This paper has been produced to answer a few questions about stress and provide an insight into some successful methods to help manage stress levels and stay healthy.
What is Stress?
The World Health Organisation (WHO), as stated that Stress is the health epidemic of the 21st Century, and they should know!
By definition, the word “Stress” is: Pressure or Tension exerted on material or object.
“Psychological Stress” defines it a little deeper: Any uncomfortable, emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioural changes.
That’s quite a mouthful for such a small, simple word. In essence what they are both explaining is a negative reaction that can change your mental and physical health also known as homeostasis.
We all know this and have been using simple examples in our everyday speech for centuries. We, our parents, siblings, colleagues have always received or stated some or all of the following statements when stress has been a factor?
- You’re a pain in the neck!
- That’ll be the death of me!
- It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders!
- XYZ wears my nerves down or gets on my nerves!
- I knew it was wrong, I felt it in my gut!
Is there such a thing as healthy stress?
The adage that stress is a motivator is true. In times of great difficulty, stress will motivate people to achieve great things. The problem here is that in most cases the situation is not classed as a great anything. It is a normal daily occurrence that has a negative effect that can be extremely detrimental in the long term.
What happens internally, when we have so much external stress?
The good news is that we are genetically engineered to use stress to survive. The bad news is we can’t simply switch it on and off as and when it’s needed.
In the early days when a sabretooth tiger came around, our stress would trigger some beneficial reactions. Our heart rate would elevate alongside our breathing which would allow excess oxygenated blood to flow to our muscles. Our senses would be heightened, and our adrenaline levels would be turned up to the max. We would be able to fight much more effectively or run away faster. This flight or fight mechanism is still part of us today. There is a third part to this story which is less talked about today. If it were described correctly, it would be called the Fight, Flight or Freeze Mechanism. The Freeze is, as expected the indecision, the unknowing of the best cause of action to take, but with the same physiological changes present and sometimes a greater mental stressor. It is not uncommon for this to present as a panic attack.
After the event that caused such a profound change in our physiological chemistry has gone, it takes a few hours to recede to normal levels. However, the problem for modern-day humans is that the fight, flight or freeze was not caused by a passing tiger. The stress was due to an event at work, home, or school, college, shop, road junction etc. The memory is now stored in the part of the brain called the Amygdala, its function is to react to stimuli, but can't differentiate between what is normal and what requires survival instinct. Therefore, the next time you are in a similar situation, your reaction is pre-programmed, and you are ready for the event. We are very capable of pre-empting a problem and subconsciously (The part of the Psychi that doesn’t need to think) will begin preparing us for the repeat event like it or not! This event recall is so finely tuned that your body can react to a perceived threat in nano-seconds!
This is good news if your tired and working on a machine that burns. It will prevent a repeat of the pain initially experienced by muscle withdrawal.
Not so good if your heart rate reaches above 100 beats per minute and you hyperventilate every time you feel any heat on the skin though.
But what if that past event doesn’t repeat?
It makes no difference. For many, the traumatic event was so well stored in our memory (Amygdala) that the subconscious ensures the body is ready for the next time, no matter how long that is.
If the readiness to react is initiated whilst in a certain environment and is further exacerbated by other life stressors, we can find ourselves in a state of constant readiness/stress. Unfortunately, we have not evolved enough to be able to cope with that stress. We get frustrated easier; we experience pain in the muscles that are perpetually at the ready, headaches as the result of a change in circulation. We accumulate a large number of hormones that are imbalanced (Adrenaline is a major one, but there are many more). Stomach / Gastric Problems due to a form of gastric paralysis during the fight or flight phase. Chronic fatigue as energy production is at a faster rate but isn't recyclable. This list of physiological effects is as vast as the reasons that can cause it.
The outcome of the events mentioned above manifests in behaviour changes as well as physiological symptoms occurring. Anger, Depression, Anxiety, are amongst the most common. Other factors can manifest in Phobia related to a particularly traumatic event.
Prolonged exposure to these stress levels can lead to physical illness, the list of which would fill this paper twice over. Here lies another problem with our modern society that has introduced a system of administering another chemical that limits or enhances biological functions to prevent an illness from being a problem. It fails to investigate the reason why the illness is present but does give a diagnosis, which we call a disease.
If you examine the word “Disease”, you may find that it is two words. “DIS” Which is a Latin prefix meaning away, apart, not right. And “EASE” which translates to Undisturbed, Tranquil, Effortless. However, if I state categorically that Disease is not an illness in itself but a symptom of a Disease, such as Stress, I would be classed as a scaremonger, alarmist or maybe even a pessimist by some.
It doesn’t matter what I’m called or my beliefs, what does matter is that to cope with our inbuilt alarm systems that when left unchecked, result in a plethora of illness.
We must learn to manage the stress.
Stress Management Methods that we can adopt immediately
First of all, I want you to imagine you are the most advanced, high tech car the universe has ever built. Not hard is it; we are indeed such an advanced being that we are amazed when we see a replica (Robot) that can do the basics such as walk, run and jump as we do.
Then imagine that car being filled up with the wrong fuel, being driven at max speed by the worst driver ever! Constantly on the road without even a maintenance stop for months and maybe even years. That is where we are in our modern-day lifestyle.
Eat Healthy Foods
We use processed, fast foods for convenience. Drink coffee, black tea, alcohol use processed sugar as an energy source and abuse our speed settings to the max in work/social life and wonder why we have problems with stress. Remember the opening definition of pressure or tension exerted on material or object? By adjusting our fuel, we ease off on the workload and help the bodies defences.
So, the first and most simple way to manage stress is to use good fuel. Eat Healthily! Your body will thank you.
Slow Down and Breath
Speed is good and necessary in this fast-paced and even competitive society but easing back on the pedal now and then will ensure you can go a lot further and arrive in better shape. Take time for yourself, even if its 10 minutes of quietness at the park, canal, beach, forest. Being able to watch, listen and breath nature for 10 minutes a day will allow stress levels to recede nicely.
Purge Toxins Easily
Exercise will allow the toxins in the body to be released; this is the waste that stress leaves behind. It’s a bit like changing your oil and filters regularly. Light exercise, walking, light sports such as yoga or Tai Chi will allow for the body to release some of the negative effects of stress and you will feel great almost immediately as your body positively responds.
Relax the Mind, and the Body will follow
Resetting the mind sounds far more difficult than it is. Meditation as a form of altered state is the same as experienced in between wakefulness and sleep, or when driving somewhere and being in remote mode. That feeling of not being aware of time or remembering how you got somewhere is an altered state of consciousness at work. Listening to relaxing music and zoning out is another. It is the conscious mind taking a break and is very beneficial in eliminating the stress held in the body. Meditation is a simple and ancient art, It has been documented as far back as the earliest scripts and is one of the best ways to eliminate stress and allow the body to heal. There is also a big movement at present in mindfulness exercises, this is likened to meditation and is designed to assist you in slowing down whilst promoting a healthy mind/body connection.
Remember to enjoy life
The final piece of the puzzle is to remember to enjoy life. Laughter is a great healer. Stress dissolves with laughter, the biological shift from toxins to healthy hormone release is phenomenal. Being with a loved partner, child, pet or group and remembering what it's like to laugh is perhaps the greatest of gifts you can give yourself.
1. Healthy food equals healthy you (Fuel)
2. Slow down and smell the roses, reward yourself (Breath)
3. Do light exercise, walk to the shops or buy a bicycle (Be active)
4. Let the mind relax, meditate and heal (Take a load off)
5. Laugh and the world laughs with you (Enjoy life)
For most of us, we can't escape life stress; there will always be a someone, a something, a somewhere that will trigger our inbuilt fight, flight or freeze mechanism. But we can help it ease off and be healthier for it. After a very short while after installing these five simple points of stress management, the greater stressors are not so important anymore because they have stopped piling up inside our self-destruct when full storage box (which is you).
This paper is not meant to be a substitute for medical care. When we reach a tipping point in our stress levels, we should recognise the danger and seek medical help. At this stage, it has become unmanageable and requires external assistance. The information on this paper may help to prevent personal stress from reaching a crisis point and may even assist those that have reached it to recover; it is still not designed as a substitute for formal therapy.