By Aaron Gaul
Stress is bad, right? Or is it good? Well, if you talk to the experts, they’ll say both are true. You need some stress to just get out of bed in the morning. And when you drive to work in your car, you need stress to stay alert and respond to what is in front of you. So stress has its place. But what if a high level of stress goes on and on? The doctors tell us that ongoing stress becomes Chronic Stress. Chronic Stress is bad news. It shuts down your immune system so you are susceptible to illness, and it robs you of a good night’s sleep.
Fortunately there is a solution. The key is to learn how to inhibit the Stress Response and enter into the Rest Response. If you want to change your stressful-ways, you need to develop and use new stress relief skills. Learn the techniques to direct your mind and body away from stress and into a restful state. Notice I said, “Learn.” That is because stress is automatic; it comes with the human operating system. However, rest and relaxation need to be learned and practiced — they do not come naturally.
So What is Stress?
Stress is your body’s response to the fear perceived by your mind. There are many fears and stresses we as humans have in common — pain and humiliation, to name a couple. There are also many stressors that are particular to each individual. For example, I think spiders are kind of cool; I like to see them crawl on my arm. I know a lot of people who freak out about this and run away screaming. Big stressor for them! You should become aware of what your own particular stressors are.
When your mind recognizes a stressful situation (spiders or 700 point drop in the Stock Market), it immediately alerts your nervous system and endocrine system. From there, every cell in your body gets on the stress express. Everything nonessential in your body shuts down: immune system, cell regeneration, creative thinking processes, etc. Your heart speeds up, breathing becomes rapid, and blood is diverted from your internal organs. You are ready to fight or flee. All this is good if a deer just jumped in front of your car, or you have to dive for the telephone to call your stockbroker.
When Stress Goes Wrong
When stress continues from one crisis to the next, or happens frequently, then your body does not have a chance to fully recover from the stress. If stress continues for a day, or a number of days, then you can expect serious health problems will follow.
During times of chronic stress, stress hormones are released in your bloodstream. Serotonin in your brain (that is your happy brain hormone) is inhibited by excess cortisol, so you feel depressed more of the time. Chronic Stress adversely affects just about every cell in your body. It can even unravel the strands of your DNA. (Don’t ask, you don’t want to know.) Getting to the point, about 90% of all illnesses today are caused by stress. Not a pretty picture. But don’t let me scare you. All of this can be managed with a good set of Stress Relief Skills.
The Need for Stress Relief
So what do we know so far? We need stress to make it through the day. Chronic stress makes us sick. And rest does not come naturally; you have to learn it. So where is the balance between stress and rest? To maintain balance in your workday, you should regularly cycle between moderate stress and rest. After major stressful encounters your body and mind need to reenter a deeply relaxing state. This cycle between stress and rest may happen every few hours or even several times in one hour during your workday.
Stress followed by rest is the key. Fortunately you do not need to take a long nap or go play a round of golf every time you get stressed. Stress relief really only takes a few minutes and needs to become a habit. Once rest is a habit, you will be able to recover from stress in a few minutes, and you will not enter into Chronic Stress.
Stress Relief Skills
Briefly, here are three Stress Relief Skills you should learn and practice.
1. Relax your muscles: say the word “soft” in your mind, picture things that are soft, and in your mind feel the quality of softness. Place that soft image and feeling in all the tense places of your body: your forehead, neck and shoulders, lower back, hips, legs and feet. Use your imagination to search everywhere in your body that is tense and replace the tension with the feeling and image of “softness.” This will cause your muscles to relax and let go. With practice you can easily relax your whole body in 20 seconds while sitting at your desk. Stress relievers (e.g. stress balls) can also assist you with relaxing your muscles.
2. Pay special attention to relaxing all the muscles you use for breathing. As you breathe, your rib cage should expand front, back, and side to side. A deep natural breath should move your whole torso and easily fill your lungs. Breathe naturally and not too deep. Allow your breath to slow down, keep your throat open, and make a slow smooth transition between each inhalation and exhalation. Do this breathing practice for at least two minutes. Done properly, this type of breathing will shift your Autonomic Nervous System to a relaxation response and increase your Heart Rate Variability — that is a good thing.
3. Give your mind a rest. When your mind is not thinking about the past or future, or not thinking at all, then you will avoid the stress response. Relax your eyes, look straight in front of you and slightly down, and do not move your eyes. In this way notice your entire field of vision, left to right, and top to bottom. Do not focus on any object, rather be conscious of your entire field of vision. You should feel a little “zoned out.” This practice will slow your mind and even allow it to stop briefly. Your mind needs to rest just as your muscles do.
Once you have learned these skills individually, you can practice them all together at once. This makes the process deeply restful and practical, as it should take only a few minutes — less than five. You should practice these skills several times a day and be sure to use them after every stressful experience.