What is stress really, besides the main trigger of human illness and disease? Not all stress is negative. When the body handles stress in a healthy manner and uses it to overcome challenges or enhance performance, the stress is positive. Studies have shown that short-term stress can boost the immune system and most certainly benefit brainpower.
Chronic stress on the other hand, has a negative effect on the immune system that can ultimately manifest an illness. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between thoughts and reality. So whether we’re worried about something work related in the future or are faced with a snake in the bathtub, it prepares us for fight or flight in both cases. How can we easily free ourselves from unwanted stress? It might be as simple as changing unproductive thoughts.
Eustress vs. distress
Stress is positive when it forces us to strengthen our adaptation mechanisms, warns us that we are not coping well and that a lifestyle change is needed to maintain optimal health. It’s nothing more than the body telling you to pay attention, because something potentially harmful may happen. This action-enhancing stress, named eustress, gives us a competitive edge in sports or an energy rush before going on stage. It makes us more alert so we can perform better over a limited amount of time.
Stress becomes negative when it exceeds our ability to cope, fatigues body systems and causes behavioral or physical problems. This harmful stress is called distress. Distress produces overreaction, confusion, poor concentration and performance. It triggers an extremely wide span of physical issues such as headaches, back-neck-shoulder pain, heart problems, metabolic issues, sleep problems, general tiredness etc. The critical factor associated with stress is its chronic effect over time.
When stress becomes chronic
Chronic stressors include daily hassles, frustration in traffic, work overload, financial difficulties, relationship arguments or family problems. The list is endless. The built-up anger we hold inside ourselves toward any of these situations, or the guilt and resentment we hold toward others and ourselves, all produce the same effects on the hypothalamus. It sets the body in fight-or-flight mode. But instead of physically discharging the stress, we often hold it inside where its effects become cumulative.
Research shows that almost every system in the body can be influenced by chronic stress. When chronic stress goes unreleased, it suppresses the body’s immune system and ultimately manifests as illness. Can you imagine what happens to the body if it remains in fight-or-flight mode? Methods to relieve us from stress can cause even more stress. Does making it to yoga class, while picking up the children and being stuck in traffic trying to score some groceries for dinner sound very helpful? Without time to truly switch off, we push ourselves to ‘always be on’, adding stress on top of stress.
Under normal circumstances, around three minutes after a threatening situation is over and the real or imagined danger is removed, the fight-or-flight response settles down. The body relaxes and returns to its normal status. During this time heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, muscle tension, digestion, metabolism and the immune system all return to normal.
However, if stress persists after the initial fight-or-flight reaction, the body’s reaction enters a second stage. During this stage, the activity if the sympathetic nervous system declines and adrenaline secretion goes down, but cortisol increases above normal levels. Finally, if stress continues and the body is unable to cope, there is likely to be breakdown of bodily resources.
Release tension through conscious relaxation
Chronic stress is essentially excess energy accumulating in different parts of the body. Without proper release or movement this energy gets stuck, causing a blockage where it becomes ‘stale’, leading to an imbalance. But if thoughts were able to cause all this, thoughts can also be part of the solution. The sooner we address stress, the better.
First, we have to be aware we worry about a certain event. Then we can acknowledge it and start working with it. Taking a closer look at our worries we can safely say it’s about something that happened to us in the past or might happen in the future. Feeling an emotional attachment to a certain outcome good or bad will often result in rumination. We fear things won’t turn out the way we want, we fear reliving painful experiences. We fear pain and failure.
Now all we need to do is not identify ourselves with the outcome of any situation that gives us stress. We can release stress by changing our thoughts.
7 Steps to release stress by changing thoughts
- Find a quiet spot and take your shoes off. Sit down in a comfortable position, spine straight. Place both feet firmly on the floor. Relax the rest of the body.
- Place one hand on your chest, the other one on your stomach. Close your eyes.
- Take a deep breath into the nose, letting your stomach expand, and breathe out through the mouth. Slowly extend your breath going out. It can be 4 counts in and 8 counts out, do what feels comfortable for you.
- Ask yourself what’s bothering you at the moment. Try to picture the situation, see the people involved and keep breathing.
- Look at the situation from a third person’s perspective. Now see the situation as it is, without judgment and without identifying with it. Breathe…
- From the third person’s perspective, talk to yourself: “Whatever the situation is, whatever the outcome, it is okay. You are okay. Thank you”. Repeat in order to release the stressful thoughts. All the while, keep breathing…
- Compliment yourself for taking time for yourself in silence. Open your eyes. Well done!
We can practice the same method while adding movement. Just take your stressful thoughts out for a walk instead of sitting down on a chair. Finding a spot in nature, a forest or a park, is a great substitute for silence.
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