Readers, it is time to fire up your imagination for a moment.
You’re in the woods, sitting by a stream quietly contemplating life. The sun is shining through the trees, it is cool where you’re sitting and the sound of the water is so soothing it is almost lulling you to sleep. Suddenly, you spot a tiger on the other side of the stream, through the trees. Adrenaline surges through your body. Your breath quickens, your heart races and you jump up, arms and legs primed to run. ‘Let’s get out of here’ your mind says – and your body responds ‘yes please!’. You run. Adrenaline is joined by cortisol, which releases glucose to help you run. You’re fixated on that tiger…and making sure you’re as far away from it as possible. You don’t need your digestive system, your reproductive system or your immune system, so cortisol switches those off; it is all about survival at this moment in time. Your blood vessels constrict in case you meet any brambles on your dash. The movement releases endorphins, reducing your perception of pain so that you just keep on going.
And then…you hear a shot. The tiger drops and a man emerges from the trees ‘gosh, thank goodness we caught him…he escaped this morning. Let’s get him back to the zoo before he wakes up’. You’re safe. You sink to the floor. Your breath slows. Your heart slows. The endorphins gobble up the adrenaline and cortisol, leaving you feeling positive and happy, and you begin to laugh at your narrow escape. ‘We’re safe now, lets fire up all systems’ your mind says – and your body responds ‘yes please!’.
That is your body’s stress response. It works perfectly, creating the exact psychological and physiological conditions to get you out of danger. Fear, a single focus on the danger and an urgency to run or fight. Lots of oxygen, blood pumping to help your arms and legs move, a release of glucose and a decrease in any bodily functions which can be temporarily turned off. All of this happens to give you a good chance of survival.
So stress doesn’t really have to be a problem. Except it is.
The problem is, your mind doesn’t know the difference between a danger it would be helpful to run away from or fight, and a ‘danger’ where running away or fighting aren’t really helpful options. It responds in exactly the same way, priming your body for action. Replace ‘tiger’ in the story with ‘missed mortgage payment’, and you’ll see why this is unhelpful. ‘Let’s get out of here’ your mind says – and your body responds ‘erm, how is that going to help?!’.
Short term, this doesn’t have too much of an impact. The body is quite resilient. However, if you have multiple triggers of stress spanning a long time period, I am sure you can see where problems can arise. An increased heart rate and constricted blood vessels? High bp, heart disease. Increased release of glucose? Diabetes. Prolonged poor digestion? IBS, Crohn’s disease, food intolerances. A singular focus on the problem? Anxiety, depression, panic. I’m not saying stress is the only cause of these diseases, but it certainly plays a huge part in either causing them or making them worse.
Most of the people I see have some sort of stress in their lives – either as the result of another underlying situation, or in some cases stress has become a problem in itself, as the mind and body have forgotten how to wind down.
The great news is that something can be done about this.
Stress occurs when you don’t have the resources to meet your demands (not enough money, time or knowledge). In the long term it is important to increase your resources or reduce your demands, but approaching this with a calm mind and body will help you make much clearer decisions and and enable you to deal with things more efficiently.
The trick is to teach your mind which dangers warrant a flight and fight response, and which do not.
- Breathe deeply and slowly for a few minutes every day. You can do this at any time; watching TV, sitting at your desk, while you’re out in nature or in silence with your eyes closed. When you’re stressed, your breathing becomes quick and shallow. By doing the opposite, you’re teaching your brain that the situation you’re in does not warrant a fight or flight respond, and over time it gets the message.
- Exercise. This helps release endorphins and mops up all that adrenaline and cortisol. For added incentive, find something you enjoy doing and have fun with it. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it gets you moving.
- Eat well. When under stress, your body finds it difficult to digest food, which means you don’t get the nutrients you need – leaving you feeling tired and unable to think clearly…a bit of a vicious cycle. Help it along by nourishing it with really nutritious food and staying away from foods which give your body a quick surge of energy but leave it feeling more depleted in the long term. You may not be able to control the demands in your life for the moment, but you can control the fuel you put in your body to deal with them.
- Write down 3 things you are grateful for at the start and end of each day. Your mind’s natural response to stress is to focus singularly on the danger (to make sure it isn’t close enough to eat you up for dinner). This helps take your mind off that singular point, and over time your mind gets the message that it doesn’t need to focus so singularly.
- Try a relaxation hypnosis, which will help you quieten the mind and relax deeply.
- When you’re ready, understand the causes of your stress and work on increases the resources you have to meet them.
This is a brief overview, which will help you get started on managing your stress and anxiety.
Stress management is a life skill which is important for everyone to learn, as we all go through stressful situations or prolonged periods of stress in our lives. If you’d like to find out more I run stress and anxiety management courses where we delve deeper into how to improve our response to stressful situations better by discussing some of the most common causes of stress and how to manage them better. I also run 1:1 sessions where we can work explore the specific causes of stress in your life and on increasing your resources to deal with them.
Have a lovely week.
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