“I’m just overwhelmed and stressed out,” a young man recently told me. “I’m not sleeping well and my job is really crazy right now. I find myself feeling anxious all the time, and I can’t seem to relax.”
Like this young man, many of us experience the effects of stress in our lives, and if left unchecked, stress can cause a multitude of problems. Chronic effects of stress literally can make us sick and have contributed to the onset of many diseases such as adult onset type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. So if stress is so bad, why does the body experience it anyway?
As it turns out, stress is the body’s way of helping us get out of danger. You know, real life-and-death stuff. We are created in such a way that when we perceive danger, we experience what is known as the fight-or-flight response, also known as the stress response. This physiological reaction prepares the body to take action and helps us survive what would otherwise be a really bad day.
So what exactly happens in the body when it experiences the stress response? First the body makes chemicals, mostly adrenaline, to send energy to the muscles. The heart rate increases, and the body shuts down any non-essentials like digestion, growth, and reproductive processes. This is great when you need to run away from danger, but the problem is that most of life doesn’t require this type of stress reaction.
If we are lucky, our everyday stressors include things like traffic or standing in line at the grocery store when we are in a hurry. Unfortunately, our bodies cannot tell the difference between these frustrating moments from the real life-or-death moments, and they reacts in exactly the same way to both. This is often problematic, because we don’t even realize that we’re stressed out and at risk from long-term effects of stress. The simple truth is that even thinking anxiously can initiate the stress reaction in the body.
Therefore, it is necessary for us to pay attention to our bodies and anxious thinking and take steps to relax. Notice things like muscle tension, headaches, disrupted sleep, anxiety and even panic attacks. This is the body’s way of letting us know that we are stressed out.
I encourage people to respond to stress by initiating the body’s “relaxation response.” Imagine that the body has a large button with the word “RELAX” on it in big letters. Now press it. Imagine it bringing calm and serenity into your body. The best way to press this button is to simply breathe and say the word “relax” to one’s self. Actually, any positive self-soothing statement will do the trick.
The simple, but invaluable, act of breathing begins to reset the body’s stress response and restores the body’s balance to its natural state of calm. Studies have shown that people who practice more disciplined breathing and meditation experience greater well-being and report less suffering from chronic stressors.
Here are some other tips to get a handle on stress:
• Get the body in motion. Walking and exercising are wonderful ways to help manage stress.
• Get enough sleep.
• Spend an afternoon with a friend.
• Go to church or say a prayer.
• Use hobbies and interests to promote healthy “play” and recreation.
• Take a vacation or go on a retreat.
• Remember to laugh.
If you are interested in learning more about managing stress and about the mind-body connection, please take advantage of the “Living with Pain and Illness Workshop” being held at PCPC on September 24th, at 6:30 p.m. This workshop is designed for those who are hurting physically and emotionally, as well as those who care for them.
For more information, sign up on line or call (302) 738-6859. The cost of the workshop is $20 per person, but register by September 21, and receive a discount.