What Is Stress?
Stress is the natural response of the body to pressures from the environment around us. The physical and emotional responses that stress causes are used by the body to promote survival. Stress can be caused by a wide variety of experiences, ranging from danger to surprise, and from workplace difficulties to worry. The factors causing stress can be small or they can be large. It is when the factors are numerous or consistently problematic that stress can have a negative effect. Evolutionarily, stress was used by the body as part of the fight or flight reaction, a hormonal effect on the body which causes more energy and resources to be diverted to areas of the body that can battle with or flea from dangers in the environment. The fight or flight reaction is still experienced today, causing the various symptoms of stress commonly experienced.
The symptoms of stress can vary from person to person. Physical symptoms can include an increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, increased blood pressure, muscle tension particularly in the neck and back, and an increase in energy. People can often find that their reactions become quicker when faced by stress, and that they may be stronger than they thought they could be.
When experienced in the short term, stress can be a useful reaction. The fight or flight reaction is triggered by any stressor, be that large or small, and can be experienced on a daily basis depending on the situation. Long term stress can therefore have a negative effect on the body. The effects of stress can include an increase in blood pressure, suppress the immune system by sending resources elsewhere and leaving you vulnerable to illnesses, affect the digestive system, and decrease sexual ability. Stress has been linked to strokes, heart disease, depression and pain, among other things.
Long term stress can also cause negative mental and emotional affects. Symptoms can vary hugely from person to person, but common symptoms can include; irritability or anger, anxiety and depression, impatience, a reduction in self-esteem, fatigue, withdrawal and a decrease in social interactions.
Stress can often feel like an impossible mountain to climb, and that there is nothing that will help to decrease the negativity affecting the rest of life. However, here we have collected a variety of techniques that can be used to combat stress. Some techniques may not work as well as others, and some may not appeal as much as others. However, it is hoped that these techniques will all serve to demonstrate how many ways there are to cope with stress, and to work towards fighting the pressures from life.
Stress and Exercise
For some people, exercise might be the last thing they want to try when they get stressed. Certainly if you are tired or busy, exercise might look like an unappealing prospect. However, the benefits of exercise in the battle against stress are numerous, which added to the general health benefits of exercise makes exercise a technique which should be considered.
One simple reason for exercising regularly is that exercise is fun. If, for instance, your work life is busy and stressful, exercise will give you the chance to have a laugh or a joke with friends, or some healthy competition between other players. Of course this sense of fun comes mainly from choosing a sport or form of exercise that you are happy to do. Be it football, athletics, tennis or basketball, there is usually a sport that each person enjoys. Team games will give you a chance to get to know or hang out with a different group of people, while solo forms of exercise will give you the chance to focus on something else than the source of your stress. As time passes, it is also possible to gain a sense of positivity by seeing the progress you are making with exercise.
The biological effects of sport are also worth considering. With your muscles working more than they usually do, your blood will be pumping faster and your organs will be receiving more oxygen. Endorphins will also be released, chemicals which naturally leave you feeling happier. Exercise can also help to improve tight muscles caused by tension and help to improve your overall healthiness, leaving you more prepared to work towards solving the source of your stress.
Finally, exercise will give you a chance to vent your frustrations in a controlled way. Punching a punching bag may leap to mind at times, which is certainly a constructive way of expressing your mood. There are lots of other ways though to release your stress, be it through an intense completion with other competitors, or running until you feel calm, or really thwacking that tennis ball. Particularly if you are worried about inflicting your stress on those nearest to you, exercise can give a good chance to get some of the stress out of your system before you see the people you would like to feel more positive with.
It should be said that, despite the benefits of exercise in fighting stress, you may need to think carefully before launching yourself into a sport. You may need to talk to your doctor if you have some conditions, as too much exercise may be more of a problem than a solution. Also make sure that you do not spend too much energy on exercise. If you find yourself exhausted when you come to face the source of your stress, you have not done yourself any favours. Keep it constructive rather than destructive, and you should really feel the benefits of exercise.
Stress and Relaxation
Relaxation is one of the best ways to calm down after a stressful day or event, and is great for giving your mind and body the chance to recover and recharge. Calming down at the drop of a hat can be difficult though, particularly when you find yourself simply willing your mind to relax. Relaxation techniques are a great way to give yourself a way to work against the stress in a quiet and calm way, and with such a wide selection of techniques available it should be possible to find one that appeals.
Yoga of course is a technique which may spring to mind. Yoga is a positive relaxation method for many people, and as well as relaxing your mind it can tone your body at the same time and improve your level of fitness. If this appeals, you may like to consider taking yoga classes with an instructor, or finding a book or DVD guiding you through the process.
For a technique which you do not have to leave your house for, relaxation CDs are commonly cited as a good technique to rid yourself of stress. The selection of CDs to be bought is huge, and comes down in many ways to preference. For some people, some relaxing music may be just the ticket to improve the feelings of stress. Classical music can be particularly relaxing, but then most music be relieve the feelings of stress. Perhaps try to avoid anything with a heavy beat or lyrics which inspire a powerful negative reaction in yourself. For others, CDs of relaxation music or sounds may help more. These can include sounds of the ocean or jungle, or tunes specially designed to relax you. It may feel like a break away from what you normally listen to, but these CDs are specially designed for the purpose of relaxation, and should make a difference to how you feel.
The selection of relaxation CDs available also extends to guided self-hypnosis techniques. Self-hypnosis can sound to some quite an intimidating prospect, and while the idea is to hypnotise yourself, the reality of self-hypnosis is similar to meditation. Fans of self-hypnosis have found it to give an intense feeling of relaxation. The idea behind self-hypnosis is to find somewhere comfortable to sit, and then to relax your body and clear your mind. This may sound easier said than done, which is why relaxation CDs guiding this process are often advisable. Often these CDs will help you to relax each of your muscles, and give you the chance to feel how relaxed these muscles can become, and then relax your mind using imagery to concentrate on. Imagery will often describe a calming place to you, such as a beach or meadow, and give you the chance to let your mind wander through this place. CDs can be found in most stores or online.
Of course, relaxation CDs are dependent on CD players. If you are in a situation which is lacking a CD player, or would prefer not to use a CD, then meditation will provide you with techniques that can be used anywhere. Meditation follows a similar course as the CDs described above; using imagery to relax your body and your mind and thus reducing stress. A commonly suggested mediation technique is to imagine a place that fills you with a positive emotion, for example your bedroom, a beach, or the countryside. Another technique that might be tried when meditating is known as “Mindfulness”. This technique dictates that, when in a stressful situation, you should take a step back from any anxiety or anger you may be feeling. Instead, simply keep your attention on what is physically happening. This can take various forms, such as feeling a breeze on your skin, the chair you are sitting on, or hearing sounds from outside. In this way your mind is not focused entirely on the stressor. Mindfulness can take a while to learn and perfect, but once learnt this technique is often found to provide effective relief from stress.
Similar to meditation, deep breathing will allow you to relax in any place or situation. The main difference between meditation and deep breathing is that deep breathing takes away focus on any other stimulus, aside from your breathing. This makes it a simple technique which is quick to learn. The key to deep breathing is to take breaths from the abdomen instead of the lungs. This can be helped by sitting with a straight back and breathing in through the nose, while exhaling through the mouth. Breathe slowly; this will ensure that you feel calm and relaxed. This technique allows more oxygen to enter your body, in turn decreasing any tension you may be feeling as the result of your stress.
Stress and Sleep
It seems cruel in a way that stress is commonly found to affect sleep; stressful situations might be that little easier to work through if you had had a good night’s sleep the night before. Instead, stress is a big cause of many problems associated with sleep. There are many reasons for this. Stress itself has been found to be related to insomnia. Stress also commonly leaves people feeling angry or anxious, emotions that can leave your brain actively running over events and feelings and in turn preventing it from dropping off to sleep. Some people even find that stress can leave them experiencing stressful dreams, meaning that when they wake up they are not fully rested from their night. In a more physical sense, stress causes the body to release adrenaline which is a stimulant (much like caffeine and coffee) which causes your heart to race and your mind to become overactive. This way it becomes very hard to relax and can exacerbate the problems you are already having. You think about your problems and so you produce more adrenaline; which in turn makes your mind race through your problems more. This creates a vicious circle which becomes even worse for the fact that you then become stressed about the fact that you’re not sleeping… And again get more stressed as it gets later and you start to run out of time to get a full night’s rest.
When it comes to “curing” this sleep deprivation, it can be tricky to find a method that works and this will depend on the individual. For some, simply going to bed earlier will allow them to get more sleep than they would do otherwise, even if their mind does race for a while before they fall asleep. This way you can lie easily in the safe knowledge that you ‘have ages’ before you need to fall asleep. Similarly ensure that you reassure yourself that even just lying down and relaxing is a great way to help you feel more awake and alert the next day. Just lie down and enjoy the fact that you’re relaxing, and this will help take the pressure off sleeping and likely help you to drift off. Kind of ironic really…
Exercising will mean that your body is tired before you get to bed, making it likely that you will drop off sooner than you would do normally and at the same time it will produce stress-busting hormones that help to fight the effects of sleep. Exercise right before bed will leave you with an elevated heart rate however, so a better solution is to exercise a few hours before you want to sleep. Fresh air will help a lot too so walks by the sea are also a great way to exercise and help sleep.
Even simple steps such as having no caffeine in the evening can make a difference, ensuring that your mind is less likely to race. As adrenaline is a stimulant the last thing you want to be doing is adding further stimulants into the mix. Remember that caffeine is also in many fizzy drinks and in chocolate. Of course you can also use depressants to combat the elevated heart rate, but need to be careful to become dependent on drugs to sleep. Alcohol is a depressant and this is why many people enjoy a ‘night cap’ before bed, though this certainly is not necessarily a healthy habit if you find yourself needing to drink every night in order to get to sleep. Similarly you can use sleeping tablets, though again you should try to learn to sleep without these. Warm milk and hot showers can help the body produce melatonin and growth hormone which will have a similar but more natural effect.
Equally, not watching television or reading a book just before you sleep can make a difference, as these stimuli can leave you mind churning over what it has just taken in, even if it is not stressful for you to consider. Instead, keep what you do just before you go to bed simple, such as listening to soothing music or relaxing.
There are also relaxation techniques you can teach yourself if you are really struggling to let go of your daily problems. Teach yourself to put your concerns to one side and focus on relaxing, and try tensing and loosening your muscles to sink your body into a relaxed state of calm. There are many tapes and CDs that can help you to do this, either with quiet instructions on how to relax on them, or with soothing noises that you can listen too. Focus on just the instruments or on the sound effects and this will help to quieten the little voice chattering in your head about all your problems.