Looking for stress relief?
Good stress promotes various responses in both your body and brain that are essential to health and vitality. Challenging yourself physically through exercise, for example, increases your bone density, reducing the chances of osteoporosis. It also increases the size and tone of your muscles, improving your blood flow, waste product elimination and overall metabolism. Stress is also an important factor in contributing to the function of your immune system, because it requires contact with bacteria and other pathogens in order to grow in capacity. Mental stress is important for us, too, with research showing that people who stretch their minds every day are less inclined to develop dementia in later years.
In our society stress is a big part of our everyday lives. It can propel us forward, helping us to reach our goals, direct us towards new experiences and help us grow internally. Much of what we find stressful comes from external events and experiences that are difficult to control or change. We have more control over what we perceive as stressful, our responses to stress and our capacity to manage it internally.
What we consider stressful varies from day to day, moment to moment and person to person. On a day when you’re feeling centred and strong you may experience someone pulling in front of you in traffic or some constructive feedback from your boss as “just one of those things”. On another day, when your child is sick or you’ve just had an argument with your partner, you might find exactly the same event stressful, even overwhelming. Although events in themselves can be stressful, it’s our response to them that really determines what is stressful to us.
Stress responses are directed through the primitive or “lower” parts of the brain. These regions control and coordinate the body’s essential functions — breathing, digestion, elimination, heart rate, blood pressure and so forth. Information from your senses (sight, sound, body sensations and so on) travels through these regions first before travelling out to the “higher” or “thinking” parts of your brain responsible for conscious awareness.
In response to a strong stimulus such as a loud noise, flash of light, sudden movement or touching a hot surface, this primitive part of your brain reacts instantly to “save” you, often before you are fully conscious of the stress. In stress responses, such as the fright-flight pattern, your body tenses (to protect you and prepare you either to run away or fight), your heart rate and blood pressure rise and blood flow is shunted away from your digestive system and into your muscles and lungs. Different brain pathways are activated to make you pay attention to your environment and block off uncomfortable feelings.
Stresses that are unhealthy for us are the ones we aren’t able to cope with. Your body and brain can become stuck in stress patterns for hours, days or even years after the initial stress has passed. This can impact on various aspects of your health including digestive and immune function, brain and mental capacity, healing rates, blood pressure, muscular tension, weight gain and many others.
Because it’s the primitive parts of your brain that respond first to stressors in your environment, your body can be stressed without you being consciously aware of it. This type of response can lead someone who has never had a sick day in their life or who doesn’t perceive themselves as stressed to have a sudden heart attack at the age of 45. It’s not that their body wasn’t stressed; they just weren’t aware of it.
There are lots of different ways to relieve stress and grow your capacity to cope with stress. Take time out, get a massage, go for a walk in the park. Make time for activities that help you stop, give you time to “regroup” and bring you back to your centre. Try focusing all your attention on what you are doing in any particular moment (like making a cup of tea or cooking dinner). This brings you more into the present moment and stops the cascading effects of your collective thoughts and worries.
Exercising is an effective way to dissipate tension in your body. Any kind of moderate activity such as walking, swimming, jogging and other outdoor activities can help relieve stress as well as releasing natural feel-good endorphins. Meditation is a perfect way to restore balance to the body and help to quieten a busy, sometimes racing mind. The various different types of yoga practices can also help to release tension and stresses from the body.
As well as relieving stress, you can also grow your capacity to cope with stress by helping your body and brain come out of old stress response patterns. Seeing a chiropractor, acupuncturist, energy healer or massage therapist and other practitioners who focus on the nervous system is important in helping to release stored stresses and give your body new capacities to deal with future stress.
Stresses are a part of life and many of them are good for us. We also experience many external situations we can’t control or predict. Rather than spending your energy resisting them, placing your attention on those things that help you to be more centred and on growing your capacity to cope with stress can make your life much more enjoyable.
Travis Wild is a chiropractor and Kelly Davidson has a background in writing, literature studies and IT. Together they run Natural Wisdom, a practice in Sydney, and Wellness Practices, Australia’s largest producer of chiropractic patient education materials. Website: www.naturalwisdom.com.au, tel: (02) 9331 0400.