The ‘stress response’ is why also known as the fight or flight response. A physiological response that enables us to quickly assess a situation in order to decide whether to stay and fight or to flee imminent physical danger and seek safety. The system is designed to be active for short bursts of time and should be followed by a return to a relaxed state. Back in the days when we were hunters and gatherers this system served us well however for modern life – it’s flawed.
The stress response kicks in not only when we’re faced with a threat but a perceived threat, that is, when we face situations where we feel we are not equipped to cope (NB. The word ‘perceive’ is key here!). All situations that trigger the stress response are called stressors. Previously stressors would have been short lived and and as a result of life or death situations however modern life stressors whilst not usually a threat to life they are numerous and often prolonged.
Some stressors are life changing events such as losing a loved one, the end of a long term relationship or losing our home and others are smaller but more frequent or ongoing daily stressors such as difficult relationships at work or at home, jobs we don’t like, bills we need to pay, complex family lives we have to manage and so on. Many of these stressors last not just minutes or hours but days, weeks or even years.
The complexity of modern day life means that the brain may be telling the nervous system to flood the body with stress hormones not just on a regular basis but long term. This can have a detrimental effect not only on our mental health but also on our physical health. We need to regulate the nervous system and maintain a relaxed state most of the time in order to have good physical and mental health.
Stress and mental health
When triggered frequently or long term the stress response leaves us feeling stressed and burnt out. It can also interfere with our sleep patterns and lead to a cycle of lack of sleep and feeling increasingly stressed out and miserable. Long term it can even lead to depression as well as obsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorders.
Stress and physical health
A chronically active stress response can impact our physical health as well as our mental health. It suppresses the immune system which can lead to an increase in minor illnesses such as colds and headaches but is also believed to lead to more serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, sexual dysfunction, ulcers and more.
And what can we do about it?
The following is a list (not exhaustive) of techniques that are effective tools for reducing stress and anxiety that can result from an overactive stress response. Breathing techniques are probably the most accessible form of stress relief because breathing is natural to us and focussing on breathing immediately calms the nervous system. In addition you can focus on breathing anytime and anywhere and those around you wouldn’t even know you’re doing it. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness also calm the nervous system and research has shown that brain function during meditation is similar to that of sleep.
There are numerous simple breathing techniques that focus on the in breath and/or the out breath. Some techniques simply focus on the breath itself and others on counting on the in and/or out breath and others use visualisations for the in and/or out breath.
Pranayama is from the yoga tradition and some are similar to the techniques above.
This technique involves focusing on specific areas of the body one by one in order to relax all of the muscles in the body. This can be done when sitting, standing or lying down to reduce stress as well as to induce sleep when lying down.
Here are some videos/tracks on Youtube that are either guided by speech or sound. These are just three examples of a huge variety of tracks available online and for free. Youtube is a fantastic resource for this – a bit like Mary Poppins’ bag – it’s pretty much bottomless!
Music for meditation/relaxation
Meditation and mindfulness
To my mind there’s a fine line between meditation and relaxation and I see the main difference in mediation being a more active exercise for example where we observe thoughts and feelings as a way of understanding what we are thinking and feeling and perhaps as a means of then letting go and done in a seated position whereas relaxation is often more passive and is more often done lying down and even as a means of getting off to sleep.
Yoga is great for flexibility and strength as well as for calming the mind and body. It’s also a great way of stretching out and relaxing the muscles before sitting still for a while to meditate as it reduces the likelihood of the mind being distracted by aches and pains. It’s probably safer to learn yoga in a class from a professional teacher before practising alone to ensure we don’t injure ourselves through doing it wrong. Another advantage of going to a class is that social interaction is another effective way of combating stress, anxiety, low mood etc and increasing well being.
There are plenty of websites/apps such as Gaia as well as apps for smartphone and tablet such as Yoga Studio.
In fact any kind of exercise is good for relieving stress from walking to cycling to the gym to workout videos at home. There are even smartphone apps for that such as 7 Minute Workout which is good for both cardio and strength.