Managing Stress For Better Health

Exercising and eating right are not the only components of a healthy lifestyle. Stress is now thought to contribute to as many as 90% of visits to primary care physicians, and managing stress is an important part of achieving optimum health.

Before we can manage stress, we need to have an accurate understanding of what it is. Many people think of stress as the external circumstances in their lives that cause them distress. Technically speaking, this is incorrect. External events are “stressors”. “Stress” is a physiological response of the body to a threat to its survival, also known as the “fight or flight response”.

What happens is that our bodies are rather primitively “wired”. Changes in the way our bodies respond have not kept up with changes in the way we live now. Whenever we experience what we interpret as a threat to our survival, our bodies respond as if to an immediate physical threat, such as a tiger chasing us.

As a result, our bodies prepare to fight off or flee a physical threat. Changes in our bodies that occur as a result include: increased blood pressure and heart rate; withdrawal of circulation from the hands and feet and concentration of blood flow in the heart, lungs and brain; increased respiration rate; increased blood sugar levels; and increased muscle tension. All these changes are designed to prepare the body for vigorous physical activity. In addition, there is a suppression of bodily functions that are not immediately necessary to preserve our lives at that moment, including digestion, immune system activity and replacement and repair of bodily tissues, so that all of the body’s awareness and energy can be focused on surviving the immediate danger.

Long Term Effects of Stress

These physiological changes can give us extraordinary strength to meet difficult physical challenges. The problem arises, however, when we experience chronic threats to our survival which we can’t fight or flee. If we remain in the stress response, the physiological changes become relatively permanent, exhausting us physiologically and emotionally. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, chronic pain due to chronic muscle tension and fatigue, increased susceptibility to infection, asthma, Raynaud’s Syndrome, difficulty healing from injury, digestive disorders, difficulty controlling blood sugar levels in diabetics, anxiety, depression and many other problems.

How to Reduce Stress

You can learn to turn off the physiology of stress through instruction in relaxation techniques. Some relaxation techniques work directly with the physiology of stress, such as learning to relax the muscles or breathe more slowly and deeply.

Exercise can also reduce the physiology of stress. Since the body is geared up for vigorous physical effort, exercise is a natural way to reduce that tension.

Other relaxation techniques work on a cognitive (thought) level, since it is the thought about what is happening that triggers the physiology of stress. Techniques include those that quiet the mind, such as meditation, and techniques that replace negative, worry thoughts or images with positive thoughts and images.

Interrupting the stress response at any of these levels will cause the body to go into the opposite response, the relaxation response, with corresponding positive physiological and emotional changes.Learning relaxation techniques is relatively simple. Mastering these techniques for optimum benefit requires commitment and practice, much like an exercise fitness program. Most of us have forgotten how to deeply relax, and we must relearn this skill. It can be helpful to get coaching in these techniques from a trained professional through individual counseling or a group stress management program. Biofeedback, which provides direct, immediate information about physiology during relaxation practice, can be of significant benefit in learning relaxation skills.

You can get started on your own by trying the following relaxation technique whenever you are feeling stressed:

  • Take a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. This slows and deepens your breathing.
  • Focus your attention on your breath.
  • On the inhalation, think the word “relax”.
  • On the exhalation, think the words “let go”.
  • Continue to focus on your breathing, inhale “relax”, exhale “let go”, and if your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath.
  • This can be done for any length of time. Five minutes can make a significant difference in your stress level. For best results, 20 minutes twice a day is recommended.

Note: Do not beat up on yourself when your mind wanders–that is the nature of the mind. You are training your mind in this exercise, so just gently bring your attention back to the breath as soon as you notice your mind has wandered. Do not try to change the breath, which can create tension. Just watch the breath going in and out of your body. This technique can be done with the eyes open or closed, but is easiest when done with the eyes closed.

~ Cindy Perlin, LCSW

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