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Stress frequently gets talked about and it continues to affect people all over the world. The idea of removing stress from our lives however, is not a realistic option. Learn how to deal with it efficiently and use it to our advantage could be.
First and foremost, we need to understand stress, what it is and what are its’ mechanisms. Since we are all unique individuals, stress will manifest differently for each and every one of us. What might be extremely stressful and destructive for one person, could very well be what fuels another’s thriving efforts.
From a physiological stand-point, stress is a disruption of the body’s homeostasis, our natural internal regulation system. Through breathing, we provide our body with oxygen and we trigger an array of functions that are working towards keeping our body at optimal levels. It is an embedded protective process.
Whenever a stimuli (from traffic jams to mounting deadlines) gets in the way of this process, the body initiates a response to help it get back to the initial state according to well-renowned neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky.
Looking back to our evolutionary path, we can identify this behaviour as the common “fight or flight” response. When we recognise danger, our body automatically prepares to run away or fight off the threat.
For either one of these options, we are equipped to quickly adapt through tunnel vision, increased heart rate that will pump blood into our vital organs and support the effort that is meant to bring us back to homeostasis.
Living in modern times is slightly different. We have been gifted with the ability to imagine, anticipate and take preventive action whilst also dealing with a lot more stimuli.
Think about a fairly typical day…
You waking up late
Get stuck in a terrible traffic jam,
Stuck in a meeting thinking about all your work is stacking up,
Realise you forgot your lunch which disrupts your diet,
Getting pressure from your boss who have thrown some more work your way,
You get home hungry and tired feeling like the gym is the last thing you want to do, so you skip it prompting you to feel guilty for not sticking to your routine.
All of these events entertain thoughts that keep you constantly prepared to fight or flight.
On the long term, such repetitive long bouts of stress have a negative impact on your health. The release of hormones in stressful situations, specifically cortisol, should happen for short periods of time, enough for you to escape danger. The body can handle this. However, in prolonged stressful encounters, cortisol will continue to be released into your body much like a dripping water tap.
High cortisol levels have been correlated with the distribution of fat in our body and around vital organs which point to potential heart disease later in life. In addition to this, the immune system is also weakened which makes us prone to getting a cold or a flu or simply unable to fight them efficiently.
Breathing is vital to our body by supplying it with oxygen. We tend to underestimate the power of breathing because it is not something we learn, but rather an instinct. When we are focused on a task, for example, we unconsciously hold our breath for a short moment. This increases our blood pressure in an attempt to pump oxygen to every organ.
This concept is known as “screen apnea” in the work environment and it is what happens in stressful situations as well. With short and shallow breaths, the body struggles to get the necessary oxygen flow that also contributes to our perception of control. In stress or panic our perception is facing the opposite way.
One simple starter method to deal with this is box breathing: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds and hold for 4 seconds. Begin with 10 repetitions and increase from there.
Tip: Try to elongate your breath for the whole 4 seconds instead of racing the first 2 seconds.
Often, when we feel the stress of a deadline or a task we need to get done, our tendency is to focus solely on that particular task. This is the correspondent of tunnel vision in the process of adapting and responding to danger or stress. In order to be sharp and reactive, we need to keep our eyes on the target.
To relieve the stress and tension of such situations, we have to become aware of other things around us and divide our attention among the many stimuli.
Defocusing is double-faceted: internal defocus and external defocus. The internal process consists of identifying the part of your body that experiences most tension and start focusing on it (e.g. stomach). From there, you gradually expand the area to your entire torso, your arms, legs and all the way from to the top of your head down to your feet. Observe your feelings changing already.
External defocusing engages your body. Start to lift your arm, then stick up the thumb and shift your focus to it. Now, expand your vision to the things that surround your thumb and begin to name them out loud while keeping your attention on the thumb. Moving on, look beyond the thumb, but keep it in sight.
Pair this exercise with the breathing technique previously described to get fully relaxed.
Tip: Do not overthink what you see, the objects you slowly shift your focus to are not the main point, but rather that you rechannel you attention and relax.
Stress being a reaction to something, it naturally requires a trigger or stimuli of some sort. Be it your job, a certain task or a pressing deadline, first step in dealing with it is to properly identify the source.
An extreme solution like giving up or leaving your job for good, is not realistic. But finding a way to get some distance from what is causing the stress can become a useful strategy.
After you have pinpointed the source of your distress, you can think of ways to move away from it and briefly instate a positive feeling of joy, harmony, calm, relaxation.
Research has been able to indicate time spent in nature is an amazing way to find the sweet release from stress.
Tip: Start by answering these two questions:
What is the cause of my stress?
What can I do or where can I go to get some space away from stress?
To use stress to your favour you must give up on the idea of pushing through it. It will only cause more harm long term. Start including the 3 methods into your daily routine with the help of the RAR system:
R – Recognize and accept the fact that you have stress in your life and you need to deal with it to prevent it from affecting you. Assess the level of stress that you can control to avoid it negatively impacting your performance.
A – Action for change. Start small and practice intentional actions every day to reduce stress. The strategies we described here are extremely easy to apply. Take a little time and the result will be more productivity and relaxation.
R – Reflect on your approach and consciously evaluate the results of your coping actions. Your old habits may resist your efforts to implement change. Do not expect magic to happen in your life and suddenly feel amazing. Be flexible, make changes where necessary.
Consistency is the key to creating new, positive habits in your life. Practice these 3 ways to reduce stress. Notice becoming more productive, energy levels increasing and your health improving. Start today!
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