Stress is no fun. The causes of stress for each of us may be different, but the consequences share many common outcomes. Stress can affect us physically, mentally and emotionally, and if gone unchecked can wreck havoc on our professional and personal lives. At one point or another we all have to learn to manage it if we want to live a healthy and balanced life.
Understanding the Effects of Stress
Our bodies are biologically wired to respond to stress triggers as a means for survival. As we evolve the triggers may change with the times, but the biological responses still remain; fight, flight or freeze. This is the body's alarm system when it senses a threat, pain, or sensory overload and reacts based on your body's natural instinct. All of these response are normal, but each of us is still an individual and it is important to understand how our own body works so we can draw awareness to managing our stress as well as the cause of our stress.
Physical Effects of Stress
Many forms of stress can take physical effect in our bodies, whether it is short term, like when your body immediately tenses if you try to avoid a collision in traffic, or if it is a longer term physical result of stress, like ulcers from a stressful job.
In the short term if your body feels under threat and is reacting to a stress trigger it will react in your physical body in many ways:
- adrenaline is released to help you in your fight or flight response
- heart rate speeds up to pump blood quickly around the body so that arms and legs can function optimally
- some bodily functions may shut down, such as digestion (giving you that feeling of butterflies in your stomach ) as well as the reproductive system. Your body's rationale is that if a threat overtakes you you will not need to be able to eat or reproduce.
- the body may also evacuate waste matter to make you lighter for escape; explaining why many people feel the urge to go to the bathroom when they feel nervous or stressed.
- skin can get clammy as your blood leaves your extremities and rushes to your center to keep your heart pumping.
- pupils open and scalp tightens (when it feels like your hair is on end) this allows you to see better and be able to pick up any vibrations to sense the direction of the potential danger.
- mouth can go dry as fluids are diverted from non-essential locations
In the instance of the short term an isolated stress instance in our body will eventually subside and return to normal once it feels it is safe again, and no residual harm is done to our system.
However, in the long term, if we are repeatedly and needless triggered by stress our systems can become vulnerable to insomnia, depression and disease. Chronic stress strengthens the negative networks in our brain as well as creates a slow breakdown of our physical systems. Getting stuck in adrenaline overdrive can have detrimental long term effects, such as: high blood pressure, depression and immune deficiencies. Things in every day life can be triggers for many of us: such as overworking, overthinking, traffic, being late for an appointment, suffering a loss, debt, car accidents, an argument with a loved one, a leaking facet that needs to get fixed, ect ect. I can feel my blood pressure spiking just thinking about all the expectations we put on ourselves each day.
The more often stress is activated in our bodies, the more likely it will be triggered easily and often. Lots of small, consistent stress triggers actually have a greater negative effect on the body than one isolated incident. This makes it that much more important to tune and listen up to what our body is telling us so we know when to back off, learn to say no, take rest, or make a lifestyle change.
How to Manage Stress
It may seem like an uphill battle to constantly be seeking balance in your life... but there is a way! The key is not fighting emotions, simply drawing awareness and practicing mindfulness. Stress is not something we can eliminate completely, and it simply isn't going anywhere, but how we choose to navigate it can help us tremendously in our efforts to be healthy and in harmony with ourselves.
Practicing mindfulness is way to experience emotions perhaps even more strongly, but to truly learn to process them while at the same time not being overcome by them. Mindfulness helps to break the cycle and de-sensitize the stress trigger to help the body return to equilibrium, rather than a hyper-vigilant state. When you are sad, let yourself be sad, when you are angry, don't bottle it up and deny yourself self expression. I'm not telling you to practice road rage and tantrums to release your feelings, but rather to first acknowledge and allow yourself to FEEL. We have to feel in order to heal. Mindfulness can help to activate the body's calming response. Here are some things to help you practice mindfulness:
- Tune into your body (get out of your head...it can be a bad neighborhood!) Note physical sensations as they arise and note where in your body you feel it (chest, head, gut ect)
- Note what triggers your stress (keeping a journal can be helpful) take note of when you feel your best, as well as when you feel stressed and what the cause may be. Are there ways to alleviate the triggers?
- Exercise: perhaps one of the best ways to release positive endorphins that will combat the stress hormone, cortisol. I recommend getting at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 times per week; try brisk walks, swimming, yoga, hiking, biking, weight lifting ect.
- Be Present: we can get caught up in the world of multi-tasking (myself included), try to be present even in the little activities in your day. For ex: when you drink your coffee or tea, take time to savor the warmth, smell and taste. Or when you take a shower or bath, let that be the only present activity you are doing, without your brain being overcrowded with thoughts of what you need to do next.
- Get a Good Night's Sleep: restful sleep is so very important for our body to recover and rejuvenate. Sleep deprivation can spike the stress hormones in our body, but by allowing our body to get a good night rest we can help it function more optimally.
- Meditation: it can be as simple as sitting with your eyes closed and breathing deeply for 2-5 minutes a day (or longer if you wish) if your mind wanders...notice what it wanders to and then gently bring it back to your breath... it can do wonders for raising self awareness and reducing stress.
- Learn to let go: perhaps the most important....and the most difficult! Regretting the past, which we can't change, or worrying about the future, which is not even guaranteed, will only ruin the present. If we learn to focus on what we can control and let go of the things holding us back (ex: perfectionism, fear of being vulnerable, fear of failure, or what others may think of us, ect) we can begin to come into our own state of peace, even midst the chaos of life. This one will simply take practice... over and over again reminding yourself that you are human and experiencing life the best you can.
An Effective Breathing Exercise for the times when you feel like screaming "AHHH"
- sit or lie down with your hands over the area in your body that feels most tense
- breathe in through your nose slowly for 5 counts
- hold your breath at the top for 5 counts
- then slowly exhale out your mouth for 5 counts
- holding the air out at the bottom for 5 more counts
- repeat this pattern for 5 or more cycles and then return to your normal breathing
- if you still need more calming sensations gently rub your ears and massage your scalp... we have many sensory receptors there and this will also help to calm your body and quite your mind.
- this exercise helps to reset and calm the nervous system
I hope these tips offer you some tools to de-stress your life and embrace all the things that really matter. Remember, it is a journey with ups, downs and round-abouts... be patient, mindful and loving with yourself, and with others.
Keep calm and de-stress on!