Not all stress is bad but it becomes bad for our health when we can't seem to switch it off and return to a calm and relaxed state. Everybody has different stress tolerances as well, so it is also important throughout your life to reflect on what circumstances have a tendency to make you feel uptight. In other words, sometimes we choose paths in life that don't match who we are...an example being working on wall street when really you'd rather be massaging clients at a health retreat or working with your hands making and creating! Self-reflection is such an important part of managing our stress levels and can help us to avoid situations which are not well suited to our personality or our life preferences. Stress can infact be a gift in showing us what is wrong with our life if we take the time to step back and notice what is really causing our feelings of stress and tension.
Walter Cannon was the first to describe and name the 'fight or flight' response back in 1915. This is a natural bodily reaction that occurs in response to perceived 'danger' and also expresses when we start to feel stressed. This stress response served us positively in pre-historic times, when our body diffused the response in a physical way and utilised the hormones and energy productively, by fighting for our lives, or fleeing predation or agression. Once the threat was gone, our bodies automatically resumed what is known as the relaxation or 'rest and digest' mode. Now, however, we can be triggered into the fight or flight stress response by a range of mental and physical experiences in daily life, which of course do not require physical exertion to overcome the stressor. Therefore we can become influenced negatively over time, from the excess secretion of the hormone Cortisol from our adrenal glands and a host of other side effects such as increased heart rate and blood pressure; lowered metabolic rate; digestive malfunction; anxiety and panic disorder; lowered immunity; asthma, allergies and skin complaints; chronic fatigue syndrome; excessive levels of muscle tension; cushing's syndrome and many other flow on effects of chronic disorder, effecting us physically and mentally.
Our stress response can be activated simply by worrying about the future, thinking about a stressful memory and experience from our past, sitting in peak hour traffic, having a disagreement with our spouse, or churning over in our mind negative thoughts too frequently.
Stress always has an origin. It is important before we speak of relaxation techniques that we touch on the importance of becoming aware of stress triggers. You can explore this more fully in my book "Create Your Happiest Life from the Inside Out" as stress not only causes emotional turmoil but is also a major contributor to physical disease. The key here is to try to recognise what is going on in your life which creates a feeling of stress in your mind and body. So rather than pretend all is well, take responsibility for issues which might be making you feel uptight or negative, rather denying they exist.
Once a stressor is identified, you can then decide whether it is a problem which can be rectified straight away, or whether a plan of action can be undertaken to lessen the stressful impact over time. For instance if you are working in a job you dislike, it maybe possible to work on a plan to re-train into a career you would much prefer.
There will always be a certain amount of base stress in our lives...the key here is to manage the effect it has on us, gradually growing our resilience so the impact on our mind and body is much reduced. Cultivating the ability to not let little things get the better of us can take time, but it is worth the effort for the positive impact on our wellbeing. The more tools we have in our de=stress toolbox, the better equipped we are to reduce the level of stress we feel and for how long we let things upset us. In other words we want to work on the speed at which we reclaim a calm, balanced state, from when we are feeling tense.
There are many different breathing techniques to help disperse stress and tension in your body. Simply stopping and becoming aware whether you are remembering to breathe when feeling uptight is a good start! We often begin shallow breathing when we are focused instead upon the 'something' which has set off our stress response. Try to breath deep into one's belly rather than just into the chest cavity. Breath in to the count of four, hold for four, and breathe out to four. When we focus on breathing in slowly and deeply, we send a message to our brain that we are choosing to move out of a stressed or productive mode and into a more relaxed state.
Butterfly Breathing Technique
Begin by standing with your back straight and your feet slightly apart, flat upon the ground or floor. Let your arms drop by your sides, relaxed. Then bring your hands into a softly crossed position in front of your sternum and exhale fully. Allow your hands to drop away gently to your sides and into an extended stretch outwards as you begin to inhale slowly and deeply into your abdomen and chest. Your arms will move fluidly, fully extended, floating in a rounded arc from down near your sides as though you are unfurling your wings and raising your arms and hands up on either side of your body, raising them ever upwards until the backs of your hands come together above your head. Pause and continue to stretch skywards. Your breath should have been long and slow to match the slow raising of your arms into the fully extended position above your head. After your brief pause, begin to exhale as you return your arms (your wings) down in the same way you went up, bringing them back to rest, crossed in front of your sternum again softly. Pause for a few seconds before repeating again by inhaling as you raise both arms up extended fully outwards and upwards to above your head- stretch upwards- pause, then exhale back to the starting position, hands crossed in front of sternum. Do this for about ten repeats. Your breathing should not be forced or held for too long- it can be useful to count as you inhale, then count to the same as you exhale, making the in and out breath equal.
Stress builds up in a static body more quickly than one that moves! It has nowhere to go, it just sits inside us steadily building up, tightening muscles and mind. The exception of course, is when you are purposely quietening the mind in meditation or mindfulness.
Physical exertion is one of the most natural ways to actively disperse stress and tension which builds up during your day. Especially helpful for those who are in restrained work environments where they cannot expel tension as they feel it building. The form of exercise you choose, should be the type that you enjoy and will do! Don't just go to the gym for instance if that is really not your thing. But if you do like to have someone keep you accountable and regularly stick with a habit of exercising, you may prefer to be supported by a personal trainer in a gym setting or simply like walking with a mate.
Personally, I love dancing, gardening and walking in nature as my preferred forms of exercise...none of them are particularly formal and to me don't even feel ike exercise which suits me fine! They help me to unwind and release mental tension as well as provide my body with healthy movement.
Did you know that going for a walk, jog or bike ride when you are faced with a dilemma or feeling anxious or angry, is the best way to disperse those negative emotions and hit your reset button? The oxygen you breathe into your lungs will help clear your mind and the endorphins which are released as a bi-product will help you to feel more relaxed, happier and energised.
Our five senses are amazing support tools for nurturing our abiity to relax.
They help us to come back to be truly in the moment. Like the old saying:
"Stop and smell the roses".
We must slow down our body and thoughts if we are to notice the roses, let alone smell their beautiful aroma. And so it is with all of our senses, they are our bodies subtle detection system which tells us if we are immersing in the pleasure of the moment.
Let this be a gentle reminder for us to stop and notice what is going on around us wherever and whatever we are doing. When we do this we will STOP and notice the beautiful hues in the morning sky at sunrise on the way to work. We will STOP and notice the shimmer of raindrops on tree leaves as we go for our daily walk and smell the freshly cut grass from someones lawn being mown on the weekend. We will STOP and savour the taste of our evening meal, slowly chewing each mouthful, the flavours bursting in their generosity to please us. We will STOP and notice the texture of the smooth, velvety ears of our best mate, our dog. We will STOP and listen to the bird calls going on all around us, understanding that without them it would seem such an eery, silent world.
There is nothing more important than seeing, touching, smelling, tasting and hearing everything going on around us.
This is one of our greatest gifts to offset the effects of stress, returning to our centre so we become the true observer of our surroundings and experiences.
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