Stress is becoming a major problem in the U. S. and will likely get worse before (or if) it gets better. That’s the bad news. The really bad news, however, is that we don’t take stress seriously as a threat to our health.
Oftentimes we try to tackle stress by pretending that it does not exist; by simply trying to suppress it and push it out of our conscious mind or by turning to alcohol or drugs to suppress the stress response and escape from it. This can only be a short-term solution and typically makes stress much more of a problem when we get to the point when we can no longer ignore it.
Imagine stress as a small flowing stream. If we try to deal with this stress by damming up the stream to stop the flow of water (stress) it may seem as if we have succeeded in eliminating the source of the stress. But the water keeps flowing no matter if we have dammed up a portion of the stream or not and eventually the water (stress) will build and build until it pours over the dam (our temporary coping mechanisms) that we have built to restrain it.
What is Stress?
We all know what stress is, right? We have all certainly felt the effects of it. That mind numbing sensation that life is overwhelming you, crushing you under a load of responsibility that is slowly sucking the joy and happiness out of your life. But what exactly is stress? Hans Selye M.D., PhD, a Viennese-born physician that is regarded as the “father” of stress research, had a difficult time figuring out how to define stress as well. Actually stress can have many different definitions, both positive and negative; it just depends on your reaction to it.
Ah, now we are getting a little closer to understanding stress. It depends upon your reaction to an event or situation. The event/situation is not stress itself, but is regarded as a stressor. To put it another way, a stressor is something that can cause a stress response. Stress is not a “thing”, it’s not like having a disease; it is not something that you can catch from someone. Stress is your inner dialogue, what you say to yourself and how you react to certain situations.
Your level of stress depends upon your reaction to a situation and people will react to situations in many different ways. What is stressful to one person might seem exhilarating to another. If the situation/event makes you feel positive you will have a positive stress reaction or, conversely, if you have a negative feeling toward the situation/event you will have a negative stress reaction.
Is All Stress Bad?
The short answer is no, stress is not a bad thing. We absolutely need some amount of physical and mental stress, this is what allows us to achieve and maintain strong bodies and minds. If you were to completely take away the stress, either physical or mental, this would impair our ability to grow.
Up to a certain point stress (in the form of stressor/stressors) is beneficial to the body and mind. This “good” amount of stress is referred to as eustress. But there is a threshold, a point at which more stress taxes our body and mind beyond which it is beneficial, this is referred to as distress, or what we commonly refer to as good old-fashioned regular stress. And unfortunately some of us can get into a pattern of mental habituation that leads to a situation where we are chronically dis-stressed. That’s when the trouble starts.
To live a stressful life is to live a life of chronic hyper-arousal. The body is continually reacting to stressors with a “fight or flight” response that overtaxes the resources of the body, leaving us prone to such things as:
- Decreased Immune Response
- High Blood Pressure
- Tension/Migraine Headaches
- Excessive Sweating
- Skin Disorders
- Shoulder/Neck pain
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Sweaty Palms
- Cold Hands/Feet
- Weight Loss/Gain
- Heart Palpitations
- Loss Of Sex Drive
- Increased Perception of Pain
- Sleep Disturbances
- Panic Attacks
- Substance Abuse
- “Hazy” Thinking
- Memory Problems
- Feeling Out of Control
- Lack of Concentration
Do any of these sound familiar?
3 Powerful Stress Management Techniques
The first step in reducing your stress level is to calm your “monkey mind.” No, I’m not insulting you. The monkey mind mentality refers to the volatile and transient nature of our thought processes. We bounce from one thought to another, pausing just long enough to gain traction for our next jump.
If that is not a clear enough explanation for you try this simple exercise: focus all of your attention on just one thing for 60 seconds. It can be anything that you want, but do not allow your attention to stray from that one thing during the 60 seconds. For instance, you might visualize the ocean for one minute. Now see how long it takes for another thought to intrude into your “ocean view”. Probably about two seconds if you are like most people.
The easiest way to bring the monkey mind under control is to develop a sense of mindfulness. Mindfulness simply means that we are not running on “auto-pilot”; we are living in the present moment and actually aware of the thoughts that are running through our conscious mind. Very often our thoughts revolve around past or future events. Do not dwell on past mistakes or future problems. Simply living in the present moment will help to break the cycle of stress.
“Yogic breathing provides a unique and powerful tool for adjusting imbalances in the autonomic nervous system and thereby influencing a broad range of mental and physical disorders.” As written by Richard P. Brown, MD and Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, in an article on stress management, published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
This is a very simple, but powerful technique for relaxing the body.
- Begin by assuming a comfortable seated or lying position.
- Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breathing. On the inhalation feel the cool air as it passes by the tip of the nostrils. On the exhalation feel how the air has been warmed and humidified by the body as it passes through the nasal passages and out of the body.
- Inhale through the nose on a slow count of four, timing the inhalation so that when you get to four you have completely filled the lungs from bottom to top. (Hint: If you are filling your lungs correctly you will first feel the belly distend, then the chest will expand and finally during the last phase of the inhalation the collar bone will rise slightly.)
- Exhale through the nose on a slow count of four (one thousand one, one thousand two, etc). Time the exhalation so that you have emptied the lungs as completely as possible when you reach four. (Hint: For a complete exhalation you should feel the belly draw in to aid the exhalation during the final one to two seconds of your exhale.)
- Repeat for 10 breathing cycles.
- Once you have practiced this technique and begin to feel comfortable start to extend the exhale, while maintaining the inhale at a count of four seconds. For example, inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six or eight seconds.
While yogic philosophy has been promoting the stress-reducing benefits of breathing exercises for millennia modern science is only now beginning to study and validate these important techniques. A study that was published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in 2004 demonstrated that following a deep breathing regimen significantly reduced resting heart rate and improved autonomic function (the autonomic system is responsible for controlling blood pressure and one of the primary things that we want to avoid is an increase in blood pressure when faced with a stressor).
There is nothing mystical or magical about meditation, it is simply a concentrated focusing of the mind, which has a calming effect upon the nervous system. The mind, like the muscles, benefits from training.
A study published in a 2005 issue of Neuroreport that investigated the physical structure of the brain found that those that meditated on a regular basis had an increased cortical thickness (cerebral cortex) in comparison to a control group that did not meditate. The authors go on to conclude, “regular meditation practice may slow age-related thinning of the frontal cortex.”
Another study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that a group of healthcare professionals that participated in a daily meditation program experienced a 60% reduction in stress over the course of the 8-week intervention. And a follow-up of the study participants nearly three months later found an even greater reduction in stress, suggesting that meditation may have a cumulative effect and become more effective the longer that you practice it.
Just to throw more fuel on the fire, another study published in Neuroreport found that people who practiced meditation developed an increased threshold to pain. Now I don’t know if I’d want to let my dentist forego the Novocain while he’s drilling like a West Virginia miner into one of my teeth, but it is nice to know that meditation has a broad scientific basis.
Although stories abound of yogis that would meditate for days on end, an effective meditation practice can be as short as 5-10 minutes.
- It is preferable to do your meditation practice either first thing in the morning or (second choice) following a workout.
- Choose a location that is comfortable and free from distractions.
- Begin your meditation session by focusing your attention on your breathing.
- Wear loose comfortable clothing.
- Change position if you begin to experience discomfort.
How to Meditate:
- Begin by assuming a comfortable seated or lying position.
- Close your eyes and shift your awareness to your breathing.
- Focus your complete attention on one thing (this is called your “target”). This “target” can be a visual representation such as a scenic landscape or a relevant religious symbol. Or you can try “mantra” meditation, a technique in which you mentally (or out loud) repeat a word or sound. For instance, in yogic meditation the word/sound “Om” (which represents “the Absolute”) may be repeated over and over.
- As thoughts arise (and they certainly will), acknowledge them and gently draw the focus back to your “target”. With practice, the intruding thoughts will diminish.
- Breathe deeply and fully during your entire meditation session.
“Perhaps the single most effective way of coping with stress-and a true anti-aging technique-is meditation.” – Ronald Klatz, MD and Robert Goldman, MD.
“If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me I’d still have to say it.”– George Burns (1896 – 1996)