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Stress and how to manage it:

Posted on: 27 Jul

Massage therapy

What is ‘stress’?:

The word ‘stress’ is generally used to describe the feelings that people experience when the demands made on them are greater than their perceived ability to cope. At these times, people can often feel overloaded, under tremendous pressure, tense and/or emotional.

Stress can be caused by external or internal factors. External stressors include sources of stress outside ourselves that affect us, including daily hassles, life experiences and traumas. Our personal reaction to these life events is what creates feelings of stress. Internal stressors are the sources of stress that are generated from within: the thoughts such as worry, doubt, apprehension or self-criticism that create feelings of anxiety, panic, frustration, fear or anger (to name but a few). Interestingly, the sources of stress can often be quite different for each individual: a situation or thought that is perceived as stressful by one person may be quite motivating to another.

Positive and negative stress:

The word ‘stress’ is usually considered to be something negative, but it is important to understand that a certain amount of pressure can actually be positive – a stimulus for us to get things completed, and to stay active and motivated in our projects and goals. With no external or internal pressure, we would quickly become bored and lethargic.

However, if we have periods of feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands placed on us, it is important that we take time to identify the cause/s of our stress and take action to make some changes (either external or internal). Taking on too much and feeling continuously overwhelmed or struggling to cope whilst failing to make any changes to what we are doing can lead to ill health and, eventually, burnout.

How our body responds to stressful thoughts:

Whenever we feel stressed, the hypothalamus, a primitive part of our brain, is stimulated to produce what is known as a ‘fight or flight response’ – an instinctive, automatic response which enables us to instantly fight or run away from attack, harm or threat to our survival. As a result, the body undergoes a series of dramatic changes. Our respiratory and heart rates increase. Blood is shunted away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy for running and fighting. Our pupils dilate and our sight sharpens. Our impulses quicken. We become prepared, physically and psychologically, for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. Once the threat, which triggered the response, has been eliminated, our body and mind then naturally return to a state of calm and rest.

The ‘fight or flight’ response was certainly once invaluable when we had to face predators that threatened our physical survival. Today, however, most of the stresses we encounter consist of rush hour traffic, struggling to meet an important deadline or relationship difficulties. Nonetheless, these modern day stresses trigger the activation of our fight or flight system in exactly the same way as if our physical survival was threatened, except that in most cases we are not able to flee or fight. As a result, these stress hormones can build up in our bodies and, if we experience prolonged and regular stress, create symptoms and illness.

Symptoms of stress:

These vary from person to person but the most common ones include: muscular tension, back/neck/shoulder pain, anxiety, asthma, emotional outbursts, fatigue, headaches and migraines, high blood pressure, hypoglycaemia, irritable bowel syndrome, irritability, menstrual problems, nervous tics, panic attacks, racing heart and many others.

General tips for reducing stress:

Creating a balanced and positive life for yourself in general will help to support you when more challenging situations arise. Things to consider as part of a healthy, balanced life are:

Balance at work: If you work at a desk, take a short break every hour to move and stretch your muscles (particularly your neck, shoulders, arms and wrists) and to give your mind a rest. A few minutes of meditation, a short walk or sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing for 1-3 minutes are great ways of recharging your batteries and preventing a build up of tension. Also allow time away from your desk to eat lunch. You will find that you will be able to think more clearly and work much more productively as a result.

Diet: As much as possible, stick to a balanced, wholesome diet, including plenty of fresh vegetables, whole grains (brown rice, wholemeal bread/pasta, oats, rye, buckwheat, quinoa, etc) fruit, nuts and seeds. Ensure you drink at 6-8 glasses of water or herbal tea per day. Minimise your intake of refined sugar (fizzy drinks, sweets, cakes and pastries), processed grains (white bread/pasta/rice), caffeine and ready meals. The effects of too much caffeine or refined sugar/starch also place the body under a lot of stress. One or two cups of tea or coffee a day is fine for most people, however more than this can cause big fluctuations in one’s energy levels. Eating too much refined sugar/starch causes your blood sugar/energy levels to rise rapidly but then drop very fast, resulting in more sugar cravings – the body’s sign that it needs to rapidly re-boost its sugar/energy levels. However, if we then consume more refined sugar (instead of a healthy snack), then again our sugar levels will rapidly rise before plummeting again, creating a vicious circle and a lot of stress on the body. Symptoms of low blood sugar include low energy, irritability, shakiness, anxiety, mood swings, sugar cravings and fatigue. If you feel that low blood sugar may be an issue for you, I recommend that you read more about the effects of refined sugar on the body, consider modifying your diet and/or consulting a nutritionist.

Sleep: Whenever possible, ensure that you get regular, good quality sleep. The amount of sleep needed varies from person to person: work out how much sleep you personally need to function at your best and try to keep to a regular sleep/wake routine.

Exercise: The recommended minimum amount of exercise is 20 minutes of moderate exercise 3 times per week. Physical exercise can help to discharge any excess tension from the body, boost the energy levels, increase physical strength (also making you feel mentally stronger), release endorphins (which make you feel more positive and alert) and calm the mind (by temporarily taking the attention into the body and so away from stressful thoughts). Rather than seeing exercise as a ‘chore’, select activities that you naturally enjoy – such as playing a sport, dancing, swimming or walking in the countryside – then you are much more likely to do them on a regular basis.

Meaningful Activities: Hopefully you already enjoy the work you have chosen to do, but it is also important to take time to do other activities you naturally enjoy – which could be anything from playing music to painting, dancing or learning a new skill. Getting absorbed in an activity that you find enjoyable is a great way of detaching from any personal stresses for a while and will leave you feeling refreshed and revitalised. Setting aside regular, quality time with loved ones is also essential, as well as deeply connecting to others in a larger group or community. Spending time in nature can help to calm the mind, enable us to reconnect with a wider reality and to see our personal problems from a different perspective.

Body/Mind Techniques for Health and Balance: Consider starting a regular (preferably daily) practice of yoga, qui gong, tai chi and/or meditation, or something similar. These are all excellent tools that can help us to develop our inner resources to deal with the challenges of life, both external and internal. Although the forms of these techniques are different, all can be said to be forms of meditation/mindfulness, (whether moving or still), helping to:

  • Calm the mind and improve our mental focus.
  • Release physical, emotional and energetic tensions and blockages caused by stress.
  • Improve our flexibility, posture, breathing, digestion and circulation.
  • Boost our energy levels and immune system.
  • Increase our self-awareness, and understanding of the body-mind connection, enabling us to gain more control over our mind, body and emotions, so that we can make healthier choices in our lives.
  • Develop a deeper state of calm and balance, and a strong, stable centre, so that we remain balanced, peaceful and able to respond appropriately to life’s challenges.

Exercise can also be used as a form of meditation if you consciously place your whole focus on your body and the actions you are making (thereby simultaneously focusing your mind and removing it from stressful thoughts).

Dealing with specific stressful events:

During challenging times, it is particularly important to stick to a healthy, balanced routine, yet this is often when we find this the most difficult as usually all we can think about is the cause of our stress!

Some practical suggestions for tackling stress:

As soon as you noticed that you’re feeling stressed, remind yourself to:

1) Stop and breathe. Close your eyes and take some long, slow and relaxed breaths. One simple but highly effective technique I can recommend is to breathe in slowly through your nose for 10 counts, hold the in-breath for 10 counts, breathe out through your nose for 10 counts and hold the out-breath for 10 counts. (NB you can choose as many counts as is comfortable for you – but the counts should be equal, your breaths as long and slow as possible, and only breathe through your nose – keep your mouth closed.) I would recommend doing this technique for at least 5 minutes, more if possible. It will help to calm and centre you so that you feel more in control again, as well as enabling you to step back slightly from your feelings so that you can more calmly think about the best way to handle the situation.

2) Clarify the situation. When you are feeling calmer, take time to clearly identify the source of the stress and how it is affecting you. It can often help to write this down. Next, calmly think about what you can to do tackle the situation in the most positive way.

3) Initiate change. In his insightful book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle talks about us having three choices when dealing with challenges.
a) We can either actively take steps to change the situation (for example, by clearly communicating our feelings and needs to the relevant person at an appropriate time),
b) we can choose to remove ourselves from the situation so that it no longer affects us (if this feels right and is appropriate),
c) or we can change our internal response to the situation by deciding to accept it fully, thereby letting go of all our negative feelings about it. This last option sometimes seems very difficult, yet in some situations over which we have no control or that we cannot change, it is the only thing we can do.
– One thing that Tolle is very clear about is that simply worrying or complaining to others about a situation without taking action to change something, either internally or externally, is one of the biggest traps we can fall into, as it simply keeps us feeling stuck and powerless, and generates even more stress! Try to notice the times when you have fallen into this trap, remind yourself you always have a choice in what you do, and consider what action you can take to tackle your stress in a more positive way.

Body and Mind Techniques: I have already discussed the benefits of practices such as meditation, yoga and regular exercise in the previous section – it is especially helpful to practise these disciplines daily during stressful times to help to keep you balanced, centred and in control, so that you can deal with the situation in the most skilful way.

Deep Relaxation Techniques: In addition to yoga and meditation, learning how to deeply relax, using methods such as progressive relaxation, yoga nidra or autogenic training, can also be a valuable tool that you can use in daily life as well as call upon in times of stress. (You can read more about these techniques on the internet to find out which appeals most to you or simply start with a guided relaxation cd, available from many bookshops, Amazon or Inner Space in London www.innerspace.org.) When you are feeling stressed or exhausted, taking just 10 or 20 minutes out of your day to relax completely (even when you think you don’t have the time!) will enable you to go back to the situation feeling calmer, energised and more in control of your responses, as well as, often, able to see things from a wider perspective.

External support: Going for a course of treatments or therapy, whether some form of bodywork, psychotherapy, counselling or hypnotherapy, can be useful during the times in our life when we do feel a bit ‘stuck’. For example, when we are suffering from stress-related physical or emotional health problems that we don’t seem to be able to resolve; recurring negative thought patterns which are affecting our work or personal life; or simply to help us understand more about the body-mind connection and our own particular patterns so that we can gain more control over our lives and reach our highest potential. In order to find out which treatment would best for you, you will need to do some research. The internet has a wealth of information about all therapies on offer, and there are many books available to help you understand and select the most appropriate treatment for your needs.

Resources:

There is a wealth of information and support available on the internet and in bookshops on the topic of stress management. Here are just a few personal recommendations:

Organisations:

  • Be Mindful: nationwide mindfulness and stress reduction courses (http://www.bemindful.co.uk)
  • Many Buddhist centres offer short courses in meditation and/or mindfulness that are suitable for the lay person.
  • Inner Space in London or Oxford (www.innerspace.org) offer free short courses, talks, workshops and retreats on tops such as meditation, stress management, self esteem and anger management.

Books:

  • The Power of Now – by Eckhart Tolle – best selling book that explains the way in which our minds generate stress and tension, and how present moment awareness and mindfulness can help us to deal more effectively with life’s challenges.
  • Mindfulness for Beginners – by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • Stress Management – by Edward A. Charlesworth and Ronald G. Nathan
  • Stress Management Skills – Training Course: Exercises and Techniques to Manage Stress and Anxiety… – by Kathryn Critchley and Margaret Greenhall

CDs:

  • CDs covering different forms of meditation, relaxation and stress management can be purchased from bookshops, Amazon or www.innerspace.org
  • Lifeflow Meditation series: (http://www.project-meditation.org) – a highly effective way to learn, or deepen, your meditation practice.

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