By Dr. Karen Bender
What is stress?
Stress is a normal reaction the body has in response to stressors or changes in the environment. It is a normal part of life. These changes can be caused by physical things like temperature changes, or by emotional reactions to perceived threats. Both can trigger the body’s stress response resulting in increased blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, metabolism, and blood flow to muscles. In normal circumstances, these are adaptive reactions the body does to help us survive.
Physical symptoms of stress can include:
- Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing.
- Headaches, dizziness, or shaking.
- Elevated blood pressure
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Stomach or digestive problems
The problem is in the modern world this stress response is often triggered too often and there is sometimes only perceived and no actual threat to our safety. When the stress response is prolonged or triggered too often without adjustments to counter its effects, it is no longer adaptive, and it can threaten your health and well-being.
Health complications from chronic prolonged stress:
- Aches and pains.
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping.
- Sustained High blood pressure.
- Trouble having sex.
- Weak immune system.
The good news is there are easy things you can do to reduce the negative effects of chronic stress. Every person handles stress differently. The key is determining your personal tolerance levels for stressful situations and creating guidelines for yourself to keep stressful situations at a manageable level for you. Here are some tips on how to do this.
Manage stress by setting limits
- Determine YOUR tolerance level for stress and try to live within these limits. If you feel overwhelmed by some activities learn to say NO! Eliminate activities that is not absolutely necessary or ask someone else to help.
- Let go of perfectionism. No one is perfect; so don’t expect perfection from yourself or others. Instead, offer yourself and others compassion for the imperfections of life.
- Avoid Information Overload: Be selective about the type of media you expose yourself to. Put limits on the time you are available by text and email.
- Gain some perspective: Ask yourself how are you going to feel about a situation in 1 week, 1 year, or 5 years. Is it important to get upset over the situation, or can you focus on something else?
Even if you become very good at living a lifestyle that keeps you within your tolerance level of stress, stressful situations can and will still occur. Manage unavoidable daily stress by getting in the habit of a few daily practices that reduce the negative effects of stress. Here are a few suggestions:
Daily stress management practices
- Practice gratitude:
- Keep a gratitude journal.
- At the end of each day share with a loved one 5 favorite things that happened or that you are grateful for.
- Stop and savor a moment when you have the urge to take a picture. Take in the sights and sounds of the moment, sincerely saying thank you, then take the picture mindfully.
- Regular exercise: Added benefit if you exercise with a friend or family member doing an activity you both enjoy. Think outside the box. When you do an activity that sparks genuine joy you are more likely to come back to do it again and again.
- Breathing Exercises: This can be a quick and easy way to shift your nervous system out of the sympathetic stress response into the parasympathetic part of your nervous system that allows your body to rest, repair, and digest. I recommend doing the 4-6-8 breathing exercises. To do this breathe in deeply through your nose from your diaphragm for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 6, then exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. Do this for 4-8 breath cycles as needed for stress relief and at least twice a day to improve nervous system resiliency. Great to do before eating to also improve digestion. For more information https://www.wholehealthllc.com/reduce-stress-with-your-breath/
- Practice meditation: It is common for people to find it challenging to learn to meditate at first. To make it easier, start with a short duration. Consider starting with 5 minutes once or twice a day and try to incorporate meditation into your daily routine. i.e.) Practice every day after you eat breakfast. Consider practicing with a group for encouragement and community.
- Incorporate spending time in nature as part of your daily routine:
- Exercise outdoors.
- Enjoy a meal outside.
- Meditate or do breathing exercises outside.
Take a moment to journal about your experience with stress.
How do you respond to stressful situations? What do you notice happening in your body? A racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, muscle tension?
Write down 1-2 ways you can limit your exposure to situations that cause unnecessary stress. i.e.) turn off cell phone and no emails after 8 pm.
What goals do you have for daily practices to manage stress? i.e.) Practicing breathing exercises before eating, taking daily walks outside on lunch break, and 5 minutes of meditation after breakfast.
If you are experiencing the effects of chronic stress and would like more guidance, please reach out. There are additional recommendations for nutritional support and herbs that can be helpful and that may be appropriate for you. Schedule a consultation with Dr. Karen Bender for a personalized stress management plan.