- Written by Lorraine Cook, 1 April 2016
Stress is now so commonplace that for many of us it has become a way of life. But when stress becomes overwhelming, it can damage your health, mood, relationships and quality of life. Lorraine Cook presents some quick fixes and life-altering solutions.
Every week I think, well, things should be a bit less stressed this week, but then somehow, the days are once again filled with activities, meetings, tasks, appointments and demands. I don’t seem to be able to make any changes because everything just has to be fitted in. I don’t know how to feel and function better. Help!
‘Crazy busy!’ is the reply we most often seem to give these days when someone asks us how we’re doing. Fortunately, this is not always a complaint as quite often, the busyness is filled with all sorts of good things – but there’s just too many of them and it’s all too much. The result is a chronic feeling of being stressed – feeling anxious about being able to get everything done, and mentally exhausted as we try to cram everything in.
Effects of stress overload
It probably doesn’t feel like it, but your body’s reaction to stress was actually meant to be adaptive. For example, when our ancestors saw a bear about to attack, their bodies would move to a state where they were best able to handle the situation. Heart rate increased, digestion slowed, senses were heightened and more blood was pumped to the muscles and less to the organs, enabling them to fight or flee the bear. These same responses exist today if we are suddenly faced with a moment where an immediate reaction is required, like grabbing a child out of the path of an oncoming vehicle, perhaps.
Most importantly, once these sorts of situations have been handled, our systems are meant to go back to normal. In short, our bodies are only designed to be in this heightened state for a relatively brief period of time before returning to calm.
Nowadays, however, our stressors are not so manageable – basically, our lives are full of ‘bears’. We worry relentlessly about our health, our finances, our jobs and our families, so our bodies are constantly in this heightened fight-or-flight state. Within a short time this results in troubling complaints, like sleep issues, stomach upsets, headaches and muscle tension. Ultimately, long-term health issues can develop, adding new stressors to the situation. Things just don’t get better, unless you make some changes.
Meditation, even for a short period of time, can calm your mind and by extension your stressed-out system. Meditation is an approach to training the mind, comparable to the way fitness is an approach to training the body. Simply put, you train your mind to give you some peace and quiet. One of the easiest ways to begin meditating is by focusing on your breathing or repeating a single word or mantra. You then refocus your awareness each time you notice your mind wandering. Rather than pursuing random thoughts and worries, you simply let them go. Through this process, you find yourself better able to cope, having freed yourself of worries if even for a short time.
Exercise of any sort helps to relax your mind and release tension. Yoga is especially effective, as it combines beneficial breathing techniques with poses that release tension and create calm. Attending a regular class ensures you have this prioritised in your life, but just having a few favourite poses to do throughout the day is going to help.
Eating healthily and sleeping on a regular schedule ensures that you are less vulnerable to anxiety. You may have to resort to drastic measures to make this happen – like quitting Facebook and turning off all electronic devices a few hours before you plan to sleep. Give yourself time to unwind before bed, so you can get the rest you need.
While the above are going to be effective solutions in the short term, if your life is a cycle of coping and hoping (that it’s going to get better) then it’s time to make some changes. Sadly, when life is at its most stressful, this is the last thing that most of us feel able to do – there just isn’t time to stop and really think. In the busyness, it can be difficult to figure out which areas of your life aren’t working, and what you can do to change that.
The aim is to make different choices, so that life doesn’t feel so out of control all the time. As a first step, sit yourself down and look at your schedule to see if it reflects your priorities and values. For example, if being healthy is important to you, but you’ve allowed no time in your schedule for exercise, that difference between priority and practice should be addressed.
Like most things that are worth doing, making some of these changes won’t be easy, especially if you have to cut back on activities you really enjoy, at least for a while. But finding that you can now cope with your schedule (and even enjoy it), without feeling stressed all the time, will make you glad you did.
No. 1 stress-relief technique
To immediately interrupt your body’s stress response, try ‘4-7-8 breathing’. Unlike normal, unconscious breathing, this technique has you breathing in for a count of 4, holding for a count of 7, and slowly releasing your breath to a count of 8. Taking a few minutes to practise 4-7-8 breathing will immediately change how you are feeling, and you can do it anytime anywhere.