When you feel stress, certain mechanisms in your body are triggered, and you have the “fight or flight” response. What I learned from one of my past doctors was that even good stress (things that are making you happy) could trigger certain cortisol fluctuations. This trigger is a gift. When properly used, those nerves that cause an adrenaline response can not only help you escape a dangerous situation, but it can also give an edge to a presentation you are giving, give you a clearer mind during a job interview, or help you perform better in a sport.
But this gift can turn into a curse too. If your body is always being told “danger”, it can work overtime all the time, and end up burnt out. Sometimes this ends with what is called adrenal fatigue. This syndrome is sometimes scoffed at, but I believe that it makes perfect sense. Do we really believe that there are no consequences to stress when so many studies (as discussed here) have linked stress to higher rates of many diseases?
Some of us have succumbed to thinking that our stress is unavoidable and that we cannot deal with stress until we can change the things that are stressful in our lives. But that’s not true. You can take control of your stress levels – you just need the right tools. Learning to take back control of your stress levels is so important. In the short term, if anxiety levels get too high, instead of giving you an edge in job interviews, presentations, or in the face of real danger, your body simply shuts down instead of thriving. In the long term, being unable to manage stress could be a contributing factor to disease.
In the past, many physical problems were treated with trips (read: vacations) such as lengthy stays in the mountains or at the seaside. And while these treatments were almost comical when you think of them as treatments for serious, already manifested disease, I think that we should also consider that stress-racked bodies could be calmed and settled in these types of settings, which is perhaps why many did find improvement in this treatment.
Unfortunately living at the seaside for three months isn’t an option for many of us (my family included), so the question is, how do we settle our bodies, even when there are stressful situations swirling around us causing our bodies to react on a regular basis?
There are many, many different tools you can use to calm your body and “de-stress” yourself. The important thing is two-folded: Do what works for you, and actually do it. Some of the tools I will talk about I am sure you have heard of before, but it takes practice and consistency to actually make happen and benefit from. I tried to fit many “tools” into one post, and it got waaaaay too long, so I am going to share just two basic ones with you today, and then continue to give one or two at a time in this ongoing series.
Stress Fighter One: Deep Breathing
Have you ever noticed that when you are nervous you start taking short breaths? When you force yourself to start breathing slowly and deeply, it sends signals to your body that you are not in danger and that it can calm down. Stress levels drop, your body starts to relax, and cortisol levels go down. Slow deep breaths also bring more oxygen to the body, which is healing.
In a lot of ways I don’t think it matters what breathing technique you do, they all probably work. The important thing is finding one that works for you, and is easy to use.
To get you started, here are a few online sources:
My method: I just do the simple breathing in slowly for 3-5 counts, and breathing out slowly for up to 6 counts. I do it 3-5 times. And that’s it! (It can’t be much simpler than that.) When I am really stressed, I have to do the deep breathing along with other tools to get my body to clam down. But the deep breathing is helpful regardless.
This is not complicated, and it’s certainly not hard to learn. The question is, as simple as it is, do we turn to it when stressed? It takes commitment and practice to get there. And don’t just try to use this when you are really stressed! Do it throughout the day to remind your body and mind to be calm and collected. The more you practice the more second nature it will become.
Stress Fighter Two: Exercise
We were created to move, and there are consequences when we don’t. We often think of weight issues as the consequences, which is ironic because not all studies show that our weight is connected to our exercise habits. Our health – including our mental health – is more at risk. And our ability to cope with everyday stress can be linked to exercise. For example, what one study suggested was that exercise helps teach the brain how to cope with stressful situations. While yes, stress still affects the brain, the brain is able to cope and calm down faster than those who are sedentary.
The Mayo Clinic talks about how exercise can pump out endorphins that help you feel good, is a form of moving meditation, and it can also improve your mood and
Health Harvard explains the connection: “Aerobic exercise is the key for your head, just as it is for your heart. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress. Endurance athletes commonly experience the restorative power of exercise, and this has been verified in clinical trials that have used exercise to treat anxiety and depression.”
And further: “The mental benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts — or, at least, the hot shower after your exercise is over.”
And, if that isn’t enough, they also have found that stress can help reduce the brain-damaging effects of chronic stress.
I know that these are two very basic concepts and we are constantly told to get moving. But just because it is basic doesn’t mean it will not be life changing, or life-helpful. Practicing taking deep breaths and taking a rigorous walk can be step one in reducing stress in your life. Neither has to be terrible time consuming, but both can be integrated into your daily routine with little sacrifice. (Now off to figure out how to make it happen for myself!).