Feeling stressed? In part two of our mental health series, our expert exams stress and its causes and effects on the body, and offers great advice on how to deal with it
Stress has become one of the most common words we use to describe our state of mind in recent times. We’ve all used it at some point to describe our mental state when we are feeling overwhelmed with things to do, anxious about an outcome, or overtaken by emotions (usually fear/ anger/ uncertainty). This is a mental issue that can have significant repercussions on our physical health, and like any other mental illness, the main cause behind this is our thoughts.
What causes stress?
Simply put, our thoughts that create stress are usually saying to us, “Things are not okay”, and we are unable to deal with things. If we look at it logically, what’s missing are thoughts of being able to accept the way things are (which doesn’t mean they cannot change), and trust that it’s going to be okay! All mental issues boil down to how we interpret situations and what we believe. Stress is caused when you perceive something as a crisis to the point where you cannot respond to the demand of the situation. This could be linked to a single event (such as a work deadline), a long-term situation (such as an illness), or a reoccurring pattern (such as constant arguments at home). The common factor is the feeling of not being able to deal with the situation, which makes us feel powerless and our brain goes into the fight or flight mode. This is why, unfortunately, most people “cope” with stress by overcompensating through action and “just get on with things”, or avoid the situation by escaping into another activity such as drinking. In both cases, the energy of stress has not been released, which means that the toxic energy remains suppressed in the body until we have an emotional outburst or anxiety attack! If the cause is a long-term or reoccurring situation, the stress could even become chronic and produce long-term debilitating illnesses.
Reprogramming your mind to be able to perceive situations through the lens of acceptance and trust would be the permanent solution and may take some time. Meanwhile, it’s also useful to understand how stress impacts us so we can acknowledge that it’s there and work to release it rather when it occurs.
Physiological effects of stress
Stress causes a chain-reaction between the mind and body. When the mind interprets something to be a crisis, it activates a part of our brain that feels like our survival is threatened and sends signals to the body to deal with the threat as if we are fighting for our life! Long ago, we would attribute a crisis situation to things that could physically threaten us, such as being chased by a predator, and our bodies would need more energy, blood and oxygen to deal with it. Today, our crisis is more about giving a public speech, not getting invited to a party, feeling like we may have to downsize our apartment, or worrying that our child did not eat enough greens. Rationally, we know we cannot die from any of these things, yet that’s the message that the brain gets! This is why stress is related with physiological symptoms of increased heartrate, rapid breathing, increase in body temperature, and heightened senses; all designed to deal with actual danger.
When we are stressed our mind sends a message of danger to the brain, which activates our sympathetic nervous system to produce the physical changes needed to deal with the crisis, and when we perceive it’s over, a hormone called cortisol is released to restore the lost energy and return the body back to its original state. Cortisol like any other hormone is of great value; the problem is when we have situations that are long-term or reoccurring, our mind may not perceive that the crisis is ever over and produces more cortisol than necessary. That constant production can have debilitating effects on our body. Excessive levels of cortisol can impair the brain’s ability to function adequately, which may disrupt many of our other systems resulting in risk of heart disease, digestive issues, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Cortisol can also damage the brain by killing off cells and prematurely aging it, leading to poor cognition and emotional turbulence.
I know this is all sounding very grim, and that’s to make you aware of the severity of the consequences caused by stress. However, there is hope! Whatever the mind has unconsciously associated can also be disassociated with conscious awareness (unless the damage is so deep that there is no cognition at all). Like with most things, age plays a factor and the sooner we begin to shift our behaviour and interpretations the quicker the results!
How to handle stress
If you are feeling stressed, know that there is a build-up of toxicity already in the body. The best thing to do is not to judge yourself as being “wrong” or “bad” for creating this because that will only increase the issue and add guilt to the mix. Instead acknowledge that it’s there, and find ways to release that energy. Here are some simple ways to release stress in under 5 minutes
Focused breathing is one of the best ways to release anything from your mind and body. Think of the situation that’s causing the stress, scan where your body is storing it (chest/ stomach/ head etc.) and use your intention to breathe out all the tightness from that place. All it needs is for you to focus on that area and take seven to 10 deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth whilst mentally telling yourself that you are releasing.
Tapping is a popular therapy technique used by many practitioners, it works by releasing the blockage that stress causes to your energy meridians simply by using the tips of your fingers to repeatedly tap on the stress points. Again, scan your body to find where you have stored the stress and begin to tap out the cellular memory block with an intention to release the tightness.
We know that physical exercise has lots of mental advantages too, and you can turn any physical activity into therapy. The difference between a run and a therapeutic session catharsis is just intention. If you think of your stressful situation and then set an intention of releasing it through running, then it becomes a very different experience, you will feel a huge mental relief after and enjoy the feel-good chemicals the brain releases. Even if at work you could do a quick 5-minute run on the spot, or jump up and down in your bathroom cubicle and see the impact.
How to prevent stress
As we have said, the prevention of stress is linked to shifting your beliefs so you can interpret situations with a different filter and think that you can handle the situation. This needs constant practice and is best done daily at a regular time instead of during your stressful symptoms, because at that time the emotional charge may be too high.
Incantations are similar to affirmations; they are messages that you chant and feed your body. Become aware of your internal dialogue and feed the body with the opposite message that’s causing the stress. If stress is being caused by believing that you are in danger, then say something like this to yourself: “I trust that I am safe, things are unfolding as they need to, and I am able to handle all that comes my way”. For best results, say it in your own words and at least 21 times daily.
Sleep and stress are closely related, as sleep allows the thoughts in your day to get digested and clears your mental filter so you feel fresh instead of being plagued by the same deprecating thoughts. While sleep patterns do vary, most healthy adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep for the brain and body to function adequately.
Meditation is a mental exercise where we are focused on the present moment, instead of reliving a painful past or worrying about the future. This has one of the greatest impacts on reducing stress. Simply sit still for 5 minutes and practice becoming mindful of all the impressions on your senses; notice what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling. This is the quickest way to become present.
A combination of awareness, regular mental rituals and knowing how to release your stress without judgments will make a huge impact to your daily lives.