The past few months has been a struggle so we can be forgiven for feeling we have a very short fuse and need a very long holiday. No one should underestimate the health problems associated with stress – it’s the single biggest cause of long-term absence from work. More importantly though, it exacerbates, and is the cause of, all kinds of illnesses and if you need a list, there’s one below.
It’s easy to blame modern life and say that there’s not much we can do about it. BUT it has always been like this – the human body is no different to any other mammal with the ‘fight or flight’ response – the hormonal and physiological changes are more or less the same. I recently wrote an article on how horses respond to stress and how we can help them to relax by regulating our breathing, our heart rate and body language. What’s also interesting is that their ability to engage and learn is in inverse proportion to their stress levels. “Adrenaline up = learning down”, says Monty Roberts. Does the same hold true for humans? Probably.
More recently, think how stressed people must have felt during the Second World War. A friend told me about her grandmother in the East End whose advice to a fearful, tearful young mother was, “Roll up your sleeves, take a bucket of soapy water outside and scrub that front step.” And there you have it – recognition of her struggle, exercise, fresh air, contact with neighbours and people walking past – all the elements required to manage stress. But more than anything, sometimes I think we just need a practical way to pass the time.
Stress is nothing new, which is a thought I find (perversely) rather comforting! The success with which we cope with stress requires the ability to recognise our own stress levels as they build up. Then we need a strategy at the ready to deal with them. If you’re reading this because you already feel overwhelmed there are two things you can do immediately:
First: BREATHE – slowly, steadily, smoothly – regulating your exhalation so that it’s even from beginning to end. Take your tongue away from your upper palate. Sit up straight. Inhale again. As you slowly exhale, silently say the word, “ONE” as you breathe out. Inhale, slowly exhale silently saying “One”, and repeat several times. Do you feel a bit better?
Second: Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Dog – it’s the band aid of all poses. Go up from hands and knees, hold, stretch your arms and legs, come down and go up again, staying a little longer each time.
Then: we need a strategy, a basket of goodies, a toolkit of things you can choose from in all circumstances. You can write all these onto post-it notes, stick them round the mirror, incorporate them into your daily routine. Do let me know how you get on…..(see below).
1. Communicate and interact with others. It’s hugely important to communicate your feelings to someone going through similar experiences. Speak from your heart, encourage them to do the same. Whether you laugh together or cry together, there is often tremendous beneficial release. Why? Because when people are “in their hearts,” and not just their minds, the collective support helps to lift your spirits, which in turn releases the build up of stress and anxiety.
2. Re-connect with your heart area. This is especially true after a shock, when it’s normal for our heart to feel shut down. (Think of those phrases associated with this feeling – I haven’t got the heart, my heart sank, etc., etc.) When you experience a sense of loss, anger, fear or despair, it’s important to re-open your heart and connect with people, even in a very small way. If you find it hard to ‘unlock’ at first, animals can sometimes help as a bridge and open up your ability to be compassionate to another person. Practice random kindness – even small acts of kindness and compassion can make a big difference. Why? Because this is one of the quickest ways to re-establish your footing and reduce the stress that could otherwise affect your health. Research has shown that care and compassion release beneficial hormones that help balance and restore your system. Much stress can be reduced by caring for and interacting more with others.
3. Count your blessings. At the end of a yoga class, after Savasana, I sometimes encourage students to count their blessings. Practicing appreciation and gratitude seems to be very helpful in restoring emotional balance. The appreciation needs to be heartfelt, not just from the mind. Why? Because appreciative feelings activate the biochemical systems that help diminish stress and stabilise our psyche, and this helps us to reconnect with feelings of hope and gives us the initiative to move forward.
4. Decrease drama. We tend to spin thoughts of blame, anger, “doom and gloom” projections about the future around in our heads. This can be especially acute at night when we can’t sleep. We make things worse by being ‘in our heads’ and engaging with this gloomy monologue, which adds drama to a situation that’s already less than ideal. This stunts our intuitive discernment, which is the very thing we need to find the most effective ways to navigate through challenges. (Adrenaline up = learning down.)You may not be able to stop all the internal drama, but you can try not to engage with it – instead, get up and do something practical (but not screen-based), even in the dead of night, rather than sit in that miserable puddle of worry. Why? Anger, anxiety and fear release excessive levels of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, throughout the body which cause a cascade of physical health symptoms, along with potential mental and emotional imbalances. As you practice reducing drama, the energy you save helps restore balance, clarity and positive initiative, even after a sleepless night. During the day, sharing our feelings from the heart with others reduces the tendency to keep amplifying and repeating the downside of situations.
5. Manage the amount of news you watch, and your reactions to it. This is a tricky one, but it has made a huge difference to me. Economic, political or global instability can compound our stress by projecting worst-case scenarios as we watch, read or listen to the news. Many people are afraid to watch the news because they dread what they might see and yet they’re afraid not to watch it in case they miss something important. If you must watch/read/listen, resist the temptation to rant or obsess over the negative downsides of the news item. Manage how much negative emotional drama you attach to events or disappointing information because this is where a large portion of our stress accumulates. You can use the news as an opportunity to practice being in ’emotional neutral’. There’s a difference between evaluating an issue and emotionally obsessing over it. Practicing ’emotional neutral’ can help us manage our emotional energy expenditures and avoid stress overload. Why? When we are experiencing high anxiety and depression, cutting back on news can help lower the intensity of our fear and anxiety. Experiment to see if cutting back helps you, as it has many others who are experiencing high anxiety. (BTW – we shouldn’t judge the media. We are responsible for what we watch and how we react to it. It’s our job to balance and manage our exposure and our perceptions of how the news affects us.)
6. Take a little quiet time for prayer or meditation. Feeling compassion for yourself, for others, and feelings of gratitude, are all forms of prayer or meditation. These practices help quiet the mind and encourage a new perspective that can restore hope and direction. Why? Research has shown that sending appreciative or compassionate feelings to other people or issues can have a beneficial effect on the hormonal and immune systems. Prayer re-connects us with ourselves and with each other. Sending appreciation, care or compassion to others also helps to balance the nervous system and create heart rhythms more beneficial to our health. This helps balance your mental and emotional system, which then reduces anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed. So prayer is good for you, and it’s good for the planet.
7. Heart-focused breathing to reduce stress and anxiety. Practicing breath control is very helpful for reducing anxiety, stress, anger and mild depression. Why? Studies have demonstrated that meditation and breathing can bring down our stress levels, release tension and so help all kinds of health problems that are caused or exacerbated by chronic stress. With conscious effort, we humans can encourage our bodies to release chemicals and brain signals that make our muscles and organs slow down, and increase blood flow to the brain, the opposite of the ‘fight or flight’ response. This gives us a chance to look more closely at the stressor and work out a better way to deal with the problem, rather than bashing it over the head or running away. (See below for a guide.)
8. Exercise. It’s chicken-and-egg: stress can make us feel lethargic and un-motivated, especially if we’re short of sleep. Remember: using energy creates more energy so take what little you have and do that dog pose, walk to the shop, go and find a view to look at. You won’t need a total workout to help clear your thinking and stabilize your emotions. Experiment and find what’s comfortable for you, but at least try to get your heart rate up every day, even for a short time. Why? Exercise won’t take away your reasons for feeling stressed, but it will help you to manage stress with less energy loss. And getting out there will do all the same things as scrubbing the front step did during the war.
A few other thoughts:
9. Comparing the present with the past – the good old days. I said that I find it comforting to know that the human race has felt stressed for millennia, so much that the philosophy, art and science of Yoga was developed centuries ago to manage it. If you have had a crisis or a major life change, it is hard to stop comparing the way life was before with how it is now. Healing heartache doesn’t respond to schedules or agendas but we can trust that, in our own time, we will start to regain some stability and be able to move forward with life. It just might take time and so we need our tool kit to help us through.
10. Sleep. Many people don’t sleep well for all kinds of reasons, maybe directly due to stress or perhaps because of unhelpful habits – late night TV, alcohol, erratic meal times, poor diet, lack of fresh air and exercise. We’ve all been there! So get what sleep you can and try not to make that into another drama. Don’t lie in bed and engage with the drama or try to make decisions. Get up and do something helpful or useful, like the ironing, read a book, practice your breathing exercises, or do some recuperative yoga. Nothing bad will happen before morning. As Scarlett O’Hara said, “I’ll think about it tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
11. Reducing Fear. Fear is a normal response to uncertain and challenging times and is natural for our protection. Prolonged fear, exaggerated by drama, eventually creates harmful hormonal and immune system responses that compromise our health. Ask yourself – should I be afraid, or would some healthy caution be more helpful? The difference between these two can make a big difference in what hormones are released in your system.
12. Engage with your family. Keep communicating with family and close friends about the stress that everyone is going through. (You may even help someone else to manage their stress.) If someone is snappy or irritable don’t take it personally and do explain it to children, and reassure them that you can work things out in time. Work with them on simple stress-busters – carpet yoga, play at meditating, encourage them to think of all the good people they have in their lives.
13. Don’t blame yourself. Moving forward is easier without carrying baggage and guilt about what you should have done. Substitute the words ‘should’ with ‘could’ – there’s something liberating very about it. Above all, be kind to yourself.
Teach yourself breath control for managing stressful situations, click HERE.
Read Dr David Servan-Schreiber: Healing Without Freud Or Prosac.
For a no-nonsense guide to the wide-ranging effects of stress, click HERE.
Herbs that can help: HERE.
With grateful thanks and much respect to Doc Childre at the Heart Math Institute who has produced a De-Stress Kit for the Changing Times some of which is paraphrased here.