In these times of uncertainty, we focus so heavily on what is happening around us that we sometimes forget to take a moment and focus on ourselves. With the added stress caused by the events of 2020, chances are many of us are experiencing added physical and mental stress that we should not overlook.
Contrary to popular belief, small acute bouts of stress are not only important but necessary for both growth and survival. Stress is caused by external forces that strain our bodies, effecting all 5 of our natural senses. Because of this stress, we can react to potentially dangerous circumstances and prevent serious injury.
How do we process stress?
Stress is processed by the Limbic System, the part of our brain that controls our Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight) and our Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and digest). In situations perceived to be dangerous, our fight or flight response kicks in and causes a physiological change in our bodies to anticipate the danger. Examples of this are increased heart rate, increased perspiration, and blood being removed from “non-essential functions” to fuel the muscles for action. This Sympathetic reaction is what allows us to react as best as possible during dangerous situations, or in more relatable sense, helps us function better during exercise. Once the external factors causing our body to react this way are removed, we are finally able to relax and enter a “rest and digest” mode where the body can bring all the excess blood from the muscles back to our organs for various functions such as digestion.
Stress begins to become an issue when the balance of “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” weighs heavily in one direction over the other. When we stay in a prolonged state of stress, our mind and body begin to fatigue. Depending on the stress stimulant (fear, frustration, poor body image, etc.) these normally short-lived feelings become more embodied into our lives and we slowly become what we feel and think. Anxiety, depression, digestion difficulties and hypertension are just some of the various side effects caused by chronic stress. These negative side effects begin to spiral out of control if they are not properly checked and can significantly degrade out quality of life.
Knowing that this excess of stress is unhealthy and, in some cases unavoidable, it’s important to fight back against stress and restore balance in our body and mind.
Here are 6 techniques you can use to bring yourself out of “fight or flight” and back to “rest and digest”:
- Focus on Breathing: We are ALWAYS breathing, so why would focusing on it help us relax? When we are in a stressed state, our breathing becomes shallow and ineffective, leading to an even further cascade of sympathetic reactions to occur. By taking a moment to reflect inward and take deep intentional breaths, you are allowing for more oxygen to fuel your body. On top of that, you also allow yourself a moment to block out unwanted external stimulus and hyper focus on something your body craves. Give yourself a moment to take 10 deep breaths (10 second inhale: 10 second exhale) and see how you feel!
- Exercise: Wait a minute, I thought exercise was stress on the body, wouldn’t that cause even more stress to be caked onto our body? The answer is yes, but sometimes you can use this additional stress to your advantage. Through exercise, you are making it a point to bring this stress onto yourself for the intention of bettering yourself, you are taking control of the stress and channeling it into something that you know will benefit you as opposed to laying there in a constant state of worry. The physiological benefits that come into play post-exercise start to kick in and will naturally aid you towards that “rest and digest” response.
- Stretching: We all saw this one coming! Like exercise, stretching allows for the body to be put through planned out intentional stress that is aimed at releasing tension in our bodies. By releasing this tension, we allow for fresh blood, oxygen and nutrients to saturate our muscles and remove all the unwanted waste festering in our bodies. Stretching acts like a tune-up for the body which is important for long term functionality.
- Eat well and drink water: When it all comes down to it, we are all essentially giant bags of salt water, it is crucial to constantly replenish our water to maintain strong physiological function, keep blood flowing and improve our overall vitality. Throwing nutritious and delicious food into the mix will not only get you through the day but give you the energy needed to dominate the day.
- Keep an Affirmation Journal: This is a great practice not only to relieve yourself of stress, but to reinforce your volitions and strengthen your mental fortitude. Write down things that you want to be or be perceived as (even if you don’t currently believe it). Write down things you want to accomplish and strive for. Keep these ideas of greatness and success at the top of your mind and, over time, they will become a shield protecting you from all the negativity that seeks to bring you down.
- Give someone a hug: By human nature, we need human contact to help us relax. During these trying times, there have been plenty of people who have been socially isolated for months. Human contact helps release a hormone known as oxytocin, which among other reactions in the body, helps people feel comforted and relaxed. If possible and safe, be sure to give a hug to a friend to let them know they are appreciated.
These are just a few coping mechanics that can help you navigate through the craziness that is all around us. As we get closer to the holiday season, keep these tips in mind and be sure to stay diligent in your pursuit for mind body mastery.
Written by Rick Charron. Rick is a Stretch Therapist and Head of the LYMBR Training Academy.