Have you ever felt stressed?
Stress is intertwined with everyday life and not something we’ll ever get rid of entirely so it’s no surprise that everyone has felt the impact of stress at some point. How we approach and manage the stress that comes our way is entirely up to us however.
Stress can most certainly hinder us from time to time. Yet stress isn’t all bad. It’s a natural, physical response that can increase our awareness, give us mental clarity and allow us to act quickly (think fight or flight!) if needed.
Our bodies are designed and well equipped to handle short bursts of stress. The real challenge occurs when these short bursts turn long term to sustained and chronic. Stress kicks in our ‘fight or flight’ response beginning in the amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for perceived fear, which then signals the body to move into a sympathetic mode. Your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, pupils dilate, blood pressure and heart rate increase and the brain uses more oxygen.
We go into survival mode.
Essentially the body prioritizes survival when even the perception of a threat is triggered. All functions deemed non-essential to that immediate stress (or threat) will be deprioritized. The body does this to help you run away from the threat (like running away from a tiger) rather than expend energy on functions that won’t help fight the immediate threat, such as digesting food, having great skin and hair or sleeping deeply.
The body is incredibly resilient and can return to a parasympathetic mode (also known as rest and digest mode) once the threat is removed. When the body doesn’t receive clear signals to return to normal functioning, stress becomes sustained/chronic and those reactions can inhibit the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep and reproductive systems. We are all very unique, so the symptoms you feel versus your co-worker, friend or relative are vast and diverse.
Now for the good news! Research has demonstrated that practicing small, simple, consistent steps can reduce, and even reverse, the negative effects of stress while helping your body and mind cope more easily.
How do we do this? Below are my top tips to help you introduce mindfulness and manage stress:
Mindfulness: At its core, mindfulness is paying attention to what is currently happening exactly as it is. Think of it as connecting with the present moment, rather than regretting the past or ruminating about the future. Besides being a short-term solution for immediate stressors, mindfulness can improve long-term health by reducing the harm caused by chronic elevated stress. Mindfulness also improves sleep, increases concentration and creativity, and can play a large role in weight management.
Begin with simple mindful breathing. The object is to just focus your attention on it without changing it. Breath in. Notice the length, where it goes or even the temperature. Breath out. Again notice without changing it. Repeat. If your mind wanders simply bring it back to the breath. In. And out.
Take Breaks: Stress basically exhausts your brain’s neurotransmitters so that you don’t feel good and can’t think clearly. Keeping the body loose and relaxed by committing to small breaks throughout the day will stimulate your brain to produce calm and happy endorphins. Stand, stretch, be mindful, look away from your screen or simply breath in and out.
Attitude: Your perception of stress is as powerful as the stress itself. When self-talk is negative, you may perceive things as more stressful because the subconscious mind hears your thoughts. Begin to look for those moments of negative thoughts; can you reframe this to something more positive? For example, notice the difference between telling yourself you can’t handle something and asking yourself how you will handle something. Does the second thought feel more hopeful and produce more creativity?
Practice & Consistency: When a baby learns to walk, they fall down. A lot. Do we tell them to give up because from the looks of it they won’t ever get it right? Just the opposite. We pick them up, hold their hand, take videos of their progress and encourage them to keep going! Be kind and encourage yourself as you begin to incorporate new tools. It’s called a practice for a reason.
What you do a couple days a year, even a few weeks a year, is fairly inconsequential. It truly is about committing to the tools and practice on a regular basis. Set time for this in your calendar as you would any important meeting or appointment. Make yourself the priority. Over time, you’ll notice more when you don’t do them, than when you do.1