These days stress doesn't come typically come from life-threatening situations; instead you feel stressed when your baby is crying but you have work to do and your phone is ringing. You want to exercise, but you have a project due, and your husband wants to go out. Stress occurs when you have too much to do, and too little time to do it. Or when you have a problem and you can't figure out a solution or feel powerless to fix it. These days, a lot of stress takes place in our head — worry — rather than in a physical situation, such as danger.
Your body best handles short-term stress, but society delivers the long-term type, where adrenaline forces more blood through your vessels without giving your heart the strength to deal with it. This, in turn, raises your risk of stroke and heart disease. In response, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which stores fatty acids in the form of adipose tissue around your belly.
Stress is a cycle of mental and then physical problems, which, in turn, lead to another concern or worry. Learning how to effectively manage stress will help you sleep better, remain fitter and healthier, and give you more tools to handle the inevitable struggles inherent in work and relationships.
Your worries are real, but your response to those concerns can make things worse. You need to find effective ways to manage your life so that your stress doesn't get out of hand and begin to take over the rest of your life, such as time with your family, sleep time, your job, or workout time.
You don't feel stress when you're at the office or taking care of your child because your mind is absorbed by a task. Instead, we worry about things when we should be sleeping and when, in the middle of the night, we really can't do much about whatever the problem is, be it bills or relationship fears. Or the stress stops you from being present at work or with your child because it's so overwhelming that you can't stop thinking about it.
Exercise is, of course, a great stress reducer. When your body functions at a high level, your brain is more likely to be able to think of creative solutions to your problems as well as be able to stay calm even if you're concerned about something. The important thing to remember is that stress and stressful feelings, such as worry, obsessive thinking, or crying, also don't solve problems. Your problem is real, and reducing stress doesn't mean ignoring what's on your mind — but it does mean learning to keep your mind and body calm when you have a concern.
Slow Down Your Breath
When stress gets a hold of your mind and your body, you probably start to take shallower breaths. So, if you can, consciously try to slow down your breathing, focusing on lengthening your inhales and exhales and bringing the oxygen down deep into your body. This breathing technique will reduce your heart rate as well as soothe the natural stress response of your body.
Take a Walk or Do Something Repetitive
Very often when we're stressed, we think obsessively about what's worrying us, such as bills or a relationship. However, as mentioned previously, this obsessive thought is not only disturbing, it's not useful, and rarely helps us find a solution to our problem.
Crosswords, word-search puzzles, Sudoku, and other puzzles are all good ways to occupy your mind without stressing it. These activities will keep your brain fit, too. Just try to find puzzles that match your skill level. Puzzles that are too difficult will add stress, not reduce it!
Instead of worrying endlessly, take a walk, enjoy a shower, or do something repetitive, such as knitting or crocheting. Keeping part of your brain occupied with a repetitive action actually frees up the creative side of your brain to solve problems. This is why we often have great ideas when we are in the shower or not thinking about something in particular.
Do a Mind-body Routine
Yoga, Pilates, stretching, and other mind-body exercises relax the mind as well as the body by helping link movement to the breath, which, in turn, stops the physical response to stress. If you find yourself worried about something, try doing some yoga (revisit Chapter 10 for a refresher) or taking a few minutes to stretch, even if it's in the middle of the night. This gentle level of activity can burn off the physical tension, relax your muscles, and, at the same time, keep your worrying brain from obsessing about a concern for too long.
Although TV can keep you up when you should be sleeping, laughing at a TV show or movie can do a lot to physically and mentally refocus your mind away from stress. If you do watch TV at night when you can't sleep, try something funny or mindless, as opposed to a documentary or a serious movie.
Remember, stress reduction doesn't mean that your worries aren't real, or that you are ignoring your problems. It only means that you are finding useful solutions to your problems while reducing the impact stress has on your body and spirit.