Stress is something that is impossible to eliminate, we all experience stress! The great news is that it can be managed and there are various stress reduction techniques to choose from! The goal is to balance the mind-body-spirit connection and maintain a positive approach to life. Holistic approaches are excellent in acknowledging the integration of the mind and body, as whatever disturbs the balance of one, also upsets the equilibrium of the other. We touch on several complementary modalities that can be used for stress relief and increasing longevity and quality of life.
Exercise and movement help you to blow off the steam that builds up from pressures on the job, in your personal life, financial stress and other common stressors. Exercise has shown enormous benefits in the biometric readings that are associated with stress; such as blood pressure, heart rate and levels of harmful "stress hormones." Regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self esteem. It is universally and widely recognized in all fields of medicine and therapy that exercise has many benefits both physically and to the overall quality of life. It plays a role in improving physical condition and in fighting and preventing various medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. The recommendation is that adults engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week to improve overall health and well being. Exercise can also be vital for maintaining mental fitness, and can reduce stress because it is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and enhancing overall cognitive function. When stress affects the brain, with its many nerve connections, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. If your body feels better, so does your mind. Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins -- chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers -- and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress. With regards to stress reduction, it can almost be seen as meditation in motion: when we are regularly active, you notice that you shed away your daily tensions through movement and physical activity. By doing so we focus on a single task of our body’s movement, instead of our daily problems and irritations, and the resulting energy and optimism that we develop from it can help us to remain calm and clear.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is a concept that involves paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This method was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The program is intended for cultivating greater awareness of the unity of mind and body, and of the ways that unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can undermine emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The mind is known to be a factor in stress and stress related disorders. Meditation is a process by which people learn to focus their attention as a way of gaining greater insight into themselves and their surroundings. Meditation, like exercise can cause your body to produce endorphins. It is generally used to treat a variety of symptoms including elevated blood pressure, anxiety, stress, pain and insomnia, as well as promote overall health and well-being. Although there are many forms of meditation, most have in common a quiet location, a specific comfortable posture, a focus of attention, and an open attitude. Visualization and meditation can also produce visible, favorable changes in your body’s stress response. If you can manage the biological responses that occur, then you can minimize the damage down to the DNA and add some precious (stress free) years to your life here on earth.
Yoga is regarded as a mind-body intervention that arose in India 4,000 years ago. The term is derived from the Sanskrit word that means “to unite” as its goal is to unite mind, body and spirit. It includes the use of physical postures, controlled breathing, and meditation. There are five traditional forms of yoga, the most familiar is known as Hatha yoga. Yoga can help us control our stress and keep it at a manageable and useful level by relieving our minds and bodies from the adverse effects of stress. It is unique in its ability to prevent psychological stress from building up, and can help us restore equilibrium to the physiological systems that stress upsets, especially the respiratory, digestive, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems and overall quality of life. The effects of stress and anxiety are magnified when the body is not exercised, tension in the muscles builds, breathing remains constricted most of the time, and the mind has no rest from the whirling thoughts and feelings that feed the anxiety. Yoga postures are designed to increase strength and flexibility. By engaging in a few yoga exercises daily, it can help to regulate the breath and relax the body by releasing tension from the large muscle groups, and flushing all the body parts and brain with fresh blood, oxygen, and other nutrients, and increasing feelings of well being.
Yogic breathing, called pranayama is an important part of yoga and can bring the mind to the present moment and reduce stress. The main goal of Yoga and breathing practices is to optimize health, promote stress reduction and increase self-regulation, from both a prevention and treatment perspective. For the most part, our breath is not something we have to think about but is rather automatic. If breathing is shallow and fast however, as is common during the stress response, hyperventilation occurs which lowers the carbon dioxide levels too much and can lead to dizziness and feelings of unease and anxiety. There are some aspects of breathing however, that we can control in a conscious manner. Pranayama is one example where we can voluntarily control our breath. When we practice slow pranayama, it appears to shift the autonomic nervous system from the fight or flight sympathetic system to the calming parasympathetic state, and has been shown to positively affect immune function, hypertension, asthma, and stress induced psychological disorders. It can alleviate anxiety, depression, everyday stress, post traumatic stress, and stress related medical illnesses.
Stress can have its impact on our bodies as well as our biological processes. It can affect our muscles, making them achey and sore, cause headaches, and even knots in our stomach. Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is the science that studies this connection between body and mind and looks at how specific thoughts and feelings (such as stress) affect the chemistry of the body. Massage therapy is a procedure that involves manipulating the body’s soft tissue as a way to relieve tension and pain as well as anxiety and depression. The use of massage therapy has been studied for its effectiveness in treating various psychological symptoms such as stress and anxiety in its effective ways of reducing heart rate and blood pressure. Massage therapy has recently received empirical support for facilitating growth, reducing pain, increasing alertness, diminishing depression, and enhancing immune function.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique where an individual can learn to tense and relax muscle groups to promote greater relaxation. PMR teaches you how to relax your muscles through a two step process. First you tense particular muscle groups in your body, such as your neck and shoulders. Next you release the tension and notice how your muscles feel when you relax them. This can help you lower overall tension and stress levels, and help you relax when you feel anxious. It can even help reduce stomachaches and headaches and improve sleep because these could be tension issues stemming from stress. Those who have anxiety and stress issues throughout the day sometimes do not even realize they are tense and what it really feels like to be relaxed because they are so used to feeling tension in their body. By practicing PMR, you learn to distinguish between feelings of a tensed muscle and a completely relaxed one, and then you can be aware of your tensed state and know when to practice muscle relaxation right away and learn to relax.
Recognizing that a lifestyle change needs to be made in order to relieve stress is very important. Along with getting adequate sleep and exercise and keeping a positive attitude, having a balanced nutrition plays an important role when we are under stress. When stress occurs, a well balanced nutrition will boost our resistance against the effects that stress brings upon the body and can prepare your body for any stress that may be thrust upon it in the future. It is important to recognize that when under stress, the nutrients that we have consumed will be drained at a much quicker rate than they are normally. Therefore it is important to constantly top up on vital nutrients. Being under stress can often cause unhealthy eating habits as well, often making the body crave foods high in fat and sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. Sugars contain no vital nutrients and can cause lack of concentration and fatigue. Fats are essential, but high volumes of saturated fats can lead to heart disease, obesity, and cancer. Eating these unhealthy foods will only cause greater damage and more stress on the body. Drinking alcohol while under stress makes the body release large amounts of adrenaline that result in nervousness, lack of sleep, anxiety, and skin irritation. Caffeine intake is also a common crutch for individuals under high levels of stress and need stimulants to assist them in getting through the day. Too much caffeine intake however, can have negative impact on the body especially when under stress such as restlessness, inability to concentrate, and a massive impact on the hormones in the body. It increases the hormone production of adenosine which alerts you, but causes sleep problems in the long term. Caffeine intake also increases adrenaline which also gives you a boost but makes you feel fatigued after it wears off. It also heightens cortisol levels which is the stress hormone and makes you crave fatty foods. Dopamine is also increased from caffeine intake, which can make you feel good, however once it wears off, it generates a low feeling. High production of cortisol also causes unwanted weight gain due to the urge to eat foods high in carbohydrates, sugars, and fats which results in extra fat being stored in the body. On stressful days it is better to eat less and more often to keep the metabolism and energy constant all day long, rather than having peaks of energy levels throughout the day. Eating breakfast is especially important to help kickstart the metabolism for the day and stabilize blood sugar levels which will reduce stress. Foods that contain B vitamins are important as they can make you feel more energetic throughout the day by building your metabolism, and control the whole nervous system. Foods that contain C vitamins help the adrenal glands, as they contain the largest store of vitamin C in the body, protect the immune system, and lower the amount of cortisol in the body. Magnesium rich foods help relax muscles, aid in fatty acid formation, and reduce anxiety. Proteins assist in growth and tissue repair to help the body combat the stress response. Eating fresh fruit and vegetables is beneficial for their vitamin and mineral content to keep the body nourished and the immune system working well. They also contain high fiber content which can help ease constipation which can be a result of long term stress on the body. Fish and foods high in omega fatty acids, are good for prevention of heart disease. Calcium rich foods are essential for maintaining well functioning nerve impulses. It also contains lactobacillus which is essential for maintaining a healthy flora (the bacteria in the gut) which can get disrupted from the long term effects of stress. Eating more foods that supply the proper nutrition, while avoiding those which have negative effects on the body during stress is the key. Lack of nutrition will inflict a greater stress on the body along with other problems that can pose a threat to your physical and mental health. For these reasons, during times of stress, it is especially important to maintain good diet and lifestyle habits.
Be mindful. The most important thing is to recognize that we are stressed, the rest is forming good habits to manage it!