Muscle tension. Pounding heart. Rapid breathing. Elevated blood pressure.
Whether the threat is real or perceived, it has the same physiological response in the body.
Stress is the body’s response — mentally, emotionally and/or physically — to change. Even positive change produces stress.
The stress response can help to protect us in life-threatening situations. Or, it can help us to perform more effectively and efficiently to accomplish tasks.
Stress is OK in small doses, but when it becomes chronic, it can wreak havoc on our mental, emotional and physical health.
Symptoms can include irritability, fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, digestive problems, changes in appetite, decreased libido, nervousness, muscle tension or pain or frequent illness. Chronic stress can increase our risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, anxiety or depression.
Although there is no magic pill to cure stress, learning stress management and relaxation techniques can help to improve your resiliency and reduce the symptoms of stress.
Here are five you can use today. There is no right or wrong way to practice these exercises. Experiment with an open mind to see which ones work best for you.
Deep breathing. Inhale a nice, long deep breath in through your nose. Exhale through an open mouth. With each inhalation, try to fully expand the chest and the belly. Make your exhalation longer than your inhalation.
Even just three deep breaths will slow the cascade of the physiological stress response.
Progressive relaxation. Find a comfortable position, preferably lying down on your back with a support under your head and behind your knees. Beginning with your toes, contract your muscles as tightly as possible for three seconds. Now relax those muscles, and move up into the muscles in your feet. Repeat.
Working your way from your toes to the top of your head, experience a greater sense of relaxation as you release tension in all of the muscles in your body.
Visualization. In a comfortable sitting position, gently close your eyes, and bring your attention to your breath. Now imagine any scene that you find calming and relaxing. Maybe a beach with swaying palm trees, waves rolling in and out, clouds floating across an intense blue sky, a gentle breeze cooling you against the warm sun and sand. Immerse yourself in the visualization, feeling tension and worry melt away.
5-4-3-2-1. In mindfully taking in your surroundings, using all of your senses, you will notice a feeling of greater peace and grounding. Begin by noticing five things that you can see, noticing details such as color, texture, shape. Now, what are four things you can feel, including the feeling of the clothes on your skin, the feeling of the chair beneath you, or maybe pick up an object and notice what it feels like? Move on to three things you can hear, listening closely for even the quietest of sounds. Notice two things you can smell, maybe using essential oils or a scented lotion on the palms of your hands and deeply inhaling. And last, one thing you can taste.
Positive affirmations. It can feel a little awkward at first, but neuroscience supports the idea of using positive statements to replace negative thoughts or self-talk. Examples of positive affirmations could be, “I am healthy in mind, body and spirit” or, “I deserve to be happy” or, “My life is abundant.”
Write your positive affirmations in a journal or on note cards and carry them with you. Read them aloud to yourself several times per day.
If you have tried to manage your stress and your symptoms continue, see your doctor. Also consider seeking a professional mental health counselor who can help you better identify your stressors and learn new coping mechanisms. Learning healthy stress management strategies and knowing when to ask for additional help are imperative for your mental, spiritual, emotional and physical health.
Nicole Hutchison is a physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, certified TRX instructor, health coach and integrative nutrition coach who works with clients to optimize health mind, body and spirit at Statera Integrative Health and Wellness Solutions in Dubuque.