Part two in a special series on stress
Read part one on the biology of stress.
Stressed is desserts spelt backwards. (Anonymous)
Biology is one thing but it doesn’t have to define us. For me, the science of stress is a useful lens to explain symptom. For example, understanding how stress hormones trigger anxiety or a panic attack, or why our back or neck might ‘go out’ when we are stressed and then culminate in a migraine headache.
But science, as exciting as it is, provides only the “why” in the stress equation. As a naturopath, it’s the “how” to change it that really inspires me. The mind is complex and can do neat tricks. Just as our mind can play a role in creating thoughts that potentiate our stress response, it can also make it do a U-turn. You are not powerless to the chemistry of stress, in fact you can choose to become less reactive and turn the inflammatory cascade down.
The first step is choosing to be less reactive to stress. This takes a bit of honesty; take a step back from your reactions to take responsibility for the times we blow experiences out of perspective. Do you feel anxious or angry if the train is late, pay too much attention to office dramas or get irritated with your partner or housemate’s tardiness when it comes to keeping the house clean? It’s not so much what the other person is or isn’t doing, rather our reaction to it. That’s the part we can adjust. Just how much oxygen do you want to give something that you can’t change?
You know the phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff”? Give it go.
Reducing background stress levels
The more calm and relaxed you are, the less reactive you are likely to be to small stresses.
Or even the big ones, as I found out.
I’m fearful of snakes. That’s a bit of an understatement. Just writing the word “snake” makes my heart beat faster. I like camping, so I’ve had a number of my feared reptiles cross my path. Repeated exposure doesn’t reduce my acute stress reaction. But one time a few years ago I had an entirely different experience. I was in the extraordinarily beautiful Oregon desert with a group of herbalists. I’d decided to take some time out on my own to drink in the calm. Sitting on the rocky mesa I felt so relaxed that I was inspired to meditate. I was in a deep state of relaxation when I heard an unforgettable sound. It was the rattle of a Rattlesnake less that a metre behind me. But for the first time in my life the fear response didn’t switch on, instead I felt relaxed and logical. I stayed calm and wriggled down the mesa a few metres. The noise stopped, I continued meditating and felt great. The baseline calmness from meditating derailed my usual over active survival mechanism. Even all these years later, it was a powerful experience on so many levels.
10 ways to reduce stress and stay well
1. Adopt a philosophy that works for you. Developing your own personal belief structure to frame the way you see the world, having a faith or a way of living that makes sense to you can help reduce your baseline stress. Simplicity is part of my personal philosophical framework that helps me minimise some daily stresses so I’m in a better state to deal with those beyond my control.
2. Exercise every day. Even a 20 minute walk as part of your work commute counts.
3. Put aside some time each week to plan ahead. Being organised and prepared doesn’t just apply to work stuff. Creating time for the mundane chores at home (like shopping, cooking and cleaning) or paying to outsource some of them, can reduce some of the petty stresses. Don’t forget to annex some time to spend by yourself/with partner/family/friends, as well.
4. Learn to say “no”. When you are feeling stressed you need to take on LESS not more. If “no” is a difficult word for you to use, have a phrase that gives you the space to delay your answer, e.g. “I need to get back to you about that” or “I’m overcommitted at the moment and am unable to take on anything else right now”. If you have trouble saying “no”, take a look at my article of people pleasing.
5. Take a lunch break. Whether you are at home or work, lunch is important to keep our blood sugar levels stable and reduces the likelihood we’ll graze on mood altering sugary or fatty snacks. More than that, lunch creates a pause in the rhythm of the day, which like a holiday, helps bring perspective. Don’t multi-task while eating. Avoid eating at your desk. Leave the office, or if at home make sure you get some fresh air. Eating complex carbohydrates (such as a handful of nuts) every 3 – 4 hours can help keep your blood sugar stable.
6. Ask for help. Talk to someone you trust. Tell them you are feeling overwhelmed. Let them know if you just want to be heard or whether you are seeking ways of solving the situation. Or see a professional psychologist.
7. Take ten deep slow breaths. If you are feeling stressed or anxious, stop what you are doing and spend a few minutes consciously breathing slowly and deeply. This can act as a circuit breaker in the body’s stress hormone release.
8. Plan your next holiday. Even a long weekend at a backpackers in the next town (many have family rooms or twin share that are cheaper than motels) is affordable for most people. A new place, different people and a break in routine are good for regaining perspective.
9. Drink enough water and make healthier food choices. Dehydration and low blood sugar are physical stresses. Aim for 6-8 gasses of H2O a day, more if you are in a hot environment or exercising, and skip the alcohol and caffeine drinks. When eating out you you can choose a salad over the chips, a side of vegetables and skip the dessert.
10. Learn to be in the moment. Meditation, yoga and exercise are three ways of focusing your awareness to fully inhabit the moment you are in. Even washing the dishes can be an act of mindfulness if you concentrate on the task at hand. If your mind wanders, practice bringing your attention back to the simple act you are performing.
The third part in this series looks at specific naturopathic remedies to reduce your stress response.
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