How to Stress Less

Stress.  We’ve all heard about it and we’ve all experienced varying levels of stress – but just what is stress and what impact does it have on our body and mind?  You’re likely familiar with some of the common symptoms of stress – headaches, irritability, anxiety, forgetfulness, insomnia, digestive problems, heart palpitations, reliance on drugs, alcohol and caffeine to help you get through – so let’s look at what is actually happening in your body during a stressful event.

The manner in which our body responds to stress is relatively rudimentary in that the body cannot determine between a physical threat or an emotional one, or the degree of threat; our responses have not evolved over time, though our sources of stress have.[1]

 

There are 3 well defined physiological stages of stress:

 

  • Flight or Fight – our immediate response to stress.  The body releases adrenaline, increases heart rate and breathing and diverts blood flow to our muscles so we can fight or run away[2]

  • Resistance – our response to prolonged stress.  Increased cortisol secretion increases blood pressure, converts protein into glucose for ready supply of energy.  Continuation of this phase can result in chronic hypertension, diabetes and lead to the next stage of stress;

  • Exhaustion – ‘burn out’ or ‘adrenal fatigue’.  Cells and organs can no longer function properly and can result in serious diseases.[2]

 

Our inherent stress response has been designed to save us from life or death situations i.e. running away from a sabre tooth tiger (flight) or helping us to endure physical hardship such as lack of food or having to walk miles to find it (resistance).  What our bodies haven’t adapted to is the continual exposure to stress caused by modern day living – traffic jams, work deadlines, getting the kids off to school, financial pressure, environmental pollution, food intolerances and a diet of food the body doesn’t recognise.[3]  And so all too often we find ourselves in one of the three physiological stages of stress.  While stress presents differently in everyone, some of the common conditions linked to or exacerbated by stress include:

 

  • Asthma

  • Heart disease including hypertension - 1 in 7 NZ adults are on medication for high   blood pressure – that’s 425,000+ people

  • Diabetes - 1 in 20 people are diagnosed with diabetes, of this approximately 90% is type 2 diabetes[4]

  • Irritable bowel syndrome

  • Pre-menstrual tension & menstrual irregularities

  • Autoimmunity e.g. rheumatoid arthritis

  • Depression

  • Ulcers [2]

 

Certainly stress is not the only cause though it is a significant contributing factor.  We are all exposed to different types of stress on a daily basis; it is how we react to a given situation that will determine our physical and mental response.  Some people seem to have a very high capacity for handling stress, some of us struggle a bit more, so let’s look at some ways we can improve our response to daily challenges so we can keep calm and carry on.

 

  • Exercise regularly – it decreases stress hormones, increases ‘feel good’ chemicals, reduces fatigue and may improve your future reactions to stressors[5]

  • Relax – try simple relaxing breathing techniques (one listed below!), get along to a yoga class get a massage, do something for you

  • Become an ace at time management so you don’t feel pressured or rushed

  • Don’t procrastinate – get the hard jobs done early while your energy levels are higher[2] [3]

  • Sleep for 7-8 hours undisturbed to allow the body to rest and repair[2]

  • Eliminate stimulants such caffeine, alcohol, sugar and refined carbohydrates, these can contribute to anxiety, insomnia, depletion of essential nutrients and be very taxing on the adrenal glands[2]

  • Identify and eliminate food allergies or intolerances

  • Supplement with specific nutrients to help combat stress - vitamin C is depleted during high stress, supplement daily to replenish and to support your adrenal glands; B group vitamins, particularly B5 & B6; minerals zinc, magnesium and calcium are also helpful[2]

 

Any yoga with a balanced mix of asana, breath integration and relaxation will be helpful.  If you're experiencing nervous stress then a faster paced class may be ideal to help 'burn it off'.   If you feel more exhausted then a slower yin or restorative practice would be more suitable, they're more replenishing.  If getting to class is cause for stress itself don’t panic, a simple sun salutation flow or resting with your legs up the wall for 10-15 minutes will help to bring some calm to your day. 

 

This simple relaxing breathing technique can be done anywhere so if you’re having a stressful day find a quite spot to sit in the office, at home or even in your car and take five minutes to restore your calm.

 

  • Find a comfortable and quiet place to lie down or sit.

  • Place your feet slightly apart, place one hand on your abdomen near your navel and the other hand on your chest.

  • You will be inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.

  • Concentrate on your breathing.  Note which hand is rising and falling with each breath.

  • Gently exhale most of the air in your lungs.

  • Inhale while slowly counting to 4.  As you inhale, slightly extend your abdomen, causing it to rise about 1 inch (2.5cm).  Make sure your chest and shoulders remain relaxed.

  • As you breathe in, imagine the warmed air flowing in.  Imagine the warmth flowing to all parts of your body.

  • Pause for 1 second, then slowly exhale to a count of 4.  As you exhale, your abdomen sould move inward.

  • As the air flows out, imagine all your tension and stress leaving your body.

  • Repeat the process until a sense of deep relaxation is achieved[6]

 

 

References

 

[1] Stress symptoms: Effects on your body, feelings and behavior, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-symptoms/SR00008_D

[2] Murray M, Pizzorno J (1998), Encyclopaedia of Natural Medicine, 2nd Ed, Little Brown, Great Britain

[3] Haas E (1992) Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to diet & Nutritional Medicine, Celestial Arts, Berkeley

[4] NZ Ministry of Health documents: ‘A Portrait of Health: Key Results from the 2006/2007 New Zealand Health Survey’ and ‘Tracking the Obesity Epidemic: New Zealand 1977-2003’

[5] Scott, E ‘Exercise and Stress Relief: Using Exercise as a Stress Management Tool Stress and Exercise: Look Better, Feel Better’, October 20 2008, About.com Guide, Available: http://stress.about.com/od/programsandpractices/a/exercise.htm

[6] Murray, M. & Pizzorno, J. (2006). Textbook of Natural Medicine (3rd ed). St Louis: Churchill Livingstone.

 

JULIE WILSON

021-933-667

julie@nzyogamama.com

 

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