Everybody encounters some stress in their life. Whether or not stress is bad depends on how you define it. In the everyday pressures of life ― like working to pay the bills or rushing to catch a bus ― stress can be a good thing. If not, you might lack the motivation to work, or you might always be late. Still, if job pressures make you depressed, anxious or affect your bodily health, then stress should be reduced. In this article, let’s look at how stress can harm you. You’ll also learn about clinically proven methods to reduce stress.
Stress Affects the Body and Mind
Under ideal circumstances, humans are free from danger. However, when a threat appears, an entire cascade of events occur in your body. These chemical reactions prepare you to defend yourself or run away, which is called the “fight or flight” response. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol surge in your bloodstream. This enables your body to be strong, fast and injury-resistant. Once the threat goes away, hormone levels return to normal gradually.
In the modern world, most threats don’t require you to fight or flee. However, any type of stress can generate the same biochemical reactions. The problem is when stressful situations become repetitive or chronic. For instance, many studies confirm that chronic stress can cause prolonged and excessive release of cortisol into the bloodstream. This can lead to a whole host of problems such as memory difficulty, poor immune function, weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease and other disorders
Some symptoms of chronic stress you might experience are:
- Upset stomach
- Overeating or lack of appetite
- Muscle, back and joint pain
- Feeling depressed, anxious or irritable
- Illicit drug or alcohol abuse
If you’re faced with a difficult job, family situation, economic strain or medical issues, the resulting stress can be harmful to your health. Also, mental health problems like anxiety and depression can be caused by or made worse due to chronic stress. If at all possible, these situations should be modified, but sometimes life can’t be changed so easily. That’s why researchers and mental healthcare practitioners have developed techniques for stress reduction. Let’s see what methods have been proven to work.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This technique involves tensing and relaxing different muscles in your body. To start, it requires a private, comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted for at least 10 to 15 minutes. You should practice this technique at first during times when you feel calm.
Progressive muscle relaxation follows these steps:
- Choose a muscle group to focus on, for example, your eyes or one hand.
- Tighten the muscle group as hard as you can for 10 seconds. This could be making a fist or closing your eyes. Remember, you should not exert yourself so much that you feel pain.
- Try to focus your thoughts on the muscle being tightened.
- Relax the muscles for 10 seconds and feel the tension being released.
- Repeat this process with a different muscle group.
The key to this technique is to become very aware of the difference between tension and relaxation. When you repeat this process with other muscle groups, you can focus on your arm, leg, chest, abdomen or other parts of the face (jaw).
Once you’ve mastered this technique in a calm state, you can apply it to moments when you feel anxious. This will lower your level of stress. Some studies have shown that progressive muscle relaxation can lead to reduced anxiety levels, blood cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate.
When you get nervous, your breathing rates go up. Plus, each breath becomes shallower. This might make you feel like you are suffocating, which only makes you more anxious. Breathing exercises allow you to control your breathing and reduce stress. Again, it’s best to learn and practice this technique when you are not feeling anxious.
This method follows these steps:
- Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose. Focus on pulling the air in from your abdomen.
- Hold your breath for about 1 to 2 seconds.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth.
- Wait 2 to 3 seconds and inhale slowly again.
Make sure you focus on drawing your breath in from the pit of your stomach and not your chest and shoulders. The key to this technique is to focus your thoughts actively on the act of breathing itself. Consciously control your breathing and be sure that you emphasize the pauses after you inhale and exhale. Plenty of practice beforehand allows you to implement breathing exercises in moments of stress effectively.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
This technique may involve working with a mental health therapist familiar with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). There are also self-help methods, but guided therapy may work better. The general idea behind CBT is to enable you to recognize and change your thought patterns. As anyone who is under stress knows, sometimes you struggle with thoughts “going around and around” in your head.
For example, one of the methods used in CBT is called “Challenging the Negative.” In stressful situations, we might be tempted to exaggerate or think negatively. By applying this CBT technique, you train yourself to test your thoughts. For instance, you might think that being late to a meeting is the end of the world. So to challenge this idea, you ask yourself:
- Is what I am thinking based on fact?
- What is the evidence that what I am thinking is not true?
- What would I tell a friend if he or she was thinking the same thing?
- Has this ever happened before? What were the results?
- What is the worst thing that could happen in this situation?
- Is there something worse that could be happening to me right now?
- How will this event affect my life five years from now?
After some coaching sessions with a therapist, you can learn to understand and manage your thoughts on your own. Eventually, this helps you see things more realistically, which can help reduce stress.
In the 1960s, Herbert Benson of Harvard University discovered that certain parts of the brain are activated in stressful situations. His theory was that by activating parts of the brain related to relaxation, stress can be reduced. He called this technique the relaxation response (RR).
In RR, you select a special relaxation trigger that could be a word, phrase, thought, prayer or even a body movement. This relaxation trigger is then repeated over and over again during moments of stress. This process slows down your thoughts and decreases your body’s response to stress. Try to focus all your thoughts on the relaxation trigger as this redirects the focus of your brain.
Some variations of RR include visualization, yoga, meditation and tai chi. What all of these share in common is that they change which part of your brain becomes active. The relaxation response also overlaps with, or can be combined with, other techniques like progressive muscle relaxation and breathing exercises.
Much like the other techniques mentioned, the relaxation response requires practice during calm states to be effective during times of stress.
One thing you might have noticed is that all these stress-busting techniques require plenty of practice. Why? Because when you’re in a stressful situation, it’s hard to focus on relaxation. It’s like learning to drive a car. You wouldn’t start by driving in the middle of rush hour, right? The same idea applies to stress reduction techniques.
Another reason why preparation helps is that by practicing, your overall stress level gets reduced. Many of us carry some extra stress that we want to get rid of. So, by practicing stress reduction, you reduce your daily emotional baggage. Since you carry a lighter load, you’re more prepared to cope with new challenges.
It’s also worth mentioning that your lifestyle might benefit from change if you’re under a lot of pressure. Here are some day-to-day things you can do to decrease your overall stress levels:
- Get plenty of sleep: Around seven to eight hours a day seems best
- Avoid excessive alcohol or illicit drug use
- Get regular exercise: Even just walking 10 to 15 minutes a day can help clear your head
- Keep a journal: Sometimes writing it down can help organize your thoughts
- Talk – Confiding in a trusted friend can relieve stress
When to Seek Professional Help
If you start to feel that stress is interfering with your activities of daily living, you probably should consult with your doctor or a mental health care practitioner. Some signs that you might need professional advice are:
- Overwhelming anxiety or panic
- Depressed mood, sleeping problems
- Overeating or lack of appetite
- Excessive weight gain or loss
- Serious interpersonal relationship problems
Remember, stress is a part of everyone’s life, but it doesn’t have to control your life. You can improve your mood and limit the effect stress has on you. Try the techniques and advice presented here. If you feel things are getting out of control, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
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Berkeley News – http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/02/11/chronic-stress-predisposes-brain-to-mental-illness/
Psychology Today – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1
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WebMD – http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-management-breathing-exercises-for-relaxation
Cognitive Therapy and Research – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3584580/
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University of British Columbia – Department of Family Practice – http://postgrad.familymed.ubc.ca/resident-resources/resident-wellness-and-safety/evidence-based-stress-management/