shown that it can help to: lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, boost immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting cells, trigger the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers and produce a general sense of wellbeing.
         Modern humor therapy dates from the 1930s, when clowns were brought into American hospitals to cheer up children hospitalized with polio. More recently, the role of laughter as an aid to healing has been well documented in Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, by the American journalist, author and professor Norman Cousins, who created his own laughter-based, self-healing regime after being diagnosed with a degenerative disease. He suffered adverse reactions to most of the drugs he was given and decided, with the cooperation of his doctor, to take matters into his own hands. Cousins discontinued his medication and, as well as taking megadoses of vitamin C, spent his days watching Marx Brothers films and episodes of the TV comedy show Candid Camera, as well as reading humorous books. He claimed that 10 minutes of laughing gave him 2 hours of drug-free pain relief. In time he experienced a gradual withdrawal of symptoms and eventually regained most of his lost freedom of movement.
         In India, Laughing Clubs, in which participants gather in the early morning for the sole purpose of laughing, are becoming increasingly popular, while in the UK, the psychologist and psychotherapist Robert Holden launched the country's first laughter clinics in 1991 with funding from the NHS.
Here are a few of my favorites (Note I enjoy ALL of the Jay Leno Gas tank news and Jay Leno Photo Booth epidisodes available on youtube)
6. Savor some chocolate

      Chocolate-lovers will be delighted to hear that dark chocolate provides protection against heart attacks and strokes. Thanks to its high content of polyphenols and other antioxidants, dark chocolate reduces inflammation, lowers blood pressure, reduces LDL cholesterol, boosts good HDL cholesterol and protects the health of your arteries. It also contains chemicals that prompt the release of endorphins, the body's pain-relieving and pleasure-promoting hormones.
         In one major review of 139 studies conducted over nearly 40 years, researchers concluded that chocolate consumption could lower the risk of cardiovascular death by around 19 per cent. That's the good news. The bad news, for some, is that all you need to eat to improve your health is 6.7g per day. That's equivalent to one small square two or three times a week. Also the heart benefits tend to disappear with consumption of larger amounts. A little dark chocolate may even help to curb our appetite for unhealthier foods, according to research at the University of Copenhagen, which reveals that dark chocolate is more filling than milk chocolate and reduces cravings for salty, fatty or sugary items.
7. Listen to Music

Listening to music you love triggers joy by unleashing feel-good brain chemicals. Take notice of what music is most able to lift your spirits and then look for times to introduce it in your day. Sing in the shower, crank it up in the car, belt it out in the kitchen. If you are someone that listens almost exclusively to talk radio or audible books edge that out with at least a few minutes a day of some joyful music.
8. Eat something spicy

        The hot, spicy taste of foods is not, in fact, a taste sensation but a feeling of pain. Capsaicin the chemical compound that makes chili peppers hot binds to proteins, or pain receptors, of nerve cells in the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth. The nerve impulses produced in this way pass via the trigeminal nerve into the brain, creating a painful burning feeling. The same receptors also react to heat, so that when heavily spiced food is eaten hot, the effect is even more intense. However, the pain is offset by the body's reaction, which is to release endorphins naturally occurring opioids that produce a feeling of wellbeing which could explain the popularity of hot, spicy food. Another positive effect of hot spices is that they kill pathogens and promote sweating the latter effect being especially useful for cooling the body in hot climates. Another thing I like about eating spicy foods is that I have noticed for me less is more. Smaller portions of spicy foods because they contain so much flavor seem more satisfying than larger portions of bland foods.
9. Spend some time swinging your arms

Stand up, relax and smile. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward. Your arms should be hanging naturally at your sides. Let your eyes almost close as you mentally focus down toward your toes. Now, extend both arms out in front of you, then relax and let your arms swing naturally back behind you. Keep swinging your arms back and forth like this in an easy pendulum-like rhythm at least 100 times. (It’s called hand swinging because, of course, your hands go along with your arms.) Keep your mind focused on what you’re doing. Breathe naturally, and don’t let your attention wander until the exercise is completed and you will feel the results of this endorphin encourager.
10. Hug until they let go.
          Hugs are one of the most succinct ways to encourage your body to release oxytocin, and the more oxytocin your pituitary gland releases, the better able you are to handle life's stressors.
         Oxytocin decreases the level of stress hormones (primarily cortisol) your body manufactures and lowers your blood pressure response to anxiety-producing events. Oxytocin quite likely plays a role in why pet owners heal more quickly from illness, why couples live longer than singles, and why support groups work for people with addictions and chronic diseases.
         Oxytocin has also been found to reduce the cravings of drug and alcohol addiction, as well as for sweets. It even has a positive influence on inflammation and wound healing. Even beyond this, regular hugs have the added benefit of:
   Cultivating patience and showing appreciation
   Activating the Solar Plexus Chakra, which stimulates your thymus gland (this may help balance your production of white blood cells)
   Stimulating dopamine, the pleasure hormone, and serotonin, for elevated mood
   Balancing out your nervous system for better parasympathetic balance
So hug often and hug long-- hug until they let go. 

So your challenge for the next week is to add at least one activity each day specifically to raise your endorphins. It can be something from the list above or any other idea that you know works well for you. It can be a different activity every day or the same one for several days. But make stress relief a focus of your week. For every day you do this you will earn 5 bonus points. (And yes you can include a small square of dark chocolate in your daily regimen without it counting as your sugar day if you can fit it in your daily calorie budget- I'm calling it "medicinal chocolate"!) 

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