Stress: Why it’s Killing You and How to Avoid It

December 17th, 2008

Most of us are wishing for more hours in the day, the holiday season is here, and our economy is a mess. Needless to say, there is stress is everywhere! Everyone knows that too much stress is bad for your health, but few people know why and even fewer realize how much stress they’re really under.

Fight or Flight

At all times, you’re physiologically in one of two states. You’re either on alert, or you’re relaxed. As dictated by your nervous system, it’s either one or the other, and never both at the same time. Although you may not realize it, being on alert is actually the “fight or flight” response that we all learned about in Biology class. This response comes at a physical cost to your body through breakdown of tissue, muscle, and bone, and the shutting down of important functions such as digestion, repair, and immune response.

Basically, being on alert is an emergency mode. Your body reacts to the emergency stimulus by giving you the alertness and energy to deal with it, and in the process, shuts down any function that doesn’t support this purpose. For example, digesting the food in your stomach is not going to get you out of danger, but accelerating your heart rate and releasing adrenaline just might!

Throughout our evolution, this response has enabled us to be aggressive hunters and to quickly escape life threatening situations. If it weren’t for this stress response, we probably wouldn’t be here today. If you’re wondering what this has to do with you and your stress, then you probably don’t understand how easy it is to invoke this fight or flight response. All it takes is a negative thought. Even a seemingly simple and harmless thought that gets you a bit worried or agitated will physiologically put you in fight or flight mode like the flip of a light switch.

The Effects of Our Fast Lifestyles

Many people spend their entire day being worried, rushed, or frustrated. To your body, this is like spending an entire day fleeing from a hungry tiger. By repeating this hour after hour and day after day, many of the vital functions that are essential for good health are being shut down for extended periods. This is why people who are chronically stressed end up with poor health.

At the center of the fight or flight response is your adrenal glands. They secrete the hormones that put you at high alert and prepare you to take action. They are tiny glands on the top of your kidneys and are not built to handle the relentless and persistent stress of modern society. Like any other part of your body, they can only take so much abuse before they struggle to keep up with demand. You’ll know it when this happens because you’ll feel run down all the time and will start developing symptoms of poor health.

To prevent this from happening, or from becoming worse if it’s already happening, here are some practical ways to avoid stress.

Eliminate Sources of Stress

Obviously, the best way to avoid a particular source stress is to identify it’s cause and eliminate it. Because this is sometimes impossible, it becomes important to evaluate all your sources of stress and eliminate the ones you can.

One of the common mistakes people make when doing this is to leave out the good stress. While activities like exercising, playing a sport, or even playing a challenging board game may not seem like a source of stress to you, they still invoke the fight or flight response and all of it’s physiological effects. Fun or frustrating, at the end of the day, it all adds up to one physiological burden that your body will need to recover from.

Once you have a good understanding of the scope of your stress, your goal should be to eliminate any sources that aren’t proving to be worth while. This especially includes troublesome friends and acquaintances that are dragging you down. Start off by eliminating one or two of the bigger sources and gradually continue to eliminate from there. Trying to eliminate too many sources at once will probably add more stress than it removes.

Police Your Thoughts

As I said in the beginning of the article, all it takes is a thought to invoke a physical stress response. One thought leads to another, and before you know it, you’re an exhausted ball of stress. You can avoid this downward spiral by paying closer attention to your thoughts. When you catch a negative one, analyze it. The first thing to ask yourself is if you’re being rational.

Maybe you’re worried about losing your job. Do you really have reason for concern, or are you just getting yourself worked up for no reason? If you’re worry is rational, the next step is to re-frame your worry into a positive thought. Perhaps you don’t really like your job anyway and would be happier doing something else. No matter how difficult it may seem, it’s always possible to find some good in a bad situation. Be persistent and it will pay off.

Take a Deep Breath

Deep and slow breathing stimulates relaxation and shuts off the stress response. To enjoy this benefit, slowly take in a deep breath making sure to expand your midsection before your chest, hold it for a few seconds, and then slowly release it. The slower the better, but don’t breathe so slowly that it feels unnatural. keep repeating the pattern until you feel calm and relaxed.

Clear Your Mind

Even if you’re good at policing your negative thoughts and re-framing them into positive ones, it’s still stressful if you have to do it all the time. To avoid this, try to make a regular habit of one or more mind clearing practices that will get rid of all the noise in your head.

One of the most effective methods is mediation and it doesn’t have to be elaborate. You can simply sit back in a comfortable chair with your eyes closed and distract yourself by focusing on a calming thought while doing your best to dismiss any worries that enter your mind.

If you prefer something a little more active, practices such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong will help clear your mind through movement that is physically beneficial as well.

Another option is listening to soothing music. However, it should be the type of music that you’d hear in a spa and not anything with a beat or baseline. That would make it stimulating and defeat the purpose of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Laugh

Have you ever been in a bad mood or felt overwhelmed by stress while you were laughing? I didn’t think so! There’s no denying the fact that a good joke or a cheerful gesture can bring you from a frown to a smile in an instant. We’re naturally wired this way, so take advantage of it! It’s a sad fact that babies laugh and smile far more often than adults do, and this is not due to a loss of ability, it’s a result of being too wrapped up in our day to day worries.

Adults are just as capable of laughing as babies are, so loosen up a bit, re-learn to appreciate the simple things, and enjoy the feeling of your stress fading away. The more you surround yourself with people who are happy, cheerful, and supportive, the easier this will be, and the happier and more stress free you’ll be as a result.

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