Stress is an unfortunate reality of daily life. Stress can be a result of major life changes such as getting divorced or starting a new career. It can also be due to minor issues such as losing a sporting event or noticing that first grey hair. Stress is not always negative – having your first child or getting married can cause stress.
Three Stages Of Stress
Stress causes a number of reactions within the body, which occur in stages. The first stage is the adrenaline rush that you might feel when you score a goal in hockey or barely miss clipping the car next to you while you are driving. This adrenaline surge causes the heart to beat rapidly and an increase in breathing. It is also known as the “fight or flight” response, a term passed down by our ancestors, who would have to fight or flee dangerous situations (such as an attack by a wild animal).
Too much adrenaline for too long is not good for your body. The second stage occurs when you are in “fight or flight” mode for too long. Your body will begin to release sugar and fat. You may start to feel anxious. In this state, your immune system is compromised and you will be more susceptible to catching a cold or flu. You will feel tired.
If you cannot resolve the source of stress, your body will not be able to cope. You will enter the third stage. You will suffer from lack of sleep and your mood will be affected. Chronic exposure to the stress hormone, cortisol, causes a number of unpleasant side effects. People under chronic stress can develop headaches, stomachaches, rashes, hair loss, back pain, and muscle pain. It is at this point where you run the risk for serious illness, such as heart disease and high blood pressure.
Effective stress management techniques are paramount to good health. There are many methods of relieving stress that will aid in reducing anxiety and many of the physiological symptoms associated with chronic stress. It is important to choose only healthy methods of dealing with stress. Some maladaptive methods of coping are: smoking, drinking too much, binge eating, avoidance techniques, oversleeping or abusing medication in attempts to relax.
Some may find their stress and anxiety levels so crippling that they may need medication to cope. Obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder are all anxiety disorders that may require treatment from a doctor or psychiatrist. Medications such as antidepressants or benzodiazepines are used to treat the symptoms of these disorders. Medications come with side effects though, and your doctor may recommend that you seek therapy in order to deal with the root cause of your anxiety in conjunction with your treatment plan.
Stress Relief The Natural Way
Exercise is a great way to release pent-up frustration. Not only does exercise release endorphins (which make you feel good), it provides a great distraction from worry. Taking part in a team sport such as tennis or football will take your mind away from whatever is causing you angst and put it into the game. It also improves mood and self-confidence, which can go a long way in helping you battle depression and anxiety. Exercise is an integral part of stress management.
Massage has been used for thousands of years in Chinese culture to improve health. The Chinese believe that blocked energy channels are barriers to good health. Massaging certain points on the body can open up these blocked channels. Even if you aren’t a believer in Chinese medicine, a massage just feels darn good.
Certain foods can even have an impact on your mood. Unfortunately, stress often makes us crave the very foods that will wreak havoc on our mood, making stressful situations seem worse than they are. Sugar-laden food causes a sharp crash in blood sugar, leaving you feeling cranky. Salty foods such as potato chips can dehydrate you and cause fatigue. High fat foods can cause a spike in stress hormones.
Instead, load your body with B vitamins, which tend to be depleted when we are anxious. Bananas, avocados, fish, chicken, and leafy green vegetables are all good sources of B vitamins. Fight the urge to snack on high fat and high sugar foods and make time for a nutritious meal instead.
Meditation is an effective form of stress release that is practiced all over the world. Meditation not only helps you reflect and find inner peace, it can have many physiological effects too. By detaching yourself from worries and stressors that you face during the day, you become more relaxed and in tune with the present tense. We all have a tendency to worry about upcoming events, much of which we have little or no control over.
The health benefits of meditation have been reported in large-scale studies. In one study of over 20,000 American adults, meditation was used to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia and chronic illness. It works because it slows the autonomic nervous system and steadies heart rate, breathing and digestion. The result is improved blood flow and overall better health.
Researchers at Harvard University have studied the benefits of deep breathing – which is part of meditation. When we are under stress we tend to take short, shallow breaths. By focusing on deep, cleansing breaths, we allow for a full oxygen exchange deep within our lungs.
To reap the benefits of deep breathing, find a quiet and comfortable place. Either sit or lay down. Inhale deeply, allowing your lungs to fill and your belly to expand. Exhale through either your nose or mouth, whichever is more comfortable. When you have mastered deep breathing, try to envisage relaxing scenery – perhaps a rainbow, a beautiful garden or the waves crashing on a rock. Detach yourself from your worries. Every time you find your mind wandering, bring it back to your deep breathing and relaxing imagery.
Some people find it helpful to join a class such as yoga or tai chi. Classes will have slow, methodic movements and focus on deep breathing. Eventually you will feel your muscles relax and your mind calm. Whether you can master the technique alone or find it more beneficial to take a class, try to practice your breathing exercises at least once daily. It’s best to establish a routine and do the exercises at the same time each day.
There are several different types of breathing exercises that you may employ. Find one that works for you and gives you the results that you need:
- Ujjayi breathing engages abdominal muscles. Breathe in and out throw your nose. Narrow the passage of your throat so you can push the air out and create noise with the exhale. This is said to help give you energy and support the abdomen.
- Skull brightener breath is a technique whereby you tighten and release the lower belly when breathing. It is said to massage the organs and send cleansing oxygen through the body, which aids in rejuvenation.
- Alternate nostril breathing is simply inhaling and exhaling with one side of the nose closed off. It can reduce tension and calm anxiety. It is said to lower heart rate and synchronize the two sides of the brain.
- Lion’s breath is where you exhale while opening your mouth widely, extend the tongue out and toward the chin and roar “ha” like a lion. It stretches the jaw and releases tension.
- Upside down breathing uses gravity to extend the exhale. When you are upside down you are able to release a full breath. This pose strengthens the abdominal muscles and diaphragm, slows the heart rate and can lower blood pressure.
Whatever breathing technique that you use, it should be calming and relaxing. The object is to disengage from stress and your surroundings, and simply be aware of the present tense. Focus on the breath and clearing your mind of chores, bills, arguments with your spouse and work tasks. The closer you get to clearing your mind, the more benefit you will feel throughout the day and beyond.
In an interesting study reported in Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers examined the cognitive and somatic responses to anxiety. Cognitive responses included difficulty concentrating, worrying, negative thought patterns and indecisiveness. Somatic responses included perspiring, pacing, diarrhea, shaking and a quickened heart beat. Their findings suggested that exercise was more beneficial than meditation for reducing somatic stress responses, whereas meditation was more effective than exercise in reducing cognitive responses. This suggests that breathing exercises alone might not be enough to calm frayed nerves.
The best stress management technique will take a holistic and eclectic approach. Moreover, it will be one that suits you and your lifestyle. Incorporating daily exercise, a healthy diet and breathing techniques is a great start. If you are unable to cope with stress and it begins to affect your health, see your doctor as soon as you notice it taking control of your life.