Stress is talked about openly these days, and most people admit to feeling stressed at different points in their life. Chronic stress is becoming the norm for families: often both parents work full-time, the hours people work each week continue to rise, and children feel pressured at school and overscheduled outside of school.
When stressed, our bodies activate the nervous system which fires certain hormones. This is called the flight or fight syndrome. An area of the brain called the hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more adrenaline and cortisol, which are released into the bloodstream. When this occurs these hormones speed up our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and metabolism.
Our muscles become more alert because our blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to our large muscles. Our vision improves because our pupils dilate. And, our body's energy increases because the liver releases some of its stored glucose. All of these changes in our body occur to prepare a person to react quickly to a stressful situation.
During emergency situations this system is crucial to our survival. When an individual is not in danger, but feels overly stressed, the body activates this system to a milder degree. If this happens too often, the system is over-used and stress hormones pollute our bodies. This leads to depression, anxiety, feeling depleted or overwhelmed, a weakened immune system, weight gain, decreased concentration, problems with sleep and increases in a multitude of physical problems.
The most helpful method of decreasing stress is by decreasing what causes you stress and by regularly using stress reduction skills.
It can't be emphasized enough how important it is not to overschedule yourself or your children. Down time is essential in helping the body to recuperate from the stresses of the day. Decreasing your expectations of yourself, both at work and at home, can help, so can decreasing your expectations of others. Getting at least eight hours of sleep each night is necessary to restore and reset the body's functioning for the next day.
Relaxing activities such as hot baths, reading books for pleasure, and hobbies should be a regular part of your week. A healthy diet and regular exercise keep the body working well, hence, it will respond to stress more effectively. A good support system, with friends you talk to regularly, is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
The "relaxation response," is the body's way of calming itself after the fight or flight reaction is triggered. There are many ways of evoking this natural response.
The first, and easiest, is deep breathing. Close your eyes and place your hand on your stomach. Breathing through your nose with your mouth closed, breath in slowly and steadily, gradually inflating your stomach. Let the breath out slowly and steadily. Repeat this 10 times, or as many times as you need to. Do this several times each day and before you expect stress to occur. This technique lowers your heart rate and sends messages to the body to relax.
Progressive relaxation is useful when you are feeling tension in your muscles. Begin at the end of your body by tensing the muscles in your feet as hard as you can, for at least 5 seconds. Then, unclench the muscles and imagine the muscles growing relaxed. Move onto the legs, stomach, back, shoulders, arms and head.
Visual imagery can be used in several ways. When you have a few moments alone, imagine yourself walking along a path, entering a beautiful and peaceful area that appeals to you. Imagine your body further relaxing with every step you take along the path. For several minutes, imagine yourself in the peaceful place. Take deep breaths and allow your body to relax. A simpler version is conjuring up an image of a peaceful place and doing deep breathing at the same time.
Public speakers and professional athletes commonly use these techniques to control their body's' stress response. These techniques should be used on a regular basis to both decrease overall stress and to train your body and mind to respond to them in order to be able to use them when you are in acute situations. They can also be used if you are having a hard time sleeping.
Most stressed people think continually negative thoughts throughout the day, often without even realizing it. It is important to take control of your unconscious and conscious thoughts by training your brain to think positively. Comments like "I can do this," or "I can stay calm," signal the brain to remain calm. Try to see things in the best light possible. Research shows that those with optimistic thinking add years to their lives.
Rather than complaining and letting stress build, try these techniques for awhile, and work to simplify your and your family's commitments. You deserve to be happy and less stressed. Breathe and relax.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.