Do you have an antidote to stress?
What is stress?
By definition, stress can be physical or emotional and may have some environmental components too. It is characterised by a feeling of being overwhelmed by a situation that's hard to manage - also referred to as the 'allostatic load'.
The way our body and mind respond to stress is hugely unique to every one of us and it depends on the environment we live in, our economic and social condition, any past traumas, our upbringing, characters and emotional growth, and even our genetics.
I am sure we all have experienced some form of stress during our lifetime, and we all know what stress is as it hides everywhere;
- job interviews
- health problems
- imminent danger
- financial troubles
- excessive exercise
- being stuck in traffic
- a bullying co-worker
- giving birth (and also being born)
Stress is, therefore, something we need to learn to deal with, as it is virtually impossible to avoid.
The stress response
Stress is never 'only in your head'. The feeling of being stressed involves specific physiological changes that will trigger the release of hormones and neurotransmitters which, during an acute incident like being chased by a tiger, can end up saving your life. This is referred to as the 'fight or flight' response; fight the danger back or run away from it.
This acute stress response is activated by our sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates our adrenal glands to quickly release adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Their release into our bloodstream activates specific physiological changes;
1. An increase in blood pressure to speed up nutrients and oxygen delivery
2. The enhancement of musculoskeletal and cardiac muscles contractility and their blood supply
3. The boosting of lung dilation, to keep up with increased oxygen demand
4. Raising blood sugar levels for the body to sustain a higher energy expenditure
In other words, during a 'fight or flight' response your entire body is upgraded to a super human’s.
Health implications of chronic stress
Unfortunately, chronic stress can disrupt some very important bodily systems and functions. Our digestive system, for instance, is very susceptible to stress. Stress may also be responsible for any of the following;
- acid reflux
- intestinal hyper-permeability (aka leaky gut syndrome), which may be linked to auto-immune conditions
- decreased colonic mucin production, which may result in colonic inflammation and inflammatory bowel diseases
- peptic ulcers and other functional gastrointestinal disorders
Another bodily system whose function may be impaired by chronic stress is our reproductive system. Put it this way - mother nature is very smart, and if you are chronically stressed she may not want you to add even more stress with pregnancy and after birth to your life, as you might just have enough energy for survival, but not for reproduction.
Our nervous, hormonal, and immune systems might also be negatively affected by prolonged levels of high-stress. Stress can negatively affect sleep patterns, and a lack of sleep can increase stress levels. Stress is also associated with chronic inflammation, storage of abdominal fat and obesity, memory impairment, and epigenetic changes, which, as a worst-case scenario, may lead to the development and spread of cancer cells.
You are in control
As I mentioned earlier, perceived stress levels are very subjective. To a certain extent, we can control our response to stressors, especially those of a behavioural and psychological nature. For instance, you can consciously decide not to become affected by life situations that may otherwise raise feelings of anger, envy, sadness, guilt, or anxiety. In other words, you won’t react to situations, but rather act upon them. You could perhaps simply accept the way things are and let go; that it is not your fault, you do not deserve to feel that way, the pain you are experiencing is not yours but someone else’s. This may be more difficult for true empaths, but please always remember that stress is not only in your mind.
How to manage stress
Growth is always outside your comfort zone, so little doses of stress may be very valuable at times. Also, we might perform better under a small amount of stress, as we might be more focused and motivated. The problem lays within having high-stress levels over a prolonged period.
So, what to do? Here are a few ideas...
1. Be in control - disconnect
As mentioned earlier, you are totally in control of your own emotions. You are the only one responsible for your feelings. You are the only one that allows circumstances to influence you, therefore how you respond to the environment is entirely and consciously up to you. So, please choose to emotionally disconnect and keep a positive mindset as much as possible!
2. Step back and relax
Please allow yourself to relax. The word 'allow' is the key here. Allow yourself to have proper lunch breaks; to say "no" whenever it's right to say so; to enjoy your weekends doing what you love; to spend your time with uplifting and nourishing people; to take a vacation by yourself.
So, as the stress bucket fills up, you must find ways to empty it. I practice yoga, meditate, read, and walk in the woods to de-stress.
What you do to relax should ideally match what you love doing in your spare time - something you are passionate about, something that nourishes your body and mind, and something that restores a sense of gratitude and peace. Please, allow yourself to relax.
3. Exercise - boost your endorphins
Find a physical activity that motivates you to get out of the house, or that you can even enjoy in your home. If you haven’t been exercising for some time, start very gently and build it up to what feels like a pleasurable and satisfying level. You do not need to become a professional athlete - unless this is in your plans - but push your limits safely if this feels good.
Lone or group exercise can boost your 'feel-good' neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Produced in the hypothalamus, endorphins can decrease stress by uplifting your mood and even relieving pain, because they act similarly to a class of drugs called opioids. So wait no longer - find your motivation and get moving!
According to Buddhists, if you are stressed, you should meditate for 20 minutes every day, but if you are very stressed, you should meditate for a whole hour every day.
Meditation may also help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, enhancing memory, creativity, and mental performance. These benefits may be a consequence of alpha brain wave production during meditation and changes within the amygdala region of the brain, which is responsible for processing emotions. One study, conducted at the Massachusetts General Hospital, demonstrated that eight weeks of mediation may rebuild the brain's grey matter.
You can practice it everywhere and at any time. I practise meditation most days - in the morning if I have a busy and challenging day ahead, to tune me in, or at night if I need extra help to unwind and fall asleep.
5. Laugh whenever you can
When I was in a very dark place in life, laughter was completely unknown to me. I was moody and very sad, which I am sure exacerbated my already poor physical condition. Now I constantly laugh several times a day, every day - luckily without the need to watch comedies or funny videos.
Different studies have proven that laughter can modulate physical and emotional well-being. Research done on volunteers after having watched a comedy video found out that their response to a stressor was much better compared to the volunteers in the other group who watched a different kind of video. Other studies noticed that laughing may decrease the stress hormone cortisol.
On a much deeper level, we humans are energetic and vibrational beings, which means that positive, uplifting, nourishing, happy vibrations and energy may add years and years onto our lives.
So, hang around positive and respectfully funny people, go to comedies, watch videos of funny animals, and be happy.
Stress is impossible to avoid and so we have to learn to deal with it. Stress is never only in your head, as it may disrupt our homeostatic balance and may cause health problems, especially if prolonged over time.
Remember that you are always in control, so;
- make the right choices
- disengage emotionally
- find time to relax
- supplement (if you must)
- join a dance class
- allow yourself to say "no" or to laugh and be happy
- spend time in nature
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