Stress has its positive effects. Psychologists say we perform at our best under a moderate amount of stress -- not too much, but not too little either. If you’re stressed about an upcoming test, preparing for it not only can reduce your stress, but can increase your performance. Stress gets us to change when things are uncomfortable, with small stresses providing a training ground for handling greater ones.
But excess stress, tension, worry have a negative effect on our health, our relationships, and our productivity. It drains us of our vitality and sense of well being, leaving us sick or tired or angry.
The adrenal glands secrete cortisol during stressful times. Cortisol serves to regulate blood pressure and insulin release and plays a part in our inflammatory response. Its positive function is to
• increase our concentration and memory, • increase short-term immunity, and • lower sensitivity to pain while providing a quick burst of energy.
All those sound great, but our current lifestyles leads to chronic stress, which causes, among other things
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is in charge of fight, flight, or freeze. It is activated by real — or imagined — stress. Are you worried about paying bills, losing your job, a family member? That stress triggers the SNS, increasing cortisol output, and putting one on edge. With near constant stress in our lives, the sympathetic system is almost always activated, giving our bodies little opportunity to rebuild. It’s no wonder we become ill more frequently.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the balancing action that allows our bodies to ratchet down and rebuild from that stress state. Relaxation techniques bring the PNS into play.
A recent Kaiser Permanente study found that stress causes 70-85% of all trips to the doctor, so reducing stress can have far-ranging benefits. If you have nearly any physical issue, from headaches to high blood pressure, chronic pain to colitis, frequent colds to fatigue, stress-reducing techniques may help.
Some of the signs of excess stress are: • Fatigue • Anger • Self-criticism • Cynicism, negativity, and irritability • Exploding easily at seemingly inconsequential things • Frequent headaches or gastrointestinal disturbances • Weight loss or gain • Sleeplessness and depression or excessive sleeping • Shortness of breath • Feelings of helplessness
Think of your life like a pot of water on the stove, water that boils at 212°. If the water is already at 200° (i.e., lots of stress in your life), it takes very little additional stress, or heat, to make the pot boil over. However, if you can lower that temperature, say to 150°, you will have a lot more ability to deal with all the little — and bigger — issues without boiling over.
Here are some ways to lower that water temperature, techniques you can add into your life right away to help reduce the negative effects of stress.
The Benefits of Relaxation/Meditation
In addition to lowering that “temperature,” possibly improving health issues and generally feeling better, by learning and using these techniques:
* You will gain increased awareness of whether you are tense or relaxed. You will be more in touch with your body.
* You will be better able to relax when you become stressed-out. The more you practice a technique, the easier it becomes and the faster it works.
* You may even reduce the resting level of your autonomic nervous system — walking around more relaxed all the time.
* Your concentration may improve. By repeatedly bringing yourself back to the meditation you are strengthening the part of your mind that decides what to think about.
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard pioneered research into relaxation for health benefits. He began by studying long-time practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, who could affect their autonomic nervous systems — something previously thought impossible. He coined the term “Relaxation Response,” which he says counteracts the “fight or flight” response we’re used to when stressed.
His Four Essential Elements of Deep Relaxation are:
A. Comfortable position — preferably not lying down to stay awake B. Quiet Environment — minimize disturbances C. Mental Focal Point — breath, candle, phrase, etc. D. Passive, non-judgmental attitude — don’t expect too much
Sitting Relaxation/Meditation Methods
A. Belly Breathing
70% of the body’s waste products are eliminated through the lungs. Taking a deep breath in and exhaling is your first, greatest stress-relief technique, right under your nose. Re-learning how to belly breathe provides an additional stress-relieving training while improving lung function.
Watch a baby or dog breathe and notice they use nearly the whole body to breathe. As adults most of us have lost this, lowering the efficiency of the waste exchange, reducing the oxygen being carried to all our cells, and leaving our lungs under-used and vulnerable to infections.
Sit comfortably, resting your hands on your abdomen. As you inhale, feel your abdomen expand, raising your hands slightly. As the air continues to come in, notice your ribs spreading, then eventually your chest rises. Exhale, drawing your abdomen in, and lowering your ribs and chest. Repeat. If this is hard to do, try it lying down. Most of us do this type of breathing when we’re asleep; we just forget how when we’re awake. Practice this once or twice a day — while in bed, for example — or anytime you want a quick stress-reliever.
B. Meditative Breathing
Check your posture and the quietness of your environment. Your mental focus will be on the breath. Breathe naturally in and out, then silently count 1; in, out, count 2; repeating up to 10, then start again. When thoughts appear, just let them go, don’t follow them or judge them. Return to the breath, starting over at 1. Daily practice for 20 minutes will bring the greatest benefits, helping train the mind and giving you more control over your thoughts.
C. Progressive Relaxation
Progressive relaxation is an excellent tool to help reduce tension in the body or to help you fall asleep. It will also help you access control of muscles so you can relax them when you WANT to, especially in times of stress. It can be done either with simply relaxation or with tension, then relaxation of the muscle groups. Check with your doctor if you’re going to do the tension/relaxation part, as some conditions won’t appreciate the tension.
Begin by focusing your attention on each body part listed, relaxing any tension in the area and feeling it becoming warmer. Then feel the warmth and relaxation spreading to the next area, and so on.
• Right foot • Right lower leg and foot • Entire right leg • Left foot • Left lower leg and foot • Entire left leg • Right hand • Right forearm and hand • Entire right arm • Left hand • Left forearm and hand • Entire left arm • Abdomen & lower back • Chest & mid/upper back • Neck and shoulders • Face
D. Visual Imagery
Visual imagery involves visualizing in your mind a relaxing place for yourself — the beach, a meadow, a mountain stream, your grandmother’s kitchen, etc. It can be real or imagined. Learning to do this gives you control over your mind and your body.
1. Relax, get comfortable and take a few deep breaths. Imagine “your spot,” walking into it, using all your senses to experience it — sounds, smells, the feel of the air on your skin, the sights you see, even tastes if you’d like.
2. Take a few deep, calming breaths and go deeper, really exploring and deeply sensing your environment. Do your feet make noise as you walk? Are you hearing more sounds, or is it getting quieter as you go deeper into this place?
3. Take several more deep, calming breaths. Experience your spot. Feel how soothing and calming it is. Make this place your own retreat or refuge. Stay here for several minutes, enjoying everything your spot has to offer.
4. Notice how your body feels in this place. Really pay attention, so you can bring your body back to this state of relaxation in the future, even without returning to your spot. Then slowly count backwards from 3 as you bring your awareness back to your present location. Don’t open your eyes right away, but listen and experience for a few moments first.
E. Acupressure for Relaxation
You can access most of your acupuncture channels or meridians with three points, balancing any stressful thoughts with your energy. These three points are:
• the top of the head, roughly the crown chakra • the inner wrist, just above the crease • the inner lower leg, about a hand’s width above the ankle bone
Tap or rub on these points, repeating “relax” OR focusing on whatever is stressing you...”this frustration,” “this anger,” “this embarrassment,” etc. Alternatively you can focus on a physical symptom or pain while tapping on these points. Continue for 5-15 minutes, or until you feel a shift in your energy around the issue.
The Use of Affirmations and Visualizing Goals
Our consistent thoughts create our reality. Use the power of your mind to shift your consistent thoughts.
This technique can help you get what you want by defining your goals and focusing on them. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
Step 1: Figure out what you DO want — NOT what you don’t want. Most people are better at saying what they don’t want.
“I don’t want to end up like my mother.” “I don’t want to be so sad/angry/worried.” “I don’t want to feel unappreciated.”
Step 2: Write down your goal, in as much detail as possible, using positive phrases and the present tense: “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.” “My normal weight is ____ and I’m excited by how easily I maintain it.” “I am at the most creative period in my life and things just keep getting better.” “I love what I do and am eager to make a difference in the world every day.”
Step 3: Read your goal and tap on the three acupressure points, twice a day, visualizing your life as if you have already achieved your goal. Once a day act as if your goal is a fact, is achieved.
The Role of T’ai Chi, Exercise, Yoga, and Bodywork to Reduce Tension
T’ai Chi has been proven to: • reduce stress • improve balance • lower blood pressure • improve mental functioning • tone and strengthen muscles • increase flexibility • improve cardiovascular function
It is often called a “moving meditation.” It’s something you can get better at for the rest of your life. There are very few things you can say that about.
T’ai chi is a form of Qigong, which literally means “cultivating or developing your energy.” T’ai chi is a choreographed set of moves and can take quite a while to learn. Sets of qigong exercises are faster and easier to learn and can be performed anywhere or at anytime to help you release stress.
Yoga comes in many styles, from Bikram yoga, done in a very hot room and designed to heat your muscles and ligaments; to Ashtanga, sometimes called “power yoga,” physically very demanding, with jumping between moves; to Hatha yoga, the more-commonly-thought-of slower, stretching movements.
Bodywork such as CranioSacral therapy, Reiki, and massage can reduce muscle tension and spasms and help improve blood flow through the muscles and soft tissues, bringing relaxation and rebuilding. Plus it feels good.
Any type of physical exercise will improve muscle function and tone, can lower stress and blood pressure, and improve blood flow. Walking even 20 minutes four or five times a week can make a huge difference. Move it or lose it!
Choose any or all of these techniques to take charge of your health!
For more information or to make an appointment, call (360) 544-8445 or e-mail Lynne@Lynne.org. I am located on Whidbey Island at 5548 Myrtle Avenue, Suite 303, in Freeland, WA.