Counteracting Stress in your Everyday Life

Fortunately, there are many effective ways to reduce stress within our everyday life at work and at home. Some of them can be done by yourself, and with a little practice, they can be instrumental in helping you avoid any long term detrimental effects that might have otherwise have occurred from your ongoing stressful situations.
The key point to understand in the relief of stress is that relaxation is incompatible with the stress state, so that if you can generate relaxation in some way, you will automatically be countering the stress in your life.

Meditation is one of the key ways people can reduce stress and introduce a feeling of complete mental and physical relaxation into their lives, one which can continue to provide help in dealing with any stress experienced throughout the rest of the day. I want to say here, that, because of meditation’s connection with Eastern religions, many of you might feel that it is not in consonance with the life you are leading. The truth is, meditation is a valuable technique that is not of itself religious, but has simply been incorporated by various religions for their own purposes. It can be utilized in a completely non-religious way to achieve deep states of relaxation and great stress relief. Those suffering from serious stress should not hesitate to make use of this valuable resource for reducing stress in their lives.

The basic form of meditation is simply to focus your attention on one simple and relaxing thing. This relaxes the mind and keeps it from dwelling on stress generating thought. As a result, the mind gets relief and with the mind more relaxed the body follows. To do it, you should be in a comfortable position. Some people meditate in the so-called lotus position, you may have seen on yoga magazines. But this is not at all necessary. You can just sit in a comfortable chair or lie on your bed. You may chose to meditate for any period, but 20 to 30 minutes would be a good period to aim for. If you are worried you will lose track of time, you can use an alarm, preferably a gentle one, like a radio with music coming on or another softer choice of sound.
Once you are ready, you can choose how to concentrate your attention. One very popular way is to concentrate on your breathing. Pay attention to your slow breathing in and out. Here I want to point out, controlling your breathing, all by itself, can be a powerful influence on your stress and significantly reduce it. When we are experiencing stress we breathe shallow breathes up in our chest. When we are relaxed, we breathe slow, deep breaths by expanding our lower stomach area. Just by imitating the physiological states of relaxation, by controlling our breathing consciously to be like that when we experience relaxation, we induce our minds and bodies to experience relaxation. Thus, we can note here that breathing to promote relaxation, even without the act of meditation is a valuable resource for reducing stress. The beauty of using breathing for this purpose is that it can be employed wherever you are, even at work. You can just stop for a few moments and take a few slow, deep diaphragm breaths and you will be able to counter any stress you experiencing.
Another way you can meditate is to concentrate on looking at an object. You can do this with anything, but it can be more relaxing to choose a flower or an attractive piece of glass or pottery or a candle with a flame. Observe it carefully, noticing everything about it. Of course, this can be enhanced by breathing in the relaxing way at the same time, even if your attention is no longer on your breathing, but on the object. Some people can become very relaxed by focusing on a sound repeated silently in your mind. It can be short word; it can be a number, like one, or the word “easy,”, or the traditional sound used in religion, Om. You can even make up your own! Today many people have sound machines, and some of you may prefer to sit quietly with all your attention on listening to the sounds generated by your machine. You could listen to waves on a beach, or crickets at night, or a downpour in a rainforest. Many people get relaxed from just listening to such sounds without using them for meditation. There are also many meditative recordings designed to initiate relaxation in the person. Perhaps one of these will prove to your liking and be very beneficial to you. While you are meditating in the way you have chosen, some other thoughts may enter your mind, do not fight them. Just gently turn your attention back to what you were focusing on.

Using imagery is another way to relieve stress that people find extremely pleasant. You can either use a remembered peaceful, relaxing scene you have experienced or make up an entirely imaginary one. As you create this image in your mind, make sure to involve as many senses as possible. For example, an image of a beach should involve seeing the waves and the blue sky with some lovely clouds in it; while at the same time, you should be hearing the sounds of the waves and smelling the water and sand, feeling the warmth of the sun and a light breeze on your body.
Other imagery might involve seeing stress flow out of your body, or things you are concerned with moving away from you into the distance. You can also see waves of relaxation flowing down over your body and these waves can move in time with your breathing. You should feel how the relaxation is moving down your body with each new wave. Once you have done this regularly, wherever you are, you can stop for a while, even for just a minute, or as long as you are able, and imagine you are in your relaxing place or the waves of relaxation are flowing over you while you breathe in the relaxation-inducing manner.
You can also do deep breathing while imagining the stress flowing out of your body with each breathe you exhale.
Another very effective way to reduce stress is by practicing muscle relaxation. Remember that relaxation is incompatible with the stress state, so that if you can generate relaxation in some way, you will automatically be countering the stress in your life. Relaxed muscles are the opposite of the tensed muscles experienced with stress. If you learn to relax your muscles, you will be in a more relaxed state and your stress will be reduced.
Many people use what is called, progressive muscle relaxation. You should consult with your doctor before using this method if you have back problems or muscle spasms, or any other condition you think might lead to injury from this program. Starting either from the top part of your body or at your feet, you tighten then relax each set of muscles. For example, you might tighten your fists and hold this for about five seconds, fully experiencing the tenseness of the muscles used. Then you release this contraction and completely relax the muscles. Breathe out as you do so. It is important to focus your attention on the different feelings of tension and total relaxation. Take your time to fully experience the feelings of relaxation in the muscles. You can repeat doing this with each muscle group, feeling deeper relaxation each time as you release the contraction. Be careful when you contract the muscles in your feet and your back; do this deliberately, but gently and carefully. Practice throughout your body for awhile, then you are ready for the next stage. Now you will tense all the muscles of your body at once and then release them, while saying a word, like “relax” or a phrase, like “let go,” out loud or silently in your mind. Make sure you keep breathing in a relaxing manner as you are doing all these exercises. Never hold your breath. If practiced regularly, you can reach a point where all you have to do is feel in your body where you are experiencing muscle tension, think of that muscle group in your mind, say that word or phrase, and while you are in that stressful situation, you will experience relaxation.
Exercise is another very effective way to relieve stress. It releases tension in the muscles, which leads to a state of relaxation when completed. It improves blood flow to your brain and throughout your body to bring more nutrients and oxygen to these areas and remove toxins and other waste products from them too. In addition, a body in better physical condition is better able to deal with the actual physiological stresses created by being in stress creating situations. Exercising results in an improved mood. This may result from physiological changes within your body, but there is another reason as well. While you are exercising, especially if you are doing some sport, you are focusing on other things rather then the concerns which were causing you stress. Exercise will also help you to sleep soundly, and getting enough healthy sleep is an important part of combating stress. You should examine your sleep habits and make sure you are getting enough sleep each night. Many people do not get enough sleep and this contributes to the stress they experience trying to cope with things during their waking life. If you are one of the individuals who do not get plentiful sleep, you should seriously consider rearranging your life to get more sleep. Make sure you consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
There are some forms of exercise that combine meditation, breathing and physical movement. For example, you might wish to try Tai Chi or Yoga.

Remember, the best stress reduction system is the one that works for you and leads to less stress and more relaxation. Often people can improve their overall results by just adding more pleasant enjoyable moments during the day. Listening to your favorite music or reading a good book are some things you may have neglected to include in your life recently. Taking the time to enjoy good food, and taking a brisk walk can all add up to less stress and a more enjoyable relaxing existence. A lot of little things can add up and change the tone of your life toward the more positive. One of these things, often overlooked, is to include more humor in your life. This might include seeing more comedies in the movies, and amusing shows on TV, for example, going to the Comedy Channel regularly, or reading your favorite comedian’s latest book. It is now accepted that humor and laughter can significantly lower stress and have very positive mental and physiological effects on your health.

You must experiment and see what works best for you. Often it may actually be a combination of things that will best lead to you a less stressful, more relaxing and enjoyable life.

Stress is a Double Edged Sword

One standard medical text estimates that 50 – 80% of all diseases have their origins in stress. Stress has both negative and positive effects on the body. It is positive when physical activity strengthens the heart and muscles. Exercise is a form of stress that produces positive physical and psychological results. The negative effects of stress are evident in diseases that originate from poor diets, lack of exercise, pollution and increased amounts of social stress. Emotional stress is more likely to cause disease than physical stress.

Disease is a long term effect of stress. Short term effects include elevated blood pressure, accelerated heart rate and loss of appetite. Stress can also alter a person’s brain wave activity, endocrine and immunological balances. Stress can cause sweaty palms (among other types of perspiration), dilated pupils, and difficulty in swallowing, which is often characterized as a ‘lump in the throat’. A person under stress may feel a tightness in the chest, and when the stress is relieved, the person says it is like ‘getting a load off the chest’. The stomach is also in danger from stress. Acid is pumped into the stomach during extreme stressful situations, creating an ideal environment for an ulcer to form. Many skin diseases result from emotional stress as well. The prolonged exposure to stress can also lower the body’s resistance to infection.

Stress has a tremendously negative effect on our ability to fight illness and disease because it suppresses our immune system’s capacity to produce and maintain lymphocytes and natural killer (NK) cells.

There are two factors responsible for illness or disease: an invading foreign substance and a lowered resistance. Stress can alter and may even shut down the immune response. This lowers our resistance and leaves us susceptible to attack from everything from the common cold virus to cancer cells. One cancer theory is that everyone at some point in his or her life develops a cancer. The difference between those who are afflicted and those who aren’t is their immune system response, which is controlled by stress. Cancer victims are the ones whose natural killer cells were weakened or made inactive by stress and therefore could not control the damaging cells.

The body responds to stress in three stages. Stage one is called the alarm stage. In this stage the body prepares to fight or flee when confronted by a stressor. Hormones are released from the endocrine glands and cause an increase in heartbeat and respiration, elevation in blood sugar level, increase in perspiration, dilated pupils and slowed digestion. At this point the body has a burst of energy that can be used to either fight or flee the stressor. It is during this stage that the resistance of the body is reduced.

Stage two is called the resistance stage and is used to repair any damage caused by the stress. Resistance can occur only if the stressor is not too powerful. Body adaptation develops to fight back the stress or possibly avoid it.

If the stressor remains consistent, the body is thrown into stage three, the exhaustion stage. Stage one symptoms reappear at this point. This is the most dangerous stage because disease can develop if the stress persists. If the stressor does not let up, the person may experience migraine headaches, heart irregularities or even mental illness. The body can even run out of energy and may even shut down its basic functions.

This three stage process is called the General Adaptation Syndrome. The resistance stage is dangerous in that we adapt to the stressor. In other words, we become adjusted to a higher level of stress without noticing it. We feel good, unaware that our body is still in a state of stress resistance.

Our body works overtime during this stage to keep us healthy, but at the same time it loses its ability to keep up with the demand the stress puts upon it. The General Adaptation Syndrome is thought to be the reason stress is becoming such an abundant source of health problems. Today’s society is becoming more complex, offering increased demands and new challenges we must constantly face at a faster and more intense pace. By changing the way our body normally functions, these stress challenges disrupt the natural balance crucial for well-being. Stress can virtually eliminate our chances for extending and improving life. It does so by breaking down resistance and increasing the odds that all our bodily functions will eventually give out and fail us.

To understand what physiological processors take place during stress, we must look at the brain. When stress occurs, the nerve impulses reach the brain and stimulate the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus does two things. First, it sends nerve impulses to the adrenal glands located on top of our kidneys, and second, it sends a chemical message to the pituitary gland located at the base of the brain.

Stimulation of these glands is what prepares the body for the fight or flight response mentioned earlier. This process causes three more reactions: a surge of adrenaline, a discharge of cortisol and a release of endorphin. Adrenaline causes the heart rate to quicken, which increases blood pressure and blood flow. This brings extra oxygen – nature’s purest fuel – to every cell in the body. Adrenaline also increases glucose or blood sugar necessary for extra energy needed during stressful encounters.

Cortisol causes an increase in blood amino acids as well as an increase in blood sugar. Protein is made up of amino acids, and because stress leads to tissue damage, proper recovery depends on cortisol being released by the adrenal gland.

Endorphin is released by the brain in any stress situation. It is several hundred times more potent than morphine and works as a natural tranquilizer. Exercise causes endorphins to be released, and therefore a regular exercise program will heighten one’s ability to combat normal daily stressors. People who do not exercise are more susceptible to the negative effects of stress reactions.

Good versus Bad Stress: The Difference can Help or Hurt You

Although the stress response is basically the same in all of us, the degree to which it affects us depends on how we handle stress as individuals. Stress can be either good or bad depending on how we perceive it. We can become more stress tolerant by changing our attitudes and conditioning ourselves to look at it in a new way. We need to change our response to stress from negative and harmful to positive and beneficial – to view it as something constructive rather than destructive.

To achieve this shift in attitude we must be highly internally motivated. The internally motivated person feels that he or she is in control of events that occur – that they are masters of their own fate. We commonly refer to these people as self made individuals, who, in spite of the odds against them, pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.

On the other end of the spectrum is the external person, who feels that ‘no matter how hard I try, the deck is stacked against me’. In general, good stress results from situations we can control and bad stress results from situations we have no control over. This internal/external view of life determines whether an individual feels control over stressors. External people are stress prone because they feel powerless to control or influence the events around them.

Stress Prone Personalities

A more common identification of internal/external personalities is Type A and Type B people. A type A personality is someone who is hard driving, excitable, volatile, and success and career oriented. These people rush from appointment to appointment. They’re continually bombarded with short term stress and create dangerous health situations because they allow no time for relaxation. They are the prime candidates for a heart attack.

Type B personalities are just the opposite. They’re relaxed and unhurried, patient, non competitive, non aggressive, and are not under severe time constraints. But being at this end of the spectrum is not necessary healthy either. Selye theorized that some people suffer from too little stress – something he called hypostress. These people actually need more external stimuli and more activity into their lives. They become addicted to drugs or alcohol due to a lack of motivation and the stabilizing effect of constructive goals. This does not mean that all type B personalities are unmotivated or spend all of their time meditating. It’s just a factor that must be considered when weighing the pros and cons in each type of personality.

It’s possible for type A people to modify their behavior by changing their outlook on stress and breaking some of the long term stress habits they’ve acquired over the years. Certain exercises, called Type B Behavior Exercises, can help a type A person achieve a new approach to stress. These exercises include: putting down your knife and fork between bites at meal time, forcing yourself to do more recreational activities, spending the entire day without your watch, and turning your frowns into smiles even when it hurts. The idea is that once people recognize themselves as type A, they can then modify their behavior.