We all respond to stress differently so, there’s no “one size fits all” solution to managing stress. But if you feel like the stress in your life is out of control, it’s time to take action. Stress management can teach you healthier ways to cope with stress, help you reduce its harmful effects, and prevent stress from spiraling out of control again in the future.
Stress is something I’ve been intimately acquainted with since I was a kid. I used to hold myself to a standard often beyond my abilities. I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform as perfectly as possible. Not to mention that I was a bit of a type A. Often I would end up losing sleep and getting headaches due to stress. Eventually it took its toll in more serious ways and I had to learn healthier ways of living. It’s hard to believe that I have now spent over 30 years learning and practicing all sorts of stress reduction techniques.
Many of you know that I am a transformational life coach. I consult with individuals and groups to help them overcome the obstacles they face and learn tools to deal with their overwhelming emotions, so they can get their power back and begin creating the life they really want. Many of my clients have asked me about how to decrease stress in their life, so I thought it would be helpful to give a class that talks about how it actually affects our bodies and our brains, as well as share some ideas you may not have heard of for managing stress.
Stress affects pretty much all of us at some point in our lives. The funny thing is, positive events like getting married or starting a new job can stress us out, as I am sure you are well aware. It isn’t whether something is positive or negative that affects us, it’s the pressure we feel as a result of many factors like: the story we are telling our selves about the situation at hand, it’s our perspective, or time constraints, or too many responsibilities, a lack of money, or a host of other things. But, stress isn’t always a bad thing. In some cases, it protects us from danger—in fact, that’s the whole point. We may need the laser like focus that results from stress, to get us out of the way of an oncoming car. And, it can also warn us that something emotional, that we may have buried, needs to be addressed.
As I am sure you know, stress is a leftover survival technique from fighting for survival, and that it triggers our fight-or-flight response. These days, even though we may not need to fight or flee, we still have our battles, pressures and problems, fears, doubts and worries that leave us feeling stressed and like everything is a matter of life and death. As a result, our body/mind system can get drenched with chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol that can end up taxing our organisms in devastating ways.
You’ve probably noticed the way a president looks before taking office and then after he’s served his term. There’s been a lot of press surrounding the possibility that stress leads to premature aging, often using presidents as an example. The more we research, the better we understand how stress is related to symptoms of aging, poor health like heart disease, and even common ailments like headaches and stomachaches. Here’s one fact I found really interesting, though…
The perception of stress is highly individualized. What rattles your friend’s nerves may not phase you in the least, and vice versa. In other words, what matters most is not what happens to you, but how you interpret what happens to you, which in turn works with how you react to the situation. This is why I have spent years learning about what affects my reactions and perceptions. It’s the stories we come up with in our minds that have a huge influence on whether we become stressed or not. And here’s the thing, many of the stories are generated from our subconscious and we are not even aware of them, at least not until we surprise ourselves with some strong outburst or reaction that is completely unexpected. That’s a strong clue that we are not only feeling stressed but that there is some program running the show behind the scenes. Often our “never-let-em-see-ya -sweat” composure hides underlying issues only to be exposed at inopportune times.
More about this in a bit, okay? Let’s get into the science for a sec!
Here’s How Stress Can Change Our Brains
Stress and the brain are closely linked, in fact very similar to how creativity and the brain are interlinked. There are three parts of the brain that are highly involved in how we recognize and respond to stressors:
- the amygdala
- the hippocampus
- and the prefrontal cortex
These three areas of the brain work with the hypothalamus to turn on and off the production of stress hormones and related responses like an increased heart rate. Apart from controlling our stress response, our brains can also be affected by the stress itself:
Researchers are now learning how stressors can physically alter our brains, which in turn, may impact how we learn, form memories, and even make decisions.
Stress, in fact, is actually the most common cause of changes in brain function. Some recent studies have shown indications of how this happens. One study used baby monkeys to test the effects of stress on development and long-term mental health. Half the monkeys were cared for by their peers for 6 months while the other half remained with their mothers. Afterwards, the monkeys were returned to typical social groups for several months before the researchers scanned their brains.
For the monkeys who had been removed from their mothers and cared for by their peers, areas of their brains related to stress were still enlarged, even after being in normal social conditions for several months. Although more studies are needed to explore this fully, it’s pretty scary to think that prolonged stress could affect our brains long-term.
Another study found that rats who were exposed to prolonged stress, had hippocampuses that actually shrank. The hippocampus is integral to forming memories. It has been debated before whether Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (also known as PTSD) can actually shrink the hippocampus, or whether people with naturally smaller hippocampuses are just more prone to PTSD. This study points to stress being a factor in actually changing the brain by shrinking the hippocampus.
Stress and the Body
We have several different stress hormones that affect our bodies. Adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are stress hormones called glucocorticoids that are essential for us to function properly in the face of danger. While these hormones can be useful in helping us to learn and form new memories, too much of them can be unhealthy. When our lives are filled with chronic stress, we can enter a state called cortisol dominance, which negatively affects learning, attention span, and memory.
Of course having stress hormones rushing through our veins is bound to affect our bodies. So let’s take a look at some of the ways that occurs.
The effects of fight or flight don’t only occur in our brains. Our bodies are physically affected by this state as well, especially when it’s prolonged. To start with, fight or flight mode directs blood flow away from your extremities and towards your heart, lungs, legs and back.
This is to help us maximize running and fighting power (something we’d need in an actual life-or-death situation), but it reduces our fine motor skills dramatically. The increased levels of adrenaline in our brains mixed with these changes in blood flow often lead to uncontrollable shaking once the danger has passed.
Something else I learned about how stress affects the body was the effect it has on our digestive system. Because our bodies want to use all of our available energy for fighting or fleeing, they stop other energy-spending processes like digestion. This can make us feel nauseous by stopping digestion of the food we’ve got in our bodies already, and sometimes our bodies even flush the food out with fluids, which turns into vomit or diarrhea.
So now we know why we often feel sick during or after high-stress situations. On the other end of the spectrum, eating well can actually positively impact how we cope with stress and therefore limit its impact. That could be an entire class in and of itself. If you want to learn more I would refer you to my good friend Maxime, at Prasad Nutrition. She understands very well just what we need nutritionally to keep us at the top of our game. http://prasadnutrition.com/
You’ve probably felt how fast your heartbeat can get during stressful situations before. What’s really interesting about this is that your fast heartbeat actually sends a signal to your brain’s prefrontal cortex—the part that handles thought processing and decision making. The signal tells this part of your brain to shut down temporarily and let your midbrain take over. This is the part of the brain that’s sometimes referred to as the “kill or be killed” section. When we’re in this state, instinct and training take over from rational thought and reasoning.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 90% of all illness and disease are stress-related. Let’s just go over that again: Up to 90% of all illness and disease are stress-related. That statistic may surprise you, but it’s true. That’s why it is so important to understand stress and how seriously it is affecting us all.
It can affect our health in various ways, particularly chronic stress that continues over long periods of time. You are probably already aware that it can lower our immune systems so we’re generally more susceptible to getting sick. That it can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease, cause everyday aches and pains, weight gain, sleep loss, lower your sex drive and cause skin conditions like hives or eczema. The seriousness of chronic stress can be summed up with this comment: “It’s very possible that if you have a life filled with constant stress, little by little your body is breaking down and you are diminishing your life force.”
Okay So Let’s Get to the Good Stuff: Would you like to know some…Uncommon Ways to Decrease Stress?
By now you are probably convinced that generally stress is bad, especially if it’s ongoing. But a good note to start on is that there is hope. Stress-reduction strategies including the ones you are already familiar with like: meditation, exercising and relaxation have been shown to reverse the negative effects of stress on our health by increasing good chemicals in the body like endorphins and making more infection-fighting T cells to boost our immune systems.
I want you to think of something that is bothering you right now. Notice where in your body you feel this. It can be physical, mental or emotional, but it will probably be represented by a place in the body. Just focus on that place, bring your attention to it, but don’t try to change it. Then rate it. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst, about what number is it? Next envision yourself, accepting it, not changing it, not hiding from it, just being with it, just as it is. Acceptance is always the first step to dealing with anything. If we don’t acknowledge there is an issue how can we work with it? So stay in your body, just relax and keep your attention on this spot. Now just imagine that it is being surrounded by a sense of unconditional love and acceptance. Flood the area with this love, as if this pain is a child that you love dearly and you are giving them a huge compassionate hug. Breathe, relax and notice if it is shifting or changing at all. It might move to another place in the body or it might reduce in pain. Just notice and keep sending it love. That’s right, you’re doing great. Stay with it. Now about what number do you think it is at? Keep going until it is at 0 if you can. If you are finished take note of how you feel, then make sure to get up and walk around for a few minutes. See you back here shortly.
Ok great, let’s try something else. Focus on what you are grateful for. Not just a quick list but just think of your top 3 items. Now, narrow that down to one and begin to really feel into that thing you are so deeply grateful for. Let it fill your heart. Think about how blessed it makes you feel, how it lights you up and helps you relax. Can you see it in your mind’s eye? Can you feel how amazing it is that this is part of your life. Stay with the feeling. Remember you can choose to do this anytime.
Now let’s take it a step further. The HeartMath Institute has a great exercise. They call it the Coherence® Technique.
Step 1: Focus your attention in the area of the heart. Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of your heart or chest area, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual. Suggestion: Inhale 5 seconds, exhale 5 seconds (or whatever rhythm is comfortable)
Step 2: Make a sincere attempt to experience a regenerative feeling such as appreciation or care for someone or something in your life. Similar to what we just did. Try to re-experience the feeling you have for someone you love, a pet, a special place, an accomplishment, etc. or focus on a feeling of calm or ease. That’s it!
The next step is to take this technique and make it a daily habit. Do this by picking certain times of the day when you can give yourself a guilt-free three to five minutes to focus on your heart: Start of your day, right before lunch, just before bed. Waiting in line is also a great time to use this technique instead of getting aggravated. You’ll be amazed at how different your experience of waiting can be. Instead of draining your energy by focusing on the negative you’re using the time to recharge. The more you practice, the more quickly heart coherence emerges and the easier it is to sustain.
You can use Quick Coherence especially when you begin feeling a draining emotion such as frustration, irritation, anxiety or anger. Find a feeling of ease and inner harmony that’s reflected in more balanced heart rhythms, facilitating brain function and more access to higher intelligence. Although here is the perfect example of the importance of knowing your WHY. For those of you who have already been diagnosed with heart disease or really any other disease, one of the big reasons why you are learning techniques like this is because you have to find ways to reduce this stress or things could get worse, right. So you are highly motivated, which is great.
We could all take a hint from you. Just the other day a friend shared with me how sometimes he just resists feeling better. He knows he needs to, he knows it would be better for the entire mind/body/spirit system and yet he wants to wallow. His choice, and since he isn’t sick at the moment he doesn’t really think about the consequence of this choice. However, if he did, he might think twice because the longer he resists the longer the stress persists and the more it affects his body. Funny thing is, shortly after he shared this choice he got a cold, I wasn’t surprised. It takes work to make a hard choice like eating vejis we may not want to or doing an exercise that is going to make us feel better when in an odd way it feels good to just be sad awhile. We have to be cautious here though, if we are not careful it can and usually does catch up with us.
Consider working with a coach or a good friend to figure out the stories you are telling about life. We need to be aware of the meaning we make of things because it determines how we look at things. This is an area I really work closely with my clients on, so that they can reframe what is happening. It’s the old cup half full or half empty scenario. We can train ourselves to adopt a different perspective with tools like NLP (neuro linguistic programming), Theta Therapy and Voice Activated Integration. But even just beginning to hear the stories you tell yourself and re-examining them is a great start. Ask yourself questions like: Is this really true? Or…Is this what this really means or could there be another explanation? This way you can begin to challenge what your mind may be subconsciously spitting out, even though you might not even consciously agree.
Obviously dealing with the stress in our life is absolutely imperative, especially if we want to be more successful. In this article we went over exactly how devastating it can be to our entire mind/body system. So don’t wait until there is a life threatening situation demanding that you pay attention, because the price will be high. Start now, as best you can, learning how to control it. Use HeartMath, Psychological techniques or the things you hear about like yoga and meditation. These are just a few of the many many ways I have learned to deal with the invariable life situations that arise. But, one of the most helpful ways has been to have a coach by myside, not only as a support system but as a guide to help know how to navigate the challenges we all face. Looking for a compassionate caring soul who has a great deal of education and experience? Visit www.Teraysa.com for more information and give yourself the gift of a life coach that can help you overcome the obstacles you face.