It is estimated that between 75–90 percent of all doctor's office visits today are due to stress related conditions with ailments ranging from psychological complaints, such as anger, depression, reduced memory and lack of impulse control, to tangible physical ailments, including digestive issues, increased blood pressure and heart rate, risk of heart attack, diabetes. And let’s not forget, accelerated aging.
Stress is triggered by the ‘sympathetic nervous system’, a part of our central nervous system, with its main hormone, adrenaline, being responsible for your body’s ‘fight/flight’ response. This response is vital for situation when we have to react fast (like hitting the breaks because another driver has overlooked their red light). It is intended to surge quickly and return to the ‘rest/digest” state shortly after, the condition our bodies are meant to be in most of the time.
But today’s contributors to our increased stress level are most often not due to true crisis or physical threats but rather the stress that we create in our minds. And with the brain not being able to differentiate between reality and worrying thoughts about the future (or the past), your body will remain on high alert, constantly pumping out adrenaline.
How perception changes everything
This really begs the question, do each of us have influence over how we perceive stress and therefore impact the effects on our body? And the science says yes! The National Institute of Health writes that the relationship between psycho-social stressors and disease is affected, among other things, by a learned patterns of coping. Just consider the example of having a very tight deadline to write a presentation for a meeting with your boss’ boss. Some people thrive on such challenge, while others become anxious and have a hard time focusing on the task at hand as they feel overwhelmed with the thought of not being able to succeed.
If being stressed is a lot about how we perceive situations, can we actively control how we react? The good news is, yes, we can. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a hands-on, practical approach that refers to the process of changing your thoughts to more rational and self-supportive ones. The underlying assumption in CBT is that it’s not our circumstances per se that cause emotional suffering, but it’s how we interpret those situations. And according to Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University this continued mental training allows for new synapses in your brain to sprout and old ones to be trimmed.
There are some solid techniques that can help you in this process. Applying these often will certainly accelerate your success in breaking old habits and feeling the benefits of your training.
Techniques to practice
1. Proactively determine stressors: Being vigilant about what situations tend to prompt stress in your life, may allow you to decipher why such situations make you feel uncomfortable. Awareness can not only reduce the magnitude of the emotion associated with it (after all you knew it was coming), but will also allow you to reframe the situation in a more positive way.
2. Self-talk: As mentioned above, recognize that you have a choice of seeing the glass half empty or half full. Saying to yourself “I can’t do this” when faced with a challenging situation may feel too generic and therefore still create uneasiness. Rather aim to phrase things in a positive way, for example “I have not done this before, but I’m confident in my ability to learn and feel excited about the prospect of expanding my horizon”.
3. Diaphragmatic breathing: When you watch babies breathe, their bellies rise and fall, however stressed adults tend to just use their upper chest. Such belly breathing activates the ‘rest & digest’ response and is done by inhaling first into your belly (belly rises) and then filling up the lungs, which pushes your diaphragm (muscular partition right under your rib cage) down triggering this restful state. Focus on long, slow exhales. When a stressful situation arises, stop and take 2 minutes to do this, and you’ll respond in a much calmer way. You can even do this while driving (just keep your eyes open!)
4. Take a break and physically relax: Deliberately relaxing the body is an excellent remedy to the stress response so taking a 15 minutes break can be the answer to a clearer head. Maybe it’s a walk around the park. Studies show that ‘forest bathing’ lowers you heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces the stress hormones in your body. Maybe you take off your suit jacket and roll out the yoga mat in the office or you listen to some calming music while watching the world outside go by.
Implementing some of these techniques can be the needed change that will transform your view of a stressful world to one that is filled with opportunities and circumstances that are simply not worth worrying about.
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