"Stress is now considered the foremost contributor to our modern chronic maladies. Recent medical research by well-known clinicians has shown that stress is a major factor in causing heart disease, cancer, and a myriad of chronic and acute diseases of today's world."
-Nischala Joy Devi*
Stress is a huge factor in our everyday lives - it doesn't matter if you're naturally a chronic worrier or if you are a yoga meditation master - stress is still there. The world is naturally stressful now - just the physical noise of modern-day life alone is enough to send your body into overdrive, but add on financial worries, career pressures, family life, terrorism & increasing societal violence in general, constantly changing technology, sedentary jobs - the list can go on and on. These factors all add to a stressful environment. And stress - both physical and mental - can lead to a whole host of problems.
While there are some things we can do to lower the stressors in our environment, unfortunately, many of these factors are now a part of everyday life and we just can't avoid them. So what do we do? How do we avoid unavoidable stress from taking over our lives?
"Physical and mental stress accumulate. This can lead to fatigue, a drop in performance level, and a feeling of anxiety. If not checked, stress creates more serious problems and disease occurs. Mental and physical dis-ease OR well-being can be fundamentally improved by acquiring a few simple tension-lowering techniques.... While stressful events around us may not change, we can learn how to respond skillfully to life's difficulties, maintaining our equilibrium and a sense of well-being."*
HERE ARE 10 TIPS TO HELP YOU KEEP STRESS AT BAY AND ESTABLISH CONTROL AND BALANCE FOR YOUR OWN WELL-BEING:
1. Accept that there are many things in our lives that we can't control.
Sometimes you have to just make yourself let go and let it be.
2. Make time to exercise.
Although this may seem like added pressure to your day, it is proven that exercise not only helps you to mentally feel better, but the more fit and strong your body is, the better it can fight stress. Activities like walking, hiking, bicycling, swimming, the gym, yoga, Zumba, etc. all help to instantly lower your stress level. Don't feel like you have an hour or so for a "full workout"? Try to at least work in 20-30 minutes of one of these activities - you can still gain full stress-relief benefits even in a shorter amount of time.
3. Add in extra time whenever possible.
Give yourself extra time to do things. Perhaps leave a few minutes earlier or start that upcoming project a week in advance. When you are able to give yourself those few extra minutes, it takes away the stress of the impending deadline, or that unexpected traffic jam. Work is stressful enough - you don't need to start the stress process just by trying to get there!
4. Avoid the "quick fixes."
Things like alcohol, caffeine, smoking, and recreational drugs may seem like they help, but the effect is just a short-term mirage. They actually add to the stress level in your body and will exacerbate anxiety. Keep your use to an extreme minimum, or better yet, not at all!
5. Take a break.
Hitting a freak out level? Stop yourself and walk away. Even just a 5-10 minute break will help (Heck, even 2 minutes can help!). Take a walk. Go someplace quiet and do some deep breathing - anything to just slow you down for a moment.
6. Watch your breath.
It is amazing how much the breath affects both the body and mind. Most people today naturally take shallow, fast breaths from their chests.
"When you breathe mostly from your chest, the part of your nervous system that increases your arousal and heart rate gets stimulated. Plus, you use mostly your chest muscles to do the work. Your chest muscles are not really designed for breathing the way that certain abdominal muscles are. In instances of extreme chest breathing, people will even feel sensations of tightness or pain in the chest as these muscles get tired. On the other hand, taking deep breaths from your belly stimulates the branch of your nervous system linked to slowing the body down, resting, and relaxing."**
Many times our inhalation is longer than the exhalation. However, long exhalations give our heart time to relax, since the heart only rests in between beats. A long, slow exhalation will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and allow you that much-needed feeling of relaxation. Not sure how to breathe with your diaphragm instead of your chest? Try this trick -
Lie flat on your back on the floor. Place a book on your stomach just under your rib cage. Take a deep breath and send all the air down to your stomach. Your stomach should expand and naturally lift the book up in the air. Slowly breathe out, allowing the book to go back down. Once you get the hang of breathing into your stomach, concentrate on slow breaths - four counts in, four counts out.
Anytime you feel your anxiety level rising, turn your attention to your breath. Is it all in your chest? Take a minute to pull a few slow breaths down into your diaphragm and you will feel an instant calming effect and a clearer mind. Try to use at least a few minutes each day to sit and just focus on breathing.
7. Eat healthy.
Regular wholesome foods allow your body to work smoothly, without the added stress of trying to process junk. Like exercise, it also allows your body to be in strong physical condition to more easily fight off the effects of stress.
8. Use imagery.
"Imagery, our inner guidance, allows us to create and experience. It is the language of the mind.... We practice positive imagery as a means to allow the mind and body to mobilize all available resources that assist in the healing process. This creates an intention that brings about positive physiological and psychological responses, such as lowering of blood pressure, boosting of immune function, clarity of mind, calming of brain waves, decreased heart rate, production of a feeling of well-being. Through positive mental imagery, signals are sent to the body to help it repair and sustain energy."*
There are many forms of imagery, but if you use even a basic method, imagery can help calm and focus the system and make your stressors more manageable. Here's an easy method of imagery:
Picture yourself relaxed, feeling good, full of energy. Everything is done that needs to be. Picture your body strong, healthy, healed. If you are worried about a particular task - picture it completed in your mind. "See" it done the way you want it to be - in its "perfect" state.
Our bodies heal themselves when we sleep, as do our minds. Sleep allows us to process the events of the day and the worries stuck in our heads. It allows the brain to "clean" itself and let go of everything we don't need. Sleep heals the mind just as much as the body. Force yourself to go to bed at a decent hour every night to allow the body to recharge so you can approach the day from a calm, "clean" slate, and be stronger and ready to fight off the rest of the stressors of the day as they come.
10. Attitude adjustment.
"Fake it till you make it." That phrase can be so annoying sometimes, but is so true. Try to keep a positive attitude. Instead of saying things like, "Nothing ever works right for me," say, "I'm doing my best." "This will work right." Instead of, "I feel so tired and crappy all the time," tell yourself, "I feel great. I am strong. I am capable. I can do this."
It takes work to remove stress, or at least the effects of stress from our lives. There are many methods out there - some more complicated and time-consuming than others - but these few tips are ones that you can easily work into your everyday life to get started.
Deep breath in. Slow breath out.
*From The Healing Path of Yoga: Time-Honored Wisdom and Scientifically Proven Methods that Alleviate Stress, Open Your Heart, and Enrich Your Life, by Nischala Joy Devi
**From Women Who Worry Too Much by Holly Hazlett-Stevens, Ph.D.