Managing Stress

Do you feel overwhelmed at the slightest thing? Are you easily irritated, anxious or feel restless? Are you having trouble sleeping?

Managing Stress

Do you feel overwhelmed at the slightest thing?

Are you easily irritated, anxious or feel restless?

Are you having trouble sleeping?

Maybe you find yourself clenching your jaw or have headaches or stomach problems?

These are all signs of stress.

Many of us are so used to habitual background levels of stress we’re not even aware that we are stressed. Recognising the signs of stress & having awareness of them is helpful because it gives us an opportunity to do something.

Modern life is undeniably stressful but stress in itself isn’t a bad thing. Kelly McGonigal has done several TedTalks on stress & she says, ‘Stress isn’t always harmful. Once you appreciate that going through stress makes you better at it, it can be easier to face each new challenge.’

Indeed, a little bit of stress helps spur us on, gives us the get up to go to get up & do things, which of course is necessary in life. Stress only becomes harmful when we don’t recognise it & alleviate the symptoms. If too much stress builds up then we end up burnout, experiencing any of the symptoms listed above.

However, it is not realistic or necessary to eliminate stress in our lives, in fact science is beginning to understand trying to eliminate stress & seeing stress as harmful is actually not very helpful…if anything it can make things worse.

If instead we can change our mindset to stress this can be enormously empowering. For example: viewing the physical manifestations of stress as a helpful indication; embracing stressful times as opportunities to learn & grow; accepting stress as something we all have to deal with, it is not unique to us or a reflection on how screwed up our life is or how unable to cope we are; turning towards stress with acceptance & understanding; doing the self-care required to offset the physical, mental & emotional effects of stress. These can all be helpful shifts that can take some of the negative energy out of stressful situations.

So what is stress? Stress is a natural bodily reaction that everyone experiences at times, resulting from demands that are placed on our body & brain. There are several types of stress - physical stress, mental & emotional stress & environmental stress.

We have evolved over millennia with a negativity bias - our brain scans our environment for threats to keep us safe. But our brain doesn’t know the difference between real threats, the sabre tooth tiger outside our cave entrance & the perceived threat of a badly worded email or the demands from our boss or partner.

This negativity bias means that when we are triggered, whether it is a real or perceived threat, our body reacts: the amygdala is stimulated, flooding our system with cortisol, activating the fight or flight response, getting us ready to fight, run away or hide.

If we aren’t aware of these stress responses & do nothing to calm them a vicious cycle perpetuates: cortisol (the stress hormone) makes the amygdala more sensitive, we are more likely to get triggered, activating sympathetic nervous system, flooding the body with more cortisol & so on. This puts the autonomic nervous system all out of whack.

The autonomic nervous system is a finely balanced system that essentially keeps us alive. It consists of the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight response & the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest & digest system. If we are continually stressed & do nothing about it, the vitally important rest & digest system is de-activated & we can’t do any of the things that are essential for repairing & healing our body, resting & digesting or even procreating. In short anything that would interfere with our ability to run away, fight or hide in order to respond to the stress because we are in survival mode.

Staying in survival mode for too long can cause disease. Dr Joe Dispenzia has done some fascinating work on the impact of stress, the cause of disease & the impact of meditation on this & notes that 800 genes associated with disease are activated in stressed people. Interestingly up to 600 of these genes are de-activated in those who meditate regularly.

Nowadays, modern day stress: being late for work; being bombarded by emails; arguing with a loved one pose an emotional threat that is as real to our body & mind as a physical threat. And mental stress can manifest itself in physical tension. Recognising these physical manifestations & releasing the physical signs can help stress to subside, even if you haven’t been able to solve the problem.

There are 3 areas of our body that generally hold a lot of tension & we are often oblivious to them: the shoulders, the jaw & our brow – I call them the triangle of stress.

The shoulders are one of the most common areas of tension. It is believed that there is a motor nerve attached to the muscles in our shoulders & the back of the neck that is linked to breathing. Once we get stressed & start to shallow breathe, our shoulders tense up.

Just being able to recognise this tension in our body gives us an opportunity to ease this tightness. Gently rotating the shoulders forwards or backwards or shrugging them up towards to your ears as you breathe in & as you breathe out shrugging them dramatically away from the ears can shift this tension. And it is surprising how just easing the physical manifestations of stress can relieve some of the mental anguish too.

Another part of our body that we tend to hold tension in is our jaw. When we are stressed we often clench our jaw. When we notice we are doing this we can simply release our jaw. You can also open your mouth & just in front of your ears is an indentation. Press it & hold for 6 seconds & repeat 3 times. Or you make a scissor shape with your index & middle finger, placing your jawline in the hook of the fingers & sweep from the chin to the hairline 6 times to relieve tension in the jaw.

Finally, that spot between our eyes. Pent up emotions & stress can fester between our eyebrows and become visible lines over time. You can ease this tension away by placing your first 3 fingers in the space between your eye brows around the third eye & rotate the fingers first in a circle in one direction 6 times & then the other.

Practising yoga is a great way to practice mindful movement & become more in tune with your body. It is also an excellent way to relieve stress & calm your mind, balancing your emotions & giving you some much needed space physically & mentally. Check out this month’s yoga practice which introduces specific poses that help to ease the physical manifestation of stress & activate the all important rest & digest system, balancing the autonomic nervous system & bringing it back into alignment.

We are also beginning to understand that for each emotion we have a different rate in our breath. Becoming aware of our breath is another way to become more in tune with our stress levels. By taking slow smooth breaths into our belly, this sends a powerful message to our brain that we don’t need to fight or flee. Extending the exhalation longer than the inhalation activates the vegas nerve which stimulates the relaxation response & is another useful tool, whilst practicing finding the pause in our breath helps us to find the pause in our life – check out the mindfulness of breath meditation from last month to practice these really useful tools.

Meditation is a fantastic way to engage the prefrontal cortex to offset stresses & bring the nervous system back in alignment offsetting the feelings of overwhelm & stress. Meanwhile, mindfulness helps us to become more aware of how we are feeling & what we are thinking, viewing our thoughts from the viewpoint of an observer & this may enable you to uncover a kindful action step you can take to make you feel better. This month’s meditation, the waterfall meditation explores these ideas as you visualise your thoughts as a waterfall.

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More posts from within the Harvey Nash Group on health and wellbeing.