Stress: we all have it. From our job, our family, our finances, our calendar… yes, there’s plenty to go around. We can’t escape it, so it’s important that we understand the sources and learn healthy ways to deal with it.
Let’s first talk about the physiological side of it. Our sympathetic nervous system is what kicks in when we are under stress – whether that stress is real or perceived. Wait, what does that mean? It’s our fight or flight system – the one that would help us escape a bear attack (real stress), but it also kicks in when we are nervous about an upcoming meeting or test (perceived stress). That’s not to say perceived stress isn’t real, it just isn’t an imminent threat. However, our bodies respond to it in the same way. That means an increased heart rate, increased blood-flow to muscles, increased hormones, such as adrenaline, and increased respiration rate. On the flip side is the parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest system. This system kicks in when danger has been avoided and helps our body return to homeostasis (our natural, balanced and relaxed state). These two autonomic systems work together to help us navigate everyday life, but sometimes they don’t remain balanced and that’s when the problems begin.
Illness, injury and chronic stress have a negative impact on our health and the delicate balance in our bodies. When our bodies are constantly in a state of stress response, we tend to see symptoms such as restlessness, insomnia, digestive issues, increased blood pressure and that can lead to long-term medical conditions and can even have an effect on our mental health.
So, what can we do to help keep the balance if this is an automatic response system? As with most dis-ease, prevention is key and our diet and exercise habits can help us manage our stress and our stress response.
Here’s a good place to start – learn how to take a good, proper, deep breath. Yes, of course we all know how to breathe, but thinking about it and focusing on it for a minute can make a big difference! Try this: sit up straight and close your eyes. Take a steady inhale through your nose for 5 seconds, hold it for 6 seconds, then exhale through your nose for 8 seconds. A couple of things to note – don’t gulp your air on the inhale, just breath in a steady stream. When holding your breath, be relaxed. And when you exhale, also keep a steady stream of air rather than forcefully pushing the air out. Do this a few times, then slowly open your eyes. How do you feel? This is a simple way to calm your mind in any situation.
For longer-term stress-busting, it is important to discover coping tools. For some, a walk around the neighborhood is just right. For others, punching a bag in a kick-boxing class gives them the release they need. The important thing is to find a physical outlet for your stress. In addition to physical activity, meditation can be very helpful – just 10 minutes a day is enough. This meditation doesn’t have to be sitting in one spot with your eyes closed. Some people find hand-washing dishes to be meditative or walking in the woods, or folding laundry or knitting. Whatever it looks like for you, take some time each day to do it.
In our hyper-connected world, we are becoming more disconnected from people than ever, so making a point of talking to someone you trust on a regular basis is another important stress-reducing method. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a venting session, just having regular conversation, exchanging ideas, and laughing together is therapeutic – and becoming so rare! There is no screen or program that can replace human contact.
These are just a few examples of ways to deal with your stress. Take the time to find what works for you – it should be something you look forward to! Something you can do on a regular basis that doesn’t add more stress. Try a new exercise class this week, make plans with a friend, try just five minutes of meditation right now.
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How will you deal with your stress?
See you soon!