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Stress 101


Stress is natural; it is how the body handles those not-so-great conditions life throws our way. It’s also a protective mechanism designed to keep us safe, which means that occasional stress is okay. In fact, many people flourish with a low level of stress—a looming deadline may intensify focus, the knowledge that a supervisor is nearby may lead to increased diligence, and the uncertainty of getting into a good college can surely inspire improved study habits. But when stress persists over an extended period of time and exceeds a manageable level, it’s time to take a step back and check in with the body.

THE FACTS


We face stressors—situations that arouse a stress response in the body—every day. While intellectually we can distinguish between small stressors and large ones, the body often cannot. This means that even if the stressor is just a minor argument with your significant other, the body triggers a response capable of helping you run from a hungry lion! Clearly, this is not a fine-tuned reaction. Even lots of little stressors, such as a long commute or a busy day at work, can result in living in a constant state of emergency. The body was not designed to live like this! So over time, this stress can lead to chronic conditions of the heart, lungs, digestive system, nervous system, immune system, and skeletomuscular system.

THE SENSATIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SYMPTOMS


Stress is typically characterized by feeling overwhelmed, worried, anxious, and run-down. Mentally, excessive or chronic stress impacts the ability to concentrate, make decisions, and think critically. Over time, excessive stress can affect your appetite (increase or decrease), sleep, mood, and health (stress compromises the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness). Other possible feelings associated with stress include physical pain, sadness, anger, fear, brain fog, and restlessness.

High levels of stress are associated with conditions like insomnia, anxiety, and depression, and certain diseases related to the cardiovascular, digestive, immune, and nervous systems.

WHAT IS HAPPENING?


Stress is the body’s internal response to external stimuli. When we come into contact with a stressor, the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system kicks into gear, triggering a series of chemical reactions in the body—blood pressure and heart rate elevate, the digestive system slows, and breath becomes shallow and fast. When the external stressor is no longer a threat, the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system takes over to return the body to a more balanced state of equilibrium (homeostasis).


The relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is an amazing series of checks and balances, but excessive stress can throw off this delicate balance. When too many external stressors force the body to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the sympathetic nervous system (and therefore not reverting back to the parasympathetic nervous system/homeostasis), chronic issues can result, including high blood pressure, digestive and respiratory disorders, poor posture, and more.

WHY IS IT HAPPENING?


The body triggers stress in direct response to a stressor. Stressors come in many forms, including physical (injury, ailment, poor diet), situational (upcoming test or evaluation), financial (budgeting, unexpected spending need), social (meeting new people, relationship trouble), or environmental (cluttered house, excess noise). Everyone has a different relationship with the various stressors in their lives. Though many stressors may be out of your control, the way you respond is up to you. Also, the speed with which you recover from a stressful situation can be systematically increased with practice.

LIFESTYLE ADJUSTMENTS


1. Breathe. To mitigate the body’s stress response, take slow, deep breaths. Conscious breathing stimulates the vagus nerve to induce a relaxation response in the body (a.k.a. the parasympathetic nervous system). Try a relaxation breath: inhale for 2 counts, hold for 2 counts, exhale for 2 counts, hold for 2 counts.

2. Eat well. Stressors come in all forms; even a poor diet can cause stress. To stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system (induce feelings of calm) and fulfill your dietary needs, stick to a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals from whole foods. Limit intake of coffee and alcohol, and avoid cigarettes to keep the sympathetic nervous system at bay.

3. Journal. When you’re feeling stressed, make a note of the situation and how your body is reacting (sweating, shallow breathing, racing heart, etc.). At the end of a week or so, see if you can identify any stress patterns. Once you discover them, you can better predict, prevent, and cope with the stressors in your life.

PREVENT IT


1. Ground the Feet.

Ground the Feet by creating equal pressure on the left and right feet. Then, push through the soles of the feet and pull the toe stems long. Feel the earth supporting you. The feet are the basis for support of the entire body. When we are not grounded, stress can easily escalate and turn into anxiety. Grounding the feet instills a sense of presence and the perspective to better address daily stressors.

2. Mobilize the Ribs.

Place hands on either side of the ribcage with fingers facing each other and thumbs wrapping around the back body. Inhale; expand the ribs east and west toward the palms. Notice how the fingers move away from each other. Exhale; contract the ribs toward center. Notice how the fingers move toward each other. The breath is directly related to the nervous system. When you deepen and slow down your breath, you trigger a rest and digest response in the nervous system, which minimizes the body’s response to the stressor.

3. Release the Jaw.

Contract the jaw (clench). Now, release this tension. When we experience stress, many of us inadvertently clench our jaw, which, over time, is harmful to muscles, bones, teeth, and gums. Releasing the jaw reduces the potentially harmful effects of excessive stress on the mouth. Additionally, releasing tension in high-tension areas like the jaw often triggers a release of tension in other parts of the body.

FIX IT

Set aside time to practice structured rest. Whether you sit in a quiet place or attend a restorative yoga class, be as consistent as possible. Rest directly counteracts the body’s reaction to stressors by inducing the relaxation response. This response releases muscular tension and calms physical and mental “nerves” to decrease the body’s reactivity to stressors. With regular practice, the body’s reaction to stressors will decrease in frequency and severity.


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