Stress is one of the banes of modern life. It is at the root of, or involved in, many of the health problems so many of us suffer from today. But, short of taking drugs like Prozac, Lexapro, Zoloft, Celexa et al, what can a stressed out person do about it?
What is stress though physiologically?
Chemically, stress is the body’s natural response to danger. All those stress hormones we produce do serve a purpose. They’re our normal and natural response to flight or fight situations. They’re designed to put us onto high alert.
The Real Reason For Stress
When our eyes or senses perceive danger they send a signal to the brain, which in turn prompts the adrenal glands, via the pituitary gland, to do their thing. Which is produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones fire up the body by increasing heart rate, pumping up our blood pressure, and supplying more fuel to muscle cells. Our brain goes onto high alert, our senses heighten, and we’re primed for action. Non-essentials like skin, hair, nails, the thyroid, and some peripheral organs, have their blood and nutrition supplies cut back to allow more of these to be directed to essential organs (brain, lungs, heart, muscle tissue, eyes etc). When the danger passes, production of stress hormones is switched off, and the body returns to normal. All is well and life goes on.
….in an ideal world that is.
Today’s world though is far from ideal when it comes to stress. Stress is coming at us all the time, from all directions. Some of us live in a state of almost perpetual stress courtesy of our life style. Quite apart from causing problems like adrenal fatigue, stress keeps those stress hormones pumping through our body. We stay on high alert, which has implications for our quality of sleep, our heart muscles, our blood pressure, our hormones, and our overall health.
At the other end of the scale the organs and body parts that get shut down or reduced services during a stress episode start to suffer. Our hair, nails, skin, and thyroid don’t handle prolonged bouts of stress very well. Stress can also cause issues like impotence in men as blood supplies to reproductive organs is reduced during times of stress.
Medical treatments for stress abound. There are a number of drugs that can be prescribed – sleeping pills to help you sleep, tranquillisers to calm you down, anti-depressants for anxiety and depression, and so on. But ultimately these are short-term fixes. They treat the symptoms but not the cause and the reality is that unless the cause is identified and resolved, you’ll go back to being perpetually stressed as soon as the medications wear off. Then there are the dreaded side effects of some of these drugs….
Enter alternative forms of relaxation and de-stressing!
Relaxation techniques are a superb way to relieve stress and tension and meditation is one of the best. Other methods include soothing, absorbing hobbies; regular exercise (which produces serotonin, the feel good hormone); listening to calming music; and even just taking time out in your busy day to sit and do nothing for a bit. They can all do their bit to help tone down the stress.
But relaxation is about more than just temporary peace of mind. True relaxation significantly decreases the wear and tear on your mind and body, and rejuvenates and refreshes so you’re ready to face the world again. Which sounds good on paper but in reality can take some commitment to actually achieve!
Relaxation Techniques Through Meditation
Meditation – the word conjures up images of people sitting in uncomfortable looking lotus positions, eyes closed, and hands held in classic poses. However, meditation doesn’t have to be like that at all. Meditation is, first and foremost, a relaxation technique and when it comes to relaxation techniques, there is no one size fits all. What works for someone else may not work for you. So one of the first things you need to do is experiment and see what does work.
Breath deeply and relax
One very common relaxation technique is improved breathing. This involves learning to breath with your diaphragm. You’ll know you’re doing this when your stomach expands instead of your chest. Start by taking long, slow breaths, making sure you feel that breath expanding your stomach. Loosen tight clothing for comfort. Hold the breath for a few seconds to allow your lungs to extract as much oxygen as possible before slowly exhaling. You can also try the old relaxation technique of breathing into a paper bag as that works remarkably well.
The many benefits of soothing music
Listening to soothing music is another excellent relaxation technique. Music in fact has many therapeutical benefits. It can directly affect the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest system. This is one of 3 sections in our autonomic nervous system and is designed to help conserve energy by slowing down heart rate (rest), boosting gland and intestinal activity, and relaxing gastrointestinal sphincter muscles (digest bits). Music can slow down heart rate, lower your breathing rate, reduce blood pressure and help muscles relax.
For some people, even just having the radio on and tuned into a favourite station works wonders. It allows them to concentrate and keep their thoughts together. Music can also be used to enhance other relaxation techniques like classical meditation, yoga, tai chi etc. Slip on head phones, tune your mobile phone into a music station and hit the pavements or the exercise bike. Your options are endless.
Pets and peace
Pets are one of the very best relaxation aids there is. Indeed, they’re great therapy full stop! Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a huge area of health and well being that is gathering momentum because it just simply works. Many nursing and convalescent homes now have resident pets ranging from cats and dogs, the most common animals used it AAT, through to hens, fish, guinea pigs, rabbits and other small animals. Or they have people who bring pets in regularly for therapy sessions. Horses likewise are also increasingly being used in some AAT programs, particularly miniatures, although obviously there are always logistical considerations to factor in when using livestock in this way. So grab Felix or Pluto, curl up on the couch and start listening to some soothing relaxing music…. Animals really are that therapeutic.
Exercise and endorphins
Endorphins are chemicals produced by the brain, central nervous system, and pituitary gland in response to stimuli like exercise. They’re designed to interact with opioid receptors in the brain to reduce pain. Because exercise causes pain right?! And whilst endorphins are reducing pain they also create feelings of well being, and positivity. All of which are excellent stress reducers.
Yoga, Tai Chi and other traditional relaxation techniques
One of the oldest forms of relaxation, yoga is a good way to get in harmony with yourself and your surroundings. It reduces stress very effectively, and part of the reason for this is the Anulem and Vinolum breathing exercises. The exercises produce calmer thoughts and are excellent for maintaining focus. They can be done sitting at your desk, driving too and from work, in the elevator, standing in line at the checkout, or pretty much anywhere you’re stationery for a few minutes and can take a ‘breather’. A deep focussed breather.
A form of yoga called Hatha yoga is especially good for managing stress. In Hatha yoga, the poses are held long enough for the person to take several breaths. This contrasts with Vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga where it’s the flow between the series of fast-paced postures that is the focus.
We covered the topic of Tai Chi in this article.
Aromatherapy is another ancient relaxation technique people use successfully to manage stress. It’s also anecdotally useful for helping with depression, sleep disorders, headaches, and a range of other disorders.
Relaxing with a massage
If all else fails a good relaxing massage rarely does! Massage is often combined with aromatherapy and reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and produces a general overall feeling of well-being. In fact, along with breathing exercises, massage is probably one of the most effective forms of relaxation therapy there is.