Studies show that the body’s stress response can cause structural changes in the brain that can lead to memory loss or a reduction in cognitive function and may even lead to brain atrophy. Clinical research has also revealed that stress can impair the immune system, adversely affect gastrointestinal function, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. These findings make it pretty clear that stress can be very bad for your health.

For those using a functional medicine approach to identify the underlying causes of and treat chronic conditions such as migraines (discussed in this issue: Bringing Migraines Out of the Dark, page 7), reducing stress is often recommended.

While we often think avoiding all stress isn’t possible, mitigating it is. But first, we have to admit that we are stressed. Years ago, I went to a health retreat and was given a pie chart sectioned into 24 slices. I was asked to document on the chart the amount of time I gave to certain activities in my typical day. It was very eye-opening to have a visual representation of what I was doing with my life.

The next thing I was asked to do was to reduce by five percent the slices in my day that caused me to feel stressed. At first I hesitated, thinking it was impossible to commute five percent less. But the truth was that there were areas in my life that were stressful that I could control. What this exercise showed me was that often I had a choice about how much stress I allowed in my life.

I found that when I took away a few minutes or even an hour here and there, I had a lot more time to give to stress-relieving activities, such as taking a walk in nature, reading a book, or meditating longer.

If, like me, you haven’t really noticed how much of your time you’ve been spending not doing the things you need for your health, maybe it’s time to make a chart of your own and decide to stress less.