We’ve all heard the phrase, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”. It’s one of those easily remembered platitudes thrown out by well meaning friends during times of trouble. But honestly there really is something to it. Stress can shorten your lifespan and is just as much of a contributor to shortening your life as heart disease or obesity is. April is Stress Awareness month, and during the month of April, health care professionals and health promotion experts across the country will join forces to increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic.
Stress Awareness Month is a national, cooperative effort spearheaded by The Health Resource Network (HRN), a non-profit health education organization, to inform people about the dangers of stress, effective coping strategies, and negative misconceptions about stress that are widespread in our society.
The Truth About Stress
The dirty secret about stress is that a tiny bit of it can actually good for you, in small doses. That adrenaline rush can help muscle you through a long day at work, boost your workout and more. Though we may be focused on cutting the stress from our lives, we do need some of those valuable, fight-or-flight hormones our bodies create when we sense oncoming danger (like a charging wild animal) or when we’re threatened with an unexpected, I-wanted-it-yesterday deadline at work. And while it feels good to Carpe diem, in the end, it just feels better – and is more advantageous to your health – to simply relax.
Some people have a harder time than others just being still in their own body, but learning how to master that aggressive hamster wheel spinning in your mind can be the key to a longer life and better coping skills for managing your life. Here are few ways you can easily start mentally ratcheting things down a notch or two.
Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be preoccupied or bothered and imagine a serene, picturesque setting. Use all of your active senses to make the image real: breathe in the woodsy, earthly smell of the forest and feel the coolness of the cloudy mist on your face; listen to the sound waves gently lapping on the shore of a lakeside beach and the distant sound of loons. Feel the warmth of the wooden deck chair you’re sitting in, on your legs, arms and hands as you sink deeper into a profound state of calm. Stay in that place until you feel calm and restored.
Gradual Muscle Relaxation
You can practice this anywhere – riding the train or bus to work, at your cubicle, in the waiting room at your doctor’s office, anywhere you have room to sit, or lie down that doesn’t require attention to other things – in other words, don’t try this while driving. Start with focusing on your feet and move your way up to your head, paying close attention to how your body responds as you go. Gently tense and relax each muscle group for a count of five seconds tensed, then fifteen seconds relaxed. Move up your body all the way to your eyebrows and forehead. Stay aware and pay attention to the different sensations between the relaxed muscles and the tense muscles. By the time you reach the crown of your head, your body will have relaxed noticeably.
Autogenic Relaxation (Mantra)
Autogenic means self-regulation or self-generation. As with the other two techniques you don’t need anything other than your mind to practice this technique. All you need is motivation. Choose a soothing image or idea and one word that personifies that idea for you. Repeating that word, silently to yourself or audibly, as a soft mantra. One that I like to use is the word “release”. As I inhale I fill my lungs fully, taking in positive energy. As I breathe out, I’m releasing any pent up stress or negativity that is weighing me down. Hold the idea of your word in your mind, breathe deeply and slowly and steady your heart rate. Feel the bodily awareness of your breath, your heartbeat or your muscles tightening and releasing.
Have you ever really paid attention to how you breathe when you feel relaxed? Relaxed, deep, slow breathing sets off the parasympathetic nervous system, and it’s the parasympathetic nervous system that counters the sympathetic nervous system, which is inundating our body with cortisol and adrenaline. This activates the fight-or-flight reaction resulting in rapid gulps of air, otherwise known as hyperventilation. Deep breathing flips this switch in the other direction. The heart rate slows, the muscles relax and harmony is restored. Focus on inflating your rib cage as you inhale to pull air deeper into your lungs.
Aerobic activity of any kind, oxygenates the blood, shuts off distracting mental chatter and releases mood-boosting endorphins, the “feel-good” chemicals that are responsible for that yummy post-workout mental glow. As a runner I know first hand how good and how replenishing a vigorous session of aerobic activity can make my body feel after I’ve completed a run or any vigorous round of aerobic activity. Runners know this endorphin release as “runners’ high” and believe me, you can become addicted to it. A session at the gym or a brisk walk, bide ride (and even sexual activity) can help cut your emotional anxiety and help to reestablish peacefulness in just a short time. If 20 minutes is all you’ve got at lunchtime, use that time to squeeze in a brisk walk.
Companies both large and small are now supporting yoga fitness programs for their employees and seeing the positive benefits of yoga, recognizing that relaxed workers are healthier and more creative contributors to the business. Yoga has even been shown to be beneficial in improving sleep and overall quality of life for cancer patients. A study cited by the University of Rochester Medical Center showed a direct correlation between yoga and improved quality of life.
“Participants in the yoga group reported improved sleep quality and less fatigue, and a better quality of life while reducing the use of sleeping medications following the four-week program. The control group showed increased use of the sleep medications and reported reduced sleep quality, greater fatigue and a poorer quality of life.”
For long-term tension management, make an effort to do yoga weekly by attending a class to learn proper form and breathing, and then continue a daily practice on your own during the rest of the week.
Don’t let the burdens of modern life have their way with you and your mental well being. Take control of your stress. If stress has you anxious, tense and worried, spending even a few minutes in quiet meditation or utilizing any of the techniques mentioned above will help you make considerable strides towards restoring your calm and inner peace. Even 15-minutes a day is beneficial. There’s no time like the present to begin.