Whether you’re trapped in the nightmare of your daily commute or discovered that someone used the last bit of milk without buying more (bastards!), stress will track you down like a vulture sniffing out a fresh carcass.
Vultures are undeniably rad, but stress? Not so much.
What happens when you’re stressed
When you encounter a perceived threat, your sympathetic nervous system triggers physiological changes that prepare your body to react. Known as the “fight or flight response,” these changes include dilated pupils, increased heartbeat & respiratory rates, increased blood pressure, increased blood glucose levels, and sweating. It also shunts blood from the skin and digestive organs to your heart, brain, and skeletal muscles, where it will be used to help you flee as rapidly as possible, or engage in combat if escape isn’t an option.
This system helped our ancestors identify & react to a potential threat as quickly as possible, thereby enhancing their survival. And we can imagine that being hyper-aware of threats during that time was an advantage.
Over- vs. under-estimating risk
When evaluating a potential threat, it was better for your body to overestimate risk, react to it & be wrong (thought it was a cat, but just a squirrel making that racket in the shrubs) than it was to underestimate risk, fail to react & be wrong (thought it was a squirrel, but turned out to be a saber-toothed cat).
Our bodies still employ this well-honed system, but in some individuals, speaking at a meeting, interacting with friends, or even a memory can launch the hormonal cascade that leaves us ready to run. Indeed, these symptoms characterize anxiety disorders, which are the most common mental health issue in the general population.
Even if you don’t struggle with a diagnosable disorder, stress can still add up & lead to harmful physical side effects, including chronic musculoskeletal pain, headaches, reproductive disorders, gastrointestinal distress, and many others. Stress is also linked to poor sleep (here’s my shocked face!), and poor sleep itself may increase risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes & obesity.
One of the most popular ways to manage stress is through mindfulness meditation. It claims to help you regain focus and control, and creates discipline around handling relentless thoughts and impulses.
But does meditation work for everyone?
Though meditation has potential benefits relative to stress reduction, the science is still young and isn’t fully certain how, why, and to what extent it works. And unfortunately, its potential negative side effects are often overlooked.
As is the case with any activity, meditation is not without risk. While the idea of becoming more aware and accepting of your thoughts can seem hopeful, the reality of sitting alone with those thoughts can be challenging — particularly if it exposes powerful emotions that you may not be equipped to process.
Indeed, adverse affects on mental health processes are the most frequent negative consequences of meditation — especially in individuals with a history of trauma or diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In these cases, a trained professional should be present during meditation to help them recognize and respond if their symptoms arise so that they can process them in a safe environment.
The existence of negative side effects doesn’t mean that meditation should be wholly discouraged. Rather, just as with any undertaking, it should be implemented and explored with caution, as it isn’t necessarily right for everyone.
If you aren’t comfortable with meditation or not yet prepared for it — or even if you love it & just want some extra tools in your tool belt — here are 5 additional yet simple ways to reduce stress.
1. Combat Breathing
Also called “tactical breathing,” combat breathing is a tool used by police, military & other rescue personnel to regain control of their breathing — and by extension their bodies — during critical situations.
Similar tactics also have been used in yoga, pilates, and martial arts to create a sense of calm and control. It is also a strategy encouraged by some practitioners to alleviate anxiety.
Here’s how it works:
- Inhale deeply through your nose to the count of 4, visualizing the numbers as you count.
- Hold that breath in for a count of 4, again visualizing the numbers as you count.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth to the count of 4, visualizing the numbers again.
- Repeat this process for 3 to 5 cycles, or more if needed to regain your composure.
The most advantageous part of combat breathing is that it requires no special skills, equipment, or location. You can practice is anytime or anywhere you’re feeling a heightened sense of stress & need to bring yourself back to baseline.
Next time you’re sitting in traffic, cursing the long wait & finding yourself increasingly angered, give it a try.
2. Reframe your thoughts
Life isn’t just that happens to us — it’s how we perceive it.
And our perceptions shape the stories that we tell ourselves about our lives & the world around us.
Unfortunately, those stories can interfere with our ability to be productive — or to act at all. Yet reframing that stress, and restructuring the way we view it, can put us back on track.
When you’re feeling stressed, chances are your go-to strategy involves forcing yourself to be calm. But associate professor Alison Wood Brooks from the Harvard Business School found that individuals who were able to reappraise their anxiety as excitement for stressful tasks, such as public speaking, actually performed better than those who had tried to mask their anxiety with a forced sense of calm.
Similarly, Kelly McGonigal from Stanford University found that embracing stress rather than running from it was essential to becoming stronger. Though we often view stress as harmful, she argues that connecting with it as an opportunity to learn & grow can help us cope more productively. In fact, research conducted by her colleague, Alia Crum, found that viewing stress as helpful rather than harmful positively impacts our physiological stress response, and as a result, has a more positive impact on our health.
3. Shift your self-talk
The manner in which we speak to ourselves is powerful, and if left unchecked, it can not only exacerbate a stressful situation, but create one unnecessarily.
The first step in addressing your self-talk is to notice when it’s happening. To do that, you might utilize the RAIN technique, developed by Dr. Tara Brach. In short, by allowing yourself to recognize & allow an experience to be there as it is, instead of working to repel or label it, you’re able to slow down & gain a better perspective on what you need. And importantly, how you can replace the self-defeating thoughts with a more compassionate response.
For example, you may find yourself stuck in traffic on the ride home, which (let’s face it) no one particularly enjoys. But instead of accepting it for what it is or using the opportunity to catch up on a favorite podcast, you barrel down the rabbithole of seething self-doubt. You knew you should have left earlier, you should have taken that other route, why do you always do this, why does shit like this always happen to you, WHY DO YOU ALWAYS MAKE SUCH TERRIBLE DECISIONS MY GOD YOU’RE SUCH A LOSER WHY WON’T THESE FUCKING CARS MOVE ALREADY!!??
Now, if you’re especially skilled at this negative self-talk business, you’ll finally make it home, only to bury your sorrows in a pint of ice cream & bag of chips because WHAT THE HELL MY LIFE IS A DISASTER SO WHO CARES ABOUT ANYTHING ANYMORE!
Uh, not that I’ve been there or anything….
It’s not always easy to catch ourselves early enough to take a step back & slow down, and some days you’ll be better at it than others. But making an effort to be more compassionate with yourself, especially in difficult moments, will help you avoid barreling down unnecessary rabbit holes.
4. Move your body
Physical activity is a known stress reliever, but you don’t need hours in the gym to feel the benefits. Researchers have shown that as little as 20 minutes of consistent low to moderate intensity activity can improve mood & boost energy levels. In fact, moderate exercise can produce mood-enhancing effects within the first 5 minutes.
Researchers also believe that exercise can help your body improve its response to stress. Exercise is a physical stressor, and your body produces many of the same reactions to physical activity that it does in times of emotional stress & anxiety, including increased heart rate, rapid breathing & sweating. By forcing your body’s central & sympathetic nervous systems to communicate regularly, they become more efficient at responding to stress, while a sedentary lifestyle leaves your body less efficient at dealing with stress.
This “exposure therapy” may be the true value of exercise relative to managing stress levels & coping effectively.
5. Get outdoors!
If you’re feeling stressed & overwhelmed, there’s nothing like the great outdoors to bring you back to center. In Japan, researchers studying shinrin-yoku (literally “forest bathing) found that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity & lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.
Time in nature also helps reduce rumination, which is the incessant replay of all that is wrong with ourselves & our lives. It is neither helpful nor healthy, and it is a known risk factor for mental illness. Further, walking in nature is also associated with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress & improved sense of well-being. In fact, people who had recently experienced stressful life events — such as the death of a loved one, marital separation or unemployment — reported an especially improved mood boost after outdoor group walks.
Finally, time in nature also provides an opportunity to refocus & reevaluate what’s most important to you. When you can escape your daily routine, if only for a short time, and examine life from a mountaintop or seaside, it offers a sense of clarity that is difficult to find in the midst of everyday life. That renewed perspective can help you reevaluate what you value most, and whether the current stress you’re experiencing is worth the toll it may be taking on your physical & mental health.
Stress is inevitable, but how you choose to handle it is not. It may take some time to adopt new, more beneficial methods to help you manage it, but they’re far more likely to make you stronger, healthier & happier in the long run.
Originally published at www.thereluctantenthusiast.com.
Originally published at medium.com