There are three guarantees in life, death, taxes, and stress. I can’t help you much with the first two but I can definitely help you out with the last one.
Every day we’re presented with a variety of stressors. Some we already know how to deal with while others we don’t. Some take more of a toll on us while others are much easier to brush off. Regardless, the way that we deal with stress in our lives is a learned behavior. If you already have some great coping strategies for stress established than you’re ahead of the game. If not, that’s ok – it’s not to late to unlearn some of the automatic responses you may have to stress such as:
- Drinking alcohol
Today is all about discovering a system to cope with stress that will work for you. So if you’re feeling a little stressed out – keep reading.
WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress has become a way of life; work, relationships, bills, the list goes on and on. Our bodies first developed stress as a response to danger; it was a way to protect us. Early humans used stress as a way to react to predators, it helped them survive. Today, it’s rare to be chased by a saber-tooth tiger, or have the war tribe from the next village attack you; but stress has become a very real, very unhealthy, and very dangerous part of our everyday life.
When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your adrenal glands to immediately release hormones to prepare your body to deal with the situation; typically, this is known as the “fight or flight” response. Depending on how you are wired, when stressed, you may run for your life or dig in and GET IT ON!; the response is often innate and beyond your conscience control.
The adrenals are glands that are situated near the kidney. These glands produce adrenaline and cortisol, the two main stress hormones. According to the Mayo Clinic, adrenaline increases your heart rate and blood pressure and gives you an extra boost of energy.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone. When the body feels stress, either physical or emotional, cortisol is secreted out of the adrenal glands and into the blood stream, again preparing the body to deal with a stressful encounter. The release of cortisol has a number of effects on your body, including:
- Increasing the glucose in the blood stream
- Increasing the amount of glucose available to the brain
- Providing more substance to the body in case repair is necessary.
In addition to preparing the body for conflict, cortisol also slows a number of bodily functions not immediately required to address the conflict. These functions include: suppressing your reproductive, digestive, and immune systems; cortisol also slows the growth process and sends messages to the area of the brain controlling mood and fear.
Typically the reaction to stress is short-term. Stemming from the prehistoric days, once danger had passed, the body returned to normal. However, today’s stress is different; often it is not a quick response to a short-term issue. For example, you rarely wake up and have to run away from immediate danger; and if you do, you have bigger issues than being stressed-out! Today’s stress is usually more passive and long-lasting; resulting in serious health issues, including heart disease, mood disorders, pre-mature aging, depression and obesity.
When you experience a lot of stress, your body goes into survival mode. It does what any good respecting “body” does – it protects you whether you want it to or not. It’s your real-life bodyguard. You don’t have to say anything – your bodyguard just jumps in and punches danger in the face.
How does your body react to ALL types of stress?
- Increased alertness, anxiety, and caution. Those are all great qualities of a good protector, guardian, or bodyguard.
- Constriction of blood vessels and increased blood flow to your muscles – legs, arms, etc. Your body is preparing for war or to run like hell!
- Temporary shift in metabolism. This is like fueling up your car before a road trip. Your body is loading up with energy to fight the battle or run away from danger.
- Dump cortisol into your blood stream. What the heck does cortisol have to do with protection? It’s a vital hormone used to move fat to your body’s ideal area to be burned for fuel. Again, your body (guardian) is ready to go to war on your behalf.
- Triggers the craving to eat in order to provide as much energy possible for fight or flight. Your body can’t tell the difference from extreme stress caused by work or life threatening stress.
- Creates a craving for high-calorie, energy dense foods (sugar) to quickly convert into energy to your muscle in preparation of fleeing or going to battle.
Stress can affect your sympathetic nervous system as well as your parasympathetic nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system can get stressed by bills, poor relationships, traffic, job, the kids. It can also affect your parasympathetic system which make it hard to sleep, rest, recover, and digest food.
NOT ALL STRESS IS CREATED EQUAL
There are actually two types of stress, Eustress or the good type of stress and for lack of a better term, Stress Stress or the bad type of stress.
Eustress (Good stress): Is that anxiety you feel when you are doing something you really care about and is aligned with your true virtues in life. Often expressed and felt as butterflies in the stomach, goose-bumps, sometimes tears. You tend to feel eustress when you’re out of your comfort zone. This type of stress helps you to grow and become better.
Stress stress (The bad stress): Bad stress is often felt as pain. Now the word pain might automatically bring about thoughts of something you don’t want but this is how stress gets the best of you. If that S.O.B stress is able to convince you that this pain is something bad than it will win. It’s easy to become depressed, anxious, and paralyzed.
However, if you can flip it and realize that pain is only a sign that we need to change something whether it be our diet, job, relationships, or even thoughts than you win.
The tricky thing with stress is that we need a little bit of both to get us going.
Too little stress and we’re unmotivated, bored, and stagnant. Nothing gets done because there’s not push or no real reason to get anything done.
Too much stress and we’re too anxious, scared, and confused about what to do next
But right in the middle is the sweet spot or what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (good luck with that one) calls flow. Flow is that moment when you are totally absorbed in what you are doing that you forget about yourself. What you are doing seems effortless and natural. You’ll often heat athletes say they’re not sure how they performed so well, “I was just in the zone.” Musicians often get there and you might here them say, “I couldn’t even hear the crowd, almost like they weren’t even there.”
Some other ways to describe Flow:
- lose yourself
- feeling it
- zone out
It almost sounds like a state of unconsciousness. But in reality it is a heightened state of consciousness where your awareness is a such a heightened state that it feels like you are completely on another level.
ENDING THE STRESS CYCLE AND FINDING MORE FLOW
The formula for beating stress is very similar to the way that you’re learning to build healthier eating and exercise habits.
- Choose one small action that will make a difference
- Practice that action over time so that it becomes a habit
- Make it a routine
Easy enough right?
So here is where you can take some action. Over the next day to two days I’d like you to write down everything that occurs in your day that could possibly stress you out. It could be physical stress, mental stress, emotional stress, or some other type of stress.
- Boss rips you at work
- Your low back has been bothering you
- You and your significant other are arguing about finances
- The kids got you all kinds of crazy
- You’ve got a family even coming up and are trying to prepare for it
- Frustrated you’re not getting stronger
- Upset about your body not changing as fast as you’d like
- Nervous about a medical exam
- School exams coming up
Feel free to take look back at your previous two days or start making this list fresh tomorrow. This is a great way to create some awareness about what’s got you pulling your hair out.
Now pick one thing you can practice every day to help you relieve some of that stress. Now let me repeat that. You’re going to need to create a distressing habit so pick ONE thing that you can do EVERY DAY that helps relieve stress.
Meditate: You don’t need to sit Indian style, close your eyes, and breath deeply to enjoy the benefits of meditation. All though sitting alone in a cool darkened room can definitely help de-stress; it can also be very difficult to master at first. If you try this approach simply start by trying to sit quietly for 5 minutes with your eyes closed. Let you mind wander. Try this every day for a week. After the week is up add 5 more minutes to your meditation. Work your way up to 30-40 minutes. If this is to difficult at first try going on a walk and focusing on life around you.
Pass on the coffee: Try tea instead. Coffee raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Switch over to a green tea, chamomile, or any other herbal tea with low levels of caffeine.
Get a massage: Do I really need to explain how awesome this is? If you are weird about someone putting their hands on you try self massage. Use a foam roller if needed.
Music break: Put on some headphones and zone out for a bit. Try and do this while on a light walk. Music has an innate quality about it that really speaks to the soul. If you’re up for it, go up on your roof and lay down. Try this at night while staring at the stars. Put on your Superman cape just in case you fall off.
Show up early: If you are headed into work or have an appointment to get to try to show up 10 minutes early. This will let allow you time to settle in before you have to get crack’n.
Single task: For a week or so just get ride of your to do list. It probably looks more like a grocery list anyhow. Write down 1 important thing you want to get done for the day and just do that.
Try something new: Go have some FUN! Try something you have never done before. Go on a date at a new restaurant. Just go have some frickin fun would ya!
Or how about some of these ideas?
- Reading a good book
- Hot bath and some good music
- Sitting on your rooftop in silence watching the sunset (this is mine)
- Sitting in the sauna
- Hitting a punching bag
- Taking the dogs for a walk
- Drinking a glass of wine (just one)
- Simple breathing techniques
Now set time aside to practice this everyday. I would even go as far as setting a reminder on your phone for when it’s destress time.
Don’t give me that, “I don’t have time excuse.” We hall have time for the things that we make a priority. Even if your distressing practice is only 5 minutes a day – just start with that and build up as you go. Remember, consistency first over intensity.
Personally, I like to take 5 minutes in the morning, 5 minutes in the afternoon to break up my work day, and 5 minutes at night.
You’re not going to be stress free over night but creating a distressing ritual and consistently practicing it will help you beat stress over time.
Note: Managing stress is a very important aspect of living a healthier lifestyle. I really hope that you take the information in today’s article and apply it to your life. What is one small step – just one thing you can do to help manage your stress a little better. Even if it’s just 1 minute of meditation each day. Something is better than nothing.
WHAT YOU CAN DO NEXT
1. Using some of the examples above, what is one thing you can start doing today to help manage your stress better. Schedule in 5 minutes every day to practice that technique.
2. Managing stress takes practice and consistency. Build the “destressing habit” by setting aside time each day to practice.
3. Need help? Just comment blow and lets chat it out
4. Check out my homeboy Charlie’s book, Play It Away: A Workaholics Guide To Anxiety
Photo credit: Gudbjorn Valgeirsson