What is Stress and Why is it so Damaging?
Stress is a physical, emotional, or mental tension created by internal or external pressure or adversity.
When we are in a dangerous situation, the feelings of stress can save our lives by prompting us to take needed action for our safety. The stress response evolved during our evolution, resulting in a response known as ‘fight or flight’ in which the body produces chemicals such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, which decrease blood-flow from internal organs, including areas of the brain where critical thinking happens, and diverting it to muscles so you can get away from danger.
Unfortunately, the evolution of the stress response often works against us by causing an overabundance of stress hormones when we really do not need them, resulting in the symptoms of chronic stress, including:
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Mood swings and depression
- Irritability and problems managing anger
- Reduced concentration
- On-going anxiety
- Eating disorders
- Drug and alcohol abuse
When the stress response becomes a chronic condition, a feedback loop develops between a structure in the brain called the amygdala, which controls the emotions of anger and fear, and the cortex, where thinking takes place. The over-active amygdala sends signals of fear, and then the cortex responds by focusing thoughts on those fearful feelings, further reinforcing signals from the amygdala.
You can stop this vicious cycle, and the solution resides within you.
Proven Methods for Reducing Stress
Mindfulness is a concept developed in Buddhism, but it is now embraced by many practitioners in the modern fields of psychology and personal development and has become a secular method for improving life by reducing stress and increasing relaxation and feelings of happiness.
Mindfulness consists of repeatedly and consistently bringing one’s attention back to the present moment and taking attention away from anxiety provoking thoughts and emotions. This simple practice breaks the cycle of fear between the amygdala and cortex. The practice of meditation is a primary method for increasing mindfulness in daily life.
In order to improve mindfulness through meditation, the first step is taking action by setting aside a 30 minute period each day for meditating and relaxing.
If your life is filled with stress, you may not think you have such a time, so you must simply make time in your schedule for meditation. By doing this, you will reduce your stress levels and actually create more time for creatively dealing with the activities and problems in your life.
Choose a quiet time and location for your meditation each day. Sit in a comfortable position. Sitting cross-legged is not necessary. You can sit in a comfortable chair, on the couch, or even lie down, as long as doing so does not prompt you to fall asleep.
Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Simply observe yourself breathing slowly in and out, letting the outward breath take about twice as long as the in-breath. Place your hand on your stomach and make sure your breathing causes your belly to rise and fall with each breath. Concentrating the breath in your abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve, which also produces a calming effect on the body.
Your mind will wander, and unpleasant and anxious thoughts will undoubtedly arise. This is not only okay, it is the very essence of learning to meditate. The practice consists of noticing that your mind has wandered, and then immediately bringing your attention back to your breath and relaxing your body as you do so. Be patient and compassionate toward yourself and don’t give up.
If you find yourself being judgmental about how you are meditating, perhaps telling yourself, “I am not doing it right!”, simply use this as part of the meditation by noticing the judgmental thought and then letting go of it and returning your attention and focus to your breath.
Many people find it helpful to listen to meditative music or binaural beats while they engage in mindfulness practice. These healing sounds often assist in achieving helpful brainwave states associated with relaxation and focus on the present.
As you begin to meditate regularly, you will create space in your mind for new ideas, creative thinking, and feelings of happiness and pleasure by being in the present moment and learning to stop negative and damaging cycles of thought and emotion.
Other Important Points for Reducing Stress
As you begin taking action to reduce stress in your life, it is also important to examine your daily routines and habits and eliminate things which add unnecessarily to feeling stressed-out.
For some people, there may be relationships which exacerbate stress, and if possible, taking a break from these relationships may be an important part of breaking the cycle of stress.
Getting adequate amounts of sleep, regularly eating healthy foods, staying well-hydrated, and exercising a few times a week are also enormously helpful in reducing stress and improving your ability to relax and feel happy.
If all this sounds like it will take too much time and only add to your stress levels, remember that once you have broken the cycle of stress, you will have much more energy, focus, and stamina for dealing with the ups and downs of life.
By taking time for yourself to heal from stress, you actually create energy and enthusiasm for dealing with life’s problems.