Everybody seems to be stressed these days. Stress is our constant bedfellow, causing a multitude of issues. These can include headaches, fatigue and insomnia. You may also notice a loss of appetite and an increase in addictive behaviour, depression and anxiety. Honestly, the list goes on and on. But why are we all so stressed in a modern world full of convenience, with everything we need at our fingertips? Surely we should be at our happiest? Take a look at some simple ways to take control and reduce stress in your life.
Life is full of pressures and never more so than now. Pressure to act or look a certain way, to be the most successful, have the best car, job, relationship and body. Pressure to own the latest phone, have the perfect family, a spotless home and beautiful, perfectly mannered children. The media bombards us with a contrast of both ideal lives and trauma, disease and war. Social media infiltrates every moment of our lives and casts a lens over who are and how we present ourselves to the world. We may have disapproving relatives, judgemental friends or critical colleagues. And everything has to be immediate. And, on top of all that, we even put pressure on ourselves. It’s no wonder we are crumbling under the pressure.
What causes stress?
To specifically define what causes stress is difficult as the stressors are so wide-ranging. What one person finds stressful may excite another, it all depends on your personality. But, there are specific life events which affect most people. The number one cause of stress is work, some of the reasons for work stress can include, increased responsibility, long hours and discrimination. Life stresses also have a huge impact; divorce, the death of a loved one, financial obligations and even getting married.
Mind.org says that ‘stress has no medical definition and health professionals often disagree over whether stress is the cause of problems or the result of them’. Never the less, the numbers of people feeling stress seems to have reached epidemic proportions. Are you one of them?
Are you aware of where your stress levels are now and how they’re affecting your relationships with your loved ones and yourself? What is stress doing to your body, your health, your mental health?
Stress is our bodies way of responding to demand, whether from good or bad experiences. When somebody feels stressed by something, their body reacts by releasing the hormones, cortisol and adrenaline into the blood, which provide more energy and strength. This is useful and essential when there is a clear and present physical danger as it gives our bodies the tools it needs to ‘fight’ or take off in ‘flight’. However, when this is in response to repeated, modern, everyday experiences like your mobile phone not working correctly, your kids fighting or even being stuck in traffic, we can produce higher than normal levels of these hormones in our body. This can make us feel physically unwell and affect our long-term health.
The cycle then perpetuates itself, you feel unwell because you’re awash with stress hormones. This manifests itself in so many ways. Maybe it starts with you not looking after yourself or eating fast food because you don’t have time to cook. Maybe you start drinking alcohol to take the edge off your day or you spend hours flicking through your phone continually and then can’t shut your brain off to sleep. You wake up the following day feeling worse and the groundhog stress day continues.
So what can you do to reduce stress?
Anything that makes you feel good will help to reduce your stress levels so go for a run, take that long soak in the bath, listen to your favourite music, read that book you’ve been meaning to forever, go out with friends, exercise, whatever works for you. All these things can help ease symptoms of stress as they help you relax.
One of my favourite things to do is to book a massage to ease the troubles of the day away but what has really brought me an established peace of mind and calm in my life is Mindfulness. After a traumatic few years, it’s what brought me back to balance and prompted me to want to become a teacher.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a holistic mind/body practice that helps people manage their thoughts and emotions. It’s derived from the teachings of Buddha and the meditation, Vipassana, but taught in an entirely secular way. Mindfulness, along with concentration, is a quality that you can develop while practising and has been found scientifically to have a positive effect on mental health. Specifically depression and stress and in just a short few minutes a day, as few as 10 minutes, mindfulness meditation can reduce the effects of these illnesses. It is a still, one pointed, focused, compassionate awareness in the present moment without judgement or attachment to any outcome.
How is Mindfulness effective?
Mindfulness requires that the mind is clear, relaxed and focused while still being alert and aware. It is a combination of concentration and gentle awareness. Its aim is to allow us to be present in the “now”, to let go of past regrets or future worries. It creates space for balance and calm from a foundation of compassion and kindness. It’s not just chilling out or nodding off, it’s not just for hippies, it’s not fantasising or daydreaming, and it’s most definitely not a way to empty your mind. Mindfulness Meditation is a training of the mind. A gentle non-medicated way to soothe a frazzled, stressed mind.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, MBSR, was created in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts to treat people who suffered from chronic pain, stress and addiction. The revival of Mindfulness that you may have heard of today stems from John Kabat-Zinn’s work and is becoming increasingly popular with people from all walks of life, commonly being used in the corporate world, in health, prisons, schools and even in our governments.
Mindfulness allows us to deal with the stresses of life
Mindfulness is not a panacea for all, and it is best practised initially with a teacher to guide and/or a group to share experiences with. However, the reason it is so popular now is that it is actually producing results for people. Study’s show that Mindfulness helps regulate emotional reactivity; decreases social anxiety and increases cognitive flexibility. It helps us live more consciously with increased feelings of compassion forming the foundation of the practice. This kind of living helps us to move away from suppressing or avoiding the problems in our lives and allows us to deal with the stresses of life from a more balanced and productive mindset.
In time, usually around the five-week mark, and with a consistent mindful practice, you’ll begin to notice changes in your behaviour, increased feelings of well being and being able to cope with stress.
Three ways to reduce stress
In the meantime, while you’re reflecting on what might work for you, here are three proven activities, that you can do immediately, to alleviate some of that stress.
- Stop. Give yourself a moment, create some much-needed space.
- Take a breath mindfully. Breath in slowly through the nose, taking the breath down to the belly. By doing this, you are activating your parasympathetic nervous system which will gently tell your body and your brain that it’s time to calm.
- Observe. Take in your surroundings, look and listen to what is going on around you, this will keep you in the present moment and slow adverse reactions.
- Process with awareness and kindness, for self and others. Use a natural, gentle curiosity to ascertain what is going on. Focus on kind words and thoughts.
- Breathe in and out through the nose
- Slow the breath down, using your diaphragm, be aware of the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe.
- Pay attention to the air as it moves into your nose, observe the breath running through your body, allow your body to relax on each exhale
- Count the breath if that is easier for you
- Do this until you begin to calm
Label your thoughts and feelings
- Tune into your thoughts and feelings
- Label the thought. E.g., critical, or the feeling, Eg: disappointed. Labelling will allow you to detach from the constant inner dialogue that runs through your mind. Do this with kindness and humour
- Accept the thoughts and emotions, acknowledge them and let them go