You may be aware that high levels of stress can increase your risk of a stroke and heart disease (including the likelihood of a heart attack), impact your memory, lower your immune system’s efficacy, lower bone density, and lead to exhaustion. But were you aware that chronic stress can also potentially damage our brain structure, accelerate growth of cancer cells, and cause unhealthy weight gain?
Some of the more common stressors that we experience in our day-to-day lives stem from work overload, tension with bosses or colleagues, unexpected medical expenses, unexpected illnesses, financial instability concerns, relationship and family problems, and worries about the state of our nation, among others. And everyone from mothers to doctors are experiencing very high levels of stress.
When chronic stress is unmanaged, the demands of life will leave our body in a never-ending state of heightened alarm and the effects of this can really take a toll on our mind, body, and spirit. With a constant barrage of stressors coming our way everyday it is no wonder that about 75–90% of doctor visits are for ailments or complaints related to stressand over 50% of emotional disorders are related to unmanaged, untreated chronic stress. Stress and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, negatively impacting 40 million people annually.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that stress is widespread and common enough to be “a worldwide epidemic” and if you live in an urban area, you are 62% likely to experience chronic stress that can damage your health.
In 2017, almost 80% of participants in a U.S. poll reported a significant and dramatic stress response at least once a month. The American Psychological Association reports that even a one-time, intense stressor, which has not been experienced before, can lead to a heart attack or other cardiovascular health problem if the person has been experiencing chronic stress for a prolonged period of time.
With all this guidance on the dangers of chronic stress it is incredibly important to learn tools to effectively manage it.
If we do not have the tools, or have not developed healthy habits, to manage chronic stress, we end up relying on unhealthy habits, including denying that there is a problem, stress eating, smoking, substance abuse, drinking, or isolating yourself. These habits unfortunately compound the problems associated with chronic stress.
A key goal to manage stress is to be proactive in creating periods of low-level to no stress. To do this, always return to the basics: eat healthy, hydrate, get sufficient sleep, exercise, and manage your thoughts. These help you create physical and mental stability during periods of high stress.
To assist you, here are some general guidelines you can follow to activate the relaxation response and that I have found to be very effective during intense work periods:
- Create space for an 8–10 minute relaxation response activating activity
- Sit in a comfortable position in your chair
- Relax your hands, arms, legs, all of your body
- Begin to focus on your breathing
- To create consistency of breath, inhale for 5 seconds and exhale for 5 seconds
- Become comfortable with the breathing pattern
- After a couple of minutes of breathing, relax your muscles, including your shoulders, neck and face muscles (if you have a clenched jaw also release that tension)
- If you get distracted by any thoughts tell yourself a phrase that creates serenity within and that communicates to your nervous system that you are safe (“I am serene” “I am at peace” “I am poised” “I am safe” “I sit in tranquility”)
- Continue the breathing pattern throughout the remaining 8–10 minute period
- When you finish, slowly begin to move your muscles and continue deep breathing with your eyes open for another 1–3 minutes
For a variation on this relaxation response activating activity, you can try this one:
As you will note, this brief exercise will help you slow down and bring you to the present moment.
More importantly, it will provide you with a clearer perspective in relation to any challenging situation that you may be facing. Note that you should aim to make this a practice during your workweek and the more you engage in it, the more powerful of a tool it will become to counter the stress response.
Wishing you good health.