Feel stressed? Or think you might be? Stress is everywhere and most of us feel it from time to time – meeting a deadline, dealing with our kids, or managing a difficult relationship, just to name a few sources. Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be energizing, mobilizing us to get things done, or to take action in solving a problem. However, chronic stress — that is, a stress that goes on for a long time and at too high a level, can cause health problems. This is particularly the case if you don’t have good ways to relax.
What Happens to our Bodies when we are Stressed?
When we are stressed, our bodies respond as though we are in danger. We begin to pump “stress hormones” (adrenalin, noradrenalin, and cortisol) which prepare us to fight or to run away. This is a protective response – called “flight or fight” – that was essential earlier in our evolution as human beings. Think caveman /woman days and saber tooth tigers! Although we are never threatened by saber tooth tigers now, when we are under stress, our bodies react as though we are. This “stress response” causes a lot of changes in our body. Many of these changes are transitory – that is they pass. However, when stress is chronic it causes a great deal of wear and tear on our bodies. Below is a partial list of some common physical responses to stress:
- Muscle tension, which can lead to headaches and chronic pain problems.
- Increased respiratory and heart rate, which, over time, can contribute to diseases of the heart and circulatory system.
- Disruptions in the gastrointestinal tract (e.g. nausea, diarrhea or constipation, heart burn)
- high blood sugar, which is an issue particularly to those who are prone to, or have, diabetes.
- Sleep disruptions.
- Feeling tired all the time.
- Reduced sexual desire or interest.
Emotionally Stress Has an Impact Too
It’s not just our bodies that are affected by chronic stress. Emotionally we feel the effects too. And stress affects our relationships, whether at work or at home. Sometimes the emotional effects are related to the physical ones. For example, chronic headaches increase irritability and are associated with depression and anxiety. In other cases, it is a more direct effect. Emotional effects include things like:
- Increased irritability.
- Feeling moody or depressed.
- Worrying more than usual or anxiety.
- Becoming more self-absorbed; decreased interest in socializing.
- Increased negative thinking, more pessimistic.
Chronic stress also affects how we think, including our ability to concentrate, make decisions, and to stay motivated. There are a range of things that can help us to de-stress.
Pay Attention to your Thinking
Have you ever noticed that some people are usually calm and unflappable while other are often agitated, restless, or “stressed”, sometimes by the same situation? The difference is in how we think about things. The calm person is often seeing the situation differently than those are who are more stressed. They don’t take things personally. They have high confidence that they can manage the situation well, that they can cope. If you find yourself taking things personally a lot or telling yourself that you cannot cope, try practicing a shift in self-messaging. Say things like “this is not about me, it’s about them;” or “I can cope with this.” Then make a plan to cope, de-stress, or talk it out. Pay attention to how much you complain though. Researchers have found that the more one complains to oneself or others, the more stressed they (and those around them) become, without any positive benefit typically.
Try Relaxation Exercises or Meditation
There are a wide variety of relaxation and meditation exercises available free online and on YouTube. Research has shown that regular daily practice of some relaxation or meditation is helpful for relieving feelings of stress and reducing the effects of stress on the body. If you carry a lot of muscle tension, consider progressive muscle relaxation, which involves alternatively tensing and releasing muscle groups. Other kinds of exercises involve focusing on the breath, or for example, a body scan where one scans and notes sensations in all the different areas of the body. Any activity like these can be exceedingly helpful when practiced over time. Starting out with 10-15 minutes a day is a good beginning.
There is more and more evidence that movement is necessary for good health. A minimum of 30 minutes of moderate activity a day (or at least most days) is recommended but does not need to be done all at once. Two 15-minute walks a day would be a good start. More intense activity is helpful too, at least a few times a week. Not only does movement release tension that is carried in the body, but it also has a positive effect on brain chemistry, resulting in improved mood. In fact, physical activity has been shown to be as effective as medication for mild-moderate anxiety and depression!
Attention restoration research suggests that spending time in nature is good for our health, helping us to de-stress and improve our ability to concentrate . . . hence the name “attention restoration.” Listening to birds or ocean waves, looking at a sunset or the stars, or simply sitting quietly outside can all be helpful. Even looking at photographs of nature can do it. So, to relieve stress, head outdoors.
If you already do one or more of these things, consider doing them more often, or adding a second or third strategy. The greatest benefit accumulates over time. So, practice regularly and be patient. While stress is inevitable, allowing it to dominate our lives is not.