Stress is a reality for most people. It affects everyone – some of us occasionally dip into anxiety too.
I’ve spent a long time learning about stress management. What I’ve learned has left an impression. It’s a passion of mine to help people release stress and worry about their lives, which is why I teach yoga and meditation. They’re two of the most effective tools I know.
The principles of stress management have been well established by research. We know a lot about how and why the nervous system creates the experience of stress. We also know a fair bit about what can be done to counteract this.
The rest of this article shares what I know about stress. It also talks about why practices like mindfulness meditation can help. I hope you find it useful.
How stress works
Stress is baked into our neural and physical circuitry, so everybody has to deal with it at some point.
The stress response is a series of physiological and mental changes that happen when our body and mind perceive a threat or challenge in our environment.
The stress response – also known as fight or flight – kicks in when we process information that indicates we’re under threat or facing a challenge. The physical symptoms can include:
- muscle tension
- increased heart rate and blood pressure
- shallow breathing
- a sense of mental busyness
- narrow attentional focus
- emotional reactivity.
The stress response can be viewed as a means of preparing for a survival situation by preparing us to meet a challenge. All of the above responses serve a purpose.
We tense up in preparation for explosive movement – very useful if we’re about to escape from a tiger that we’ve encountered. Not always so useful if we’re hunched over a desk working towards yet another deadline.
Or our digestion shuts down so that the energy it uses might be redirected to making our escape.
The same thing happens with our immune response. Energy is conserved by shutting it down temporarily.
This is why you often get sick at times of increased stress, and why excessive stress is associated with long-term, chronic illnesses.
Stress and the nervous system
Stress is a pretty low-level response in humans. It’s mediated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for a whole heap of automatic behavior in humans – stuff you don’t have to think about, you just do.
There’s a parasympathetic branch too, which has pretty much the opposite effect to the stress response when it’s activated.
It’s like driving a car.
You need both the accelerator and the brakes to get to where you’re going, but too much of either and you’re not going anywhere, or driving straight off the road!
Learning how to manage stress is learning how to drive your nervous system.
Perception of threat
The stress response can be activated whenever a challenge or threat is perceived. It doesn’t require the existence of a real, physical threat.
This is why a conversation or some other form of communication can be stressful, even though you are not in immediate physical danger!
Good and bad stress
Stress is actually a pretty useful response in challenging or threatening situations. One of the many reasons that we’ve thrived as a species is our ability to evade threats and rise to challenges. We need a little bit of stress response in order to get things done. Call this good stress.
For example, as I’m writing this article, I’m experiencing some low-level stress symptoms. My foot is ticking as adrenaline is released, and my mind feels sharpened as I concentrate on the process of writing.
Low level stress provides fuel for getting things done.
The problems come when our stress response is activated excessively.
Continuously flooding your system with stress hormones, diminishing your digestive system and immune response and being consumed by excessive thinking is not only uncomfortable, it’s actually pretty bad for you in the long term.
Stress management strategies
There are a number of strategies that you can consider when trying to manage stress in your life. They fall into three categories:
- Remove the source
- Undo the damage
- Reduce your baseline.
Remove the source
Sometimes it’s necessary and sensible to work on removing the sources of stress in your life. Think about what causes you most stress, and work to do something about it.
Start a conversation with your boss about the effect all the overtime is having on your output. Drop that troublesome client. Think about changing job if necessary. Ask your family for more support with personal administration if you can.
Consider removing yourself from any toxic relationships in your life. If you’re pressed for time, consider whether you really need all of those hobbies.
In short, find some time to rest and work on applying the brakes of the nervous system for a bit.
Often there are internal sources we can work on too. What are your beliefs about being busy? Do you see it as important? Is it part of your self-worth?
Do you push yourself extra-hard, even though it probably wouldn’t matter if you worked ten percent less?
What about your outlook? Do you tend to catastrophise? Do you look on every situation with negativity or positivity?
How about your diet? Your physical exercise routine?
A quick audit of the internal and external sources of stress in your life will provide you with a list of actions you can take to remove them, if possible. It will really help to talk this over with a friend or colleague – it’s sometimes hard to take a clear perspective when you’re in the middle of a stressful period of your life.
Undo the damage
Of course it’s not possible to remove all of the sources of stress in life. If you’ve found a way, untold riches await, so congratulations! And please let me know your secret.
You can certainly try to undo the damage though. And exercise is an extremely effective way to do this. Exercise release endorphins, which not only feel good, but act to reduce the negative effects of released stress hormones.
My preferred stress buster is yoga – it combines physical demands with deep breathing – which as we’ll soon see is a great way to initiate relaxation. But anything that involves moderate to strong physical exercise will do.
Pro-active stress management
We all have a baseline stress level that fluctuates during our lifetime. By taking a pro-active approach, it’s possible to reduce this baseline.
Making stress reduction a goal of your life is a worthy goal. The less affected you are by stress, the more effective you’ll be in every area of your life.
Embrace conscious relaxation exercises, such as the one below. Or learn mindfulness skills, which numerous studies have shown to reduce the effects of stress.
A quick relaxation exercise
Here’s a quick exercise that helps most people to relax.
It works on the simple principle that it’s possible to activate the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system – the part responsible for the relaxation response – you start to slow and deepen your breathing.
Slow, deep breathing is associated with parasympathetic response, so when you take control of this aspect of the relaxation response, it tricks your body into activating the rest.
Try it for yourself and see.
Find a place where you can sit quietly for a few minutes. Your desk will do, but if you can find somewhere you can be alone and undisturbed, that’s even better.
Most of us are shallow, fast breathers, which is associated with the stress response. For this exercise, place your hand on your belly. We’ll focus on breathing deeply.
Close your eyes, take a note of how you feel, and slowly take a breath in. Breath in such a way that you feel your belly rise before your chest expands. Make the breath as long and slow as you can – perhaps it might start out slightly faster, and then slow down. As you exhale, let your belly contract before your chest.
Repeat this for a couple of minutes – generally around ten to fifteen breaths. Notice any change in your state of mind or body.
How well did this work for you? Please let me know!
The stress response is a normal and useful feature of humans, moderated by the autonomic nervous system.
It’s fine in small doses, but becomes a problem when it’s activated too often. It’s important to find ways to manage the impact of stress in your life.
Stress can be managed by removing its sources, diet and exercises and making active relaxation a priority. Meditation and yoga can be incredibly effective tools for this.