Some points on observing emotions in the body and how you can begin to gain awareness around how they are affecting you physically.
Your thoughts become your beliefs
Tell me, what do you know about meditation?
Does it sound 'new age-y'? Or has it come into the main stream well enough for you to know meditation doesn't have to mean robe-donning, chanting, and so on...?
Have you tried it?
Tell me, did you close your eyes and 'nothing much happened'? ...Did you fall asleep? ...Did you find it hard to stay still?
In fairness, if you have tried to meditate and basically felt like you must be 'doing it wrong' or 'missing something', I'd wager a bet that you're not alone.
People quite often tell me that their first few meditation sessions didn't go how they thought they would. Some might have even sat there wondering what all the fuss is about! In fact, some may argue, why bother meditating at all if you end up feeling more confused about it all than when you started?!
What that tells me, is that this person has bought into the somewhat hyped-up idea that to meditate for the first time is to be instantly enlightened, and that if you do not discover the hidden truths or reach a higher plane, then you must be missing something. So maybe you put it into the 'too hard' basket and give up.
In reality, the sooner you let go of 'guru-level enlightenment' as a goal, the better. This idea has come from media sensationalism, envy-inducing and unrealistic social media posts, or, of course, celebrity hype. There is truth somewhere in those bold claims, which can be traced back to the original Hindus and Tibetan monks practicing yoga and meditation for many centuries, but in our Western, capitalist society, deeper spiritual meaning is quite often obscured by the shininess of the glitter that is the modern health craze. Don't get me wrong, the modern health craze is good, if somewhat skewed and confusing. Green smoothies and yoga have become mainstream. But that means that there are literally thousands of newbie yoga teachers around the world who walk and talk as though they've reached some state of nirvana from all the yoga and meditation they do, and that it is their job to impart its wisdom. This imparting of wisdom is generally nice and benign, but I believe it can mislead you, the modern public, about what meditation is, what it can do for you, and how to access it.
But I'm not here today to rabbit on about all of that, so I'll stop!
I simply want to point out what I see as misconceptions about meditation commonly held by the general public, perhaps including you, Ms or Mr Average Joe. My hope is that you see it for the amazing practice that it truly is, but that you see it with an ounce of realism and logic. If you have been put off in the past from trying it, I am hoping to clear away some of those myths so you might also see yourself giving it a try.
I teach meditation and yoga. I have skills to share, and an incredible amount of enthusiasm for yoga and meditation, because it can truly be life-changing.
As part of my offering in stress management, I want to share with as many people as possible, just how health-giving and stress-reducing these practices can be.
However, I do not intend to let others think I have become enlightened. I will not be a charlatan about it. I will not get woo-woo on you and try to convince you that I have some higher powers that you are missing out on. Because I think it will put you off making it a regular practice, and because I think it would unethical of me to do that.
My gut feeling is that the more you see it as something within your reach, the more chances there are that you'll try it. And because I know what an incredible difference it can make to your life, health and relationships, I would love to see more people bringing it into their daily lives!
So what has meditation done for me?
Regular, long term practice has definitely made me more grounded, more emotionally aware, more balanced, and more empathetic, among other things. It has improved my health, made me more alert and focussed, given me increased self-awareness and self-compassion, and helped me build and nurture my special relationships, and I absolutely love it.
I wish my daily meditation practice looked like this. But it doesn't.
This was taken in Bali on my yoga teacher training. It was posed and I was actually exhausted from the intensive (and enjoyable!) program we undertook. It was a beautiful setting, but I haven't made it back there, and I'm not sure when I will. Wish I could say my life looked like this every day, but I would be misleading you.
I live in a cramped 1 bedroom flat in a basement in a very expensive city. Usually, I do yoga and meditate in one of the only spaces we have available - the square metre or so at the foot of the bed, next to the wall and the hole in the floor that smells like musty earth. I don't mind though.
Usually, I meditate for 20-30 minutes every morning. But some mornings I don't sit down in time and I have to cut it short. Some mornings I have an early meeting or some other appointment, and I can only squeeze in 5 or 10 minutes. On those days I make a promise to myself to make up for it in the afternoon, but I don't always get there. Sometimes I have all the freedom in the world and I don't use a time limit, then time truly does disappear. But I don't mind either way.
I have dreams of running my own stress management retreats. I have dreams of living somewhere tropical and spacious with my husband. Who knows, we might even get there one day. But as it is right now, I don't mind one bit.
The photo you see above, this is not my meditation reality. And I truly don't mind.
Because, for me, meditation is never something that is visible on the outside. You could be in a dank and dusty cell. You could be run off your feet with chores. You could be all alone, or you could be surrounded by people. All of these things won't matter the minute you choose to close your eyes and connect with your breath, whether it is for 5 or 50 minutes. As soon as you do that, you are opening the door to a new, expansive world, and this is where the magic happens. Not surrounded by green smoothie gulping yogis, not in a world-class health facility, not on a long holiday away from work, but in your daily life, where you are right now, with the time you have right now. That's where it happens.
This brings me to the whole point of this article, misconceptions. We tend to create a set of beliefs around something, and these beliefs are not always true. Sometimes, these beliefs can put people off doing something, or trying something for the first time, even when this thing could be of immense benefit to them. I would hate to imagine that you have avoided trying meditation because you believe any of the 3 common misconceptions about meditation below.
(Bear in mind that I am not a meditation purist, and so, my thoughts on meditation are more liberal and flexible than some. What I'm giving is my take on reality, no one else's).
You close your eyes and something woo-woo (for want of a better word) should happen from the very first time.
'Fraid not dude! Unlikely, I should say. For most people, they close their eyes and nothing magic happens. In fact, most people, for the first time, realise just how congested with thoughts their mind is, and just how uncomfortable it is to sit completely still for a spell. To be fair, I had a pretty awesome first time meditation experience, and that definitely provided me with the hook to keep practicing. I was taught to meditate at 15 years of age, by a monk, with a small group of people, some completely new, and some very, very experienced. I can remember everything about that first session, especially the moment I was hit by wave after wave of what I can only call a 'deeply meditative state'. I'm convinced to this day that those waves were somehow passed to me from one of those ridiculously experienced meditators, though I'll never know for sure.
Either way, it hooked me right in as it was an incredible experience. But I think it was an exception. Most of the time, the feedback I hear from people who meditate for the first time is that 'nothing happened', as though they were expecting something like the rush from a drug, or the doorway to another universe to suddenly open when they close their eyes.
Your own experience could be anywhere along that spectrum, from 'nothing happened' to 'waves of awesomeness'.
What I suggest is that you be ok with that and, regardless of which it is, make a promise to yourself to just keep practicing. Eventually shifts will occur, and you'll start to see what is actually possible. Every single human being is capable of doing this, if they choose. Until the shifts happen, you can at least enjoy some time out from whatever you are doing. If you can slow your breathing down and elicit the relaxation response, you are doing your body a great favour, even if you don't meditate deeply for many, many months.
There's only 1 way to meditate.
Like, OMG, like, No Way Jose! There are a gazillion ways to meditate! Ok, maybe not a gazillion. But there are many.
The trick is to shop around to find that one that works for you. You can meditate with a candle, with your eyes closed, sitting in lotus, sitting on a chair, walking, saying a mantra, using mala beads, focussing on your breath, chanting, using a podcast, through Youtube, in a class, via an app, and more. These are just the variations I've been exposed to.
Perhaps you decided to learn to meditate a few years ago and took yourself off to a community class where everyone sat on the floor and chanted for 45 minutes, leaving you with a stiff back, bung knees, and, you've forgotten the words, but there's weird tune whirring through your mind from the incessant chanting. You don't go back and you've written meditation off as loony.
Please don't. Please don't give up on it. Shop around. Perhaps that wasn't the right one for you. Seek out some different meditation groups. Perhaps you can make it a goal to try a different meditation style per week for 6 weeks and see what works best for you.
Do you prefer to go it alone with an app or a podcast? Or is joining a group going to keep you more accountable?
Are you comfortable sitting on the floor for a long time, or can you chat to the teacher and see whether they have an option for chair meditation?
Do you doubt your own ability to sit still at this stage of the game? Maybe take the pressure out of it and explore walking meditation to start with.
Absolutely, there is not only 1 way to meditate. If you've tried before and didn't like it, give it another go. Open your mind and try a few methods. You might be surprised to find one that really works for you!
You have to meditate an hour a day every day in order to do it right
This is a tough one. It's true, the more you meditate, the easier it becomes. And it is also true that the longer you meditate, the deeper you can get into a meditative state. Buuuut that is quite an off-putting truism for most. There is no doubt that when you first start, finding even 5 minutes to spare is difficult, let alone 30 minutes!
So what I recommend is to start with just factoring in 5 minutes every day to get quiet and find a relaxed state. Once you have built that quiet time into your routine, you can start to extend it by 5 minute increments. You might stop and make yourself still for 5 minutes for the first two weeks, then up it to 10 minutes, and so on.
Over time you may build up to a regular, one hour practice. Or maybe not. If you're like me, you might have a regular 20-30 minutes per day, but sometimes you'll cut it short, or just be grabbing 5 minutes to centre yourself on the train on the way in to work.
Be flexible. You live in the modern world, as do I. Do what you can, when you can. But do it!
So those are 3 big misconceptions that I see popping up in my clients and people I talk to about meditation. Have a think about whether you have had any thoughts like this yourself, and whether you have considered 5 minutes of meditation as being somehow out of your reach.
What can you do to bring it into your world a little more often, and a little longer each time?
I'd love to hear from you! Do you meditate? Have you tried it and given up? Did you find it hard to make the time, or were you disappointed with the results?
Let me know in the comments box below!
So...I don't think it's going to take much arm-twisting to get you to have more massages...is it?
I mean, how good is it to indulge in an hour long relaxation massage with a skilled therapist? Think ambient music, essential oils, your muscles slowly uncoiling under your therapist's professional touch, soooo good!
Perhaps you're the kind of person who needs proof of the benefits before trying? Or, perhaps you've always been curious about massage but not game to get one for yourself? Well I'm here to tell you it is well worth getting a regular relaxation massage - take some time out and your body will truly thank you for it.
Here are 5 proven benefits of Swedish relaxation massage:
It can decrease arginine-vasopressin, a hormone which is involved in blood pressure regulation and water retention (Rapaport, et al, 2010) and normally increases with stress and aggressive behaviour (Peterson, 2012).
It can reduce depression and anxiety (Moyer, et al., 2004).
It can ease back pain and increases range of motion (Hernandez-Reif, et al., 2001).
It can promote sleep and enhance the quality of your sleep (Gauthier, 1999).
It can improve tension headaches and reduce the number of migraines that occur in sufferers (WebMD 2016).
BONUS BENEFIT: Been a bit grumpy lately? A good time-out by way of a relaxation massage is sure to leave you in a good mood, and you can expect a knock-on effect in your immediate relationships. In short, you get a relaxing massage, and your partner and kids will be better off too!
So what happens?
If you've never had a massage before, I know it can be a bit daunting. You may feel vulnerable taking your clothes off, or having a stranger's hands touch you - a perfectly normal concern.
In actual fact, you don't have to take anything off if you don't want to. You can have a massage fully clothed, without the use of oils, of course. You can even ask for a seated massage, so you can feel more in control of your surroundings.
Remember, it is important you are comfortable with how much skin you are exposing, and there is no point in getting a relaxation massage if you can't relax!
So make sure you have a conversation with the therapist about your boundaries if you are feeling concerned.
Also, seek a qualified and professional therapist.
Check out their credentials and make sure they are a member of a reputable industry association. Those with appropriate credentials and industry association can generally be considered more likely to follow professional guidelines and standards, meaning you can really allow yourself to relax under their therapeutic touch.
This is not to say that:
a) someone who has professional qualifications and is a member of an industry association will not behave unprofessionally, or
b) someone who doesn't have this accreditation will automatically behave unprofessionally,
but following up on their professional standards is a way of feeling more relaxed about their professional standing, and your personal health and safety.
What happens in most appointments:
* remember this can vary from therapist to therapist, so this is a basic rundown only*
- Before the appointment, it is a good idea to avoid eating or drinking too much directly before the appointment, but make sure you are well hydrated throughout the day before your massage.
- Arrive early and complete a health history form.
- If you are taking medications or have a medical condition, you should check with your doctor before you get a massage, and make sure you put all relevant information on your health history form. The therapist should study the form and discuss your health history with you. It may be necessary to alter or postpone the treatment if there is something in your chart which contraindicates massage.
- The therapist will seek your permission to provide the massage and show you the treatment room. You will be asked to undress and lay face-down on the treatment table, under a towel. Make sure you discuss with your therapist your level of comfort with undressing. The therapist will leave the room while you prepare yourself on the table.
- The therapist will knock and enter when you are ready.
- Your therapist will begin palpating your body, usually through the towel. That means they are gently pressing on the larger muscle masses of the legs, back and buttocks to get a sense of tension and muscle tone. You can begin to take some deeper breaths here and settle yourself into the massage.
- Following this, your therapist will un-drape the towel from one part of your body, one leg, or your back for example. They will warm oil in their hands and gently glide their hands over your muscles. As your muscles slowly warm, you will begin to feel greater relaxation and calm.
- Once your therapist has completed your back and legs, you will be asked to turn over, and he or she will focus on the legs, chest, arms, neck and head. Some therapists also massage the stomach. Remember, if you are uncomfortable with any part of your body being touched, you can let the therapist know at any time.
- Upon completion of the massage, you will feel very relaxed so make sure you get up slowly. Take a moment sitting on the edge of the massage table before hopping down and getting dressed. You don't want to feel dizzy or woozy. Let the therapist know if you are feeling faint or light headed.
- Once you are dressed you head outside and make your payment. Take it slow, bask in the glowing warmth of relaxation, and make sure you drink plenty of water.
My advice? After your massage, head home, give your loved ones a hug, and settle in with a good book for an early night.
If you have any questions feel free to ask and I'll do my best to answer them.
Disclaimer: Please see your doctor before engaging in any therapeutic body work, especially if you are currently suffering from a medical condition or taking medication. Certain physiological changes during massage can impact your health and safety, and massage is contraindicated for certain conditions. See your GP if you are unsure.
Gauthier, D., 1999, 'The healing potential of back massage', Online Journal of Knowledge Synthesis in Nursing, Vol. 6 (5).
Hernandez-Reif, M., Krasnegor, J., & Theakston, H., 2001, 'Lower back pain is reduced and range of motion increased after massage therapy', International Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 106, p.p.131-145.
'Massage therapy styles and benefits', 2016, Web MD, 2016, Accessed 10 March 2016, <http://www.webmd.com/balance/massage-therapy-styles-and-health-benefits>.
Moyer, C., Rounds, J., & Hannum, J., 2004, 'A meta-analysis of massage therapy research', Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 130 (1), p.p.3-18.
Peterson, A., 2012, 'Don't call it pampering: Massage wants to be medicine', The Wall Street Journal, 13 March 2012, accessed 09 March 2016, <http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304537904577277303049173934>.
Rapaport, M. H., Schettler, C., & Breese, C., 2010, 'A preliminary study of the effects of a single session of Swedish massage on hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal and immune function in normal individuals', Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol 16 (10), p.p. 1079-1088.
Lately, I've had a lot going on.... I mean, a lot of changes work wise.
And I decided I need to ask you something.
---> Have you ever taken a risk, be it personal, financial, career-based, without any clue as to how it is going to work out? It's pretty hard to focus on being present and calm when you have a lot riding on a future outcome, isn't it?
Well, I recently signed an agreement to start practising my wares out of a health centre in the Sydney CBD. Maybe it doesn't sound like much to you, but it involved quite a bit of upfront money, and a massive dose of courage to put myself into a new space and share my passions with new people. For me, this was BIG!
You might be surprised by this. You might even think I'm Queen of Calm and 'have it all together', but, like anyone else, doubts and fears can rise in times of uncertainty and risk. I'm not immune.
Truthfully, I'm super excited but I'm pretty damn nervous too! I mean, a whole day to offer all kinds of stress relief treatments to stressed out people in the cbd?! I can't wait to start!! But it is a big change too.
I wasn't always a business owner and I am still not used to risks like this, so it is easy for that voice of panic and anxiety to jump in and have a say in what's happening!
"No one will come! You'll lose all that you invest! Who are you to be offering that?!"...I mean, it's just incredible what these anxieties say!
Can you relate to this?
Do you find yourself catastrophising the outcome of some future events?
Do you find it hard to sleep or stay calm, thinking of all the different ways it can go wrong?
Well you're not alone. Many people tend to spend more time focussed on the past or the future, without really being present in the present! And it seems to increase in times of uncertainty or change.
Now, I'm not saying anxiety is a bad thing altogether. Anxiety and fear are equals to happiness and anger in the broad range of human emotions. All human emotions are valid. There can be a positive twist to anxiety, which is motivation. Imagine being extremely anxious about an upcoming exam, versus laissex-faire and super relaxed? Which one might help you be more prepared to take action and study?
Clearly there are benefits to recognising potential threats, be they social, physical, mental, or environmental and taking action to avoid them. The question is, are you taking action (physical response) on threats which are not real or cannot be changed?
Take a look at the timeline below.
Where do you spend most of your thinking time? If you close your eyes right now for a minute and let the thoughts flood in, where are they focussed? Past? Future? Right this moment?
When you're about to take a risk, or there's some type of uncertain event playing out, you might be spending a lot of time hanging out in the future. Playing out different scenarios, possibly getting yourself into a state of anxiety over what 'might' happen. Maybe you have a doctor's appointment you're dreading, maybe you're about to invest in a new business or a new home and you're wondering if it will all fall down around you ---future focusser.
On the other hand, if you've just done something with a strong emotional investment, possibly with a poor outcome, chances are you are currently dwelling in the past. Maybe that first date didn't go so well, or your boss had a go at you in a staff meeting, or you said something you regret to someone you love. Now, you're going over what went wrong, replaying the scene in some kind of torturous replay again, and again, your mind can't let it go. You are ruminating on it --- past dweller.
This is where our anxieties get the better of us.
Now, let me be clear here before we go any further. I'm not talking about the medically-diagnosed psychological disorder of Generalised Anxiety Disorder or all the other classifications of Anxiety in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V of Mental Disorder of the American Psychiatric Society. If you feel that you are suffering from a level of anxiety that is beyond the 'normally expected' levels, and is persisting for months please go straight to your GP for a referral to a specialist.
If, however, your anxiety is not ongoing and is specifically related to an event or series of unusual life events, you may benefit by thinking about where you focus your thoughts.
It is possible to train your mind to bring awareness to the present, despite your mind's desire to dwell in the past or future.
Really. It is possible!
Why is this important?
One of the main answers is: the body can't tell the difference between what is real and what your mind is saying. Your body will react to your fears in the same way as if it was really happening. If you imagine a terrible scenario, like your manager ripping you apart in a meeting, your body believes that you are actually being threatened, even though it is only in your thoughts.
What happens? You prepare for 'flight or fight' of course!
Your adrenals start pumping out stress response hormones to engage your body. Your muscles tense. Your heart rate increases. Your breathing shortens and quickens and you are ready to roll. All to prepare you for a 'flight or fight' response to something which probably won't even happen, or if it has happened, can't be changed, and is probably not the catastrophe you think it is.
What a waste of energy!
It is your thoughts which are creating a scenario which your body is reacting to. It just isn't real!
So how do you get yourself out of this and back into the present moment?
In short ---> mindfulness and focussed awareness is a great way to get your wild imagination back to NOW.
German-born Eckhard Tolle, a famous author and speaker who resides in Canada, has spent many years studying and researching spiritual philosophy and psychology. He has worked as a counsellor, a teacher, and an author. One of his most famous books is called, 'The Power of Now', which extols the transforming virtue of living in the present moment. Because the present moment is all we really have.
In this short video, Tolle outlines some steps you can take if you find yourself being overwhelmed by anxiety:
- Firstly, recognise what is happening with your thoughts and the impact it is having on your body. How is your body currently reacting to your thoughts? This takes quiet awareness.
- Then, choose (actively make a decision) to step out of the situation. This is difficult sometimes because the thoughts are very powerful, especially at the beginning.
- If you can't manage to get yourself out of the anxious thought process, it is enough to just recognise that you are in it. Notice what is happening in your body and mind. Later, as you progress, you can start trying to step out of the anxious thoughts. Just knowing the anxious thought has control over your body and mind is already a step forward.
- Next, take a conscious breath --- long, slow belly breaths, not chest breaths.
- Lastly, remove the tension from your body. Shake your body, hands, arms, clap your hands, move your jaw to release tension. Or just notice where you are sitting, look around, notice where you feet are, where your hands are resting, the position of your body.
He describes it as a kind of awakening and returning to your body and returning to the present moment.
This type of thing takes time. If you are used to getting caught up in 'what ifs' and creating panic in your body, it will take some time just to become aware of the thoughts themselves. Let it happen slowly, and as you become more used to noticing the anxious thoughts for what they are, you can begin to start making an active choice to step out of the process.
Creating your own alternative thought pattern can also help you. So consider this:
A. You notice yourself in the throes of anxious and unrealistic thinking.
B. After practising, you are able to choose not to stay in that anxious thought.
C. You take a long, slow belly breath.
D. You shake your hands, shrug your shoulders and move your body to release tension.
E. You choose an alternative pattern of thoughts to focus on. You might choose something more mundane, like planning your shopping list. Or you might choose to look around you and find something positive to focus on in the present moment, like your children happily sitting in front of you, or the delicious taste of your early morning tea as you sip it.
What do I do?
Well, thankfully, I noticed pretty quickly that I was getting a little anxious and overwhelmed with my changes because over time I've become used to noticing subtle changes in my body. So firstly I added a few extra personal yoga classes to my schedule as I had let them slide recently. I also increased my morning meditation time and decreased my morning cardio time.
Yoga is my go-to when I am anxious. It is an incredibly meditative way to get into the present moment as you use your breath to switch on your parasympathetic nervous system (aka the 'rest digest' response), the opposite of the 'flight or fight' response. Through yoga you become mindfully present in your practice and in your meditation, allowing more time to notice damaging thoughts and bring the mind back to the present moment.
I'll finish with this.
When in the grips of anxiety, it can seem as though it has complete control over your life. It can seem as though all the worst things are going to happen and they are all targeting you. There is a window though, for you to recognise those anxieties and, with practice, choose to step out of them and into the beautiful present moment.
Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness allow us to be more present. I feel absolutely thrilled that I can offer these gifts to others, and call on them when I need them myself. Just send me a message right here if you'd like me to share them with you. xo
Links and resources:
Wisdom Talks, 2015, Get Rid of Fear and Anxiety Today, videorecording, Youtube, viewed 28 February 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ze0-vGa-MQ8>
beyondblue depression and anxiety organisation Australia : https://www.beyondblue.org.au/
Note: As stated above, if you feel that you are suffering from a level of anxiety that is beyond the 'normally expected' levels, and is persisting for months please go straight to your GP for a referral to a specialist. In fact, while I'm at it, if you are in Australia, you can also contact Beyond Blue, a fantastic organisation which can give you advice and point you in the right direction to receive good care. If you are not in Australia, please speak to your GP for a referral to a mental health professional, and try Googling for a similar organisation in your own country so you can talk to someone straight away. I need to say this because if you are mentally ill, reading a blog is not going to be enough to remove chronic anxiety. It is in your best interests to seek the care you need from appropriate qualified health professionals.
Sydney CBD watch out - here I come!
Whether you need to relax and escape a hectic world through massage, find some balance and release with yoga, centre yourself with meditation, or reach for a better you with stress management and wellness coaching, you and your colleagues can find a way to Sunrise Well.
Stress management coaching (all weekdays) face-to-face, phone, Skype - by appointment only
Yin yoga and meditation (all weekdays) private, corporate or group - by appointment only
Massage on Fridays - by appointment only
Group meditation and mindfulness sessions (all weekdays) private, corporate or group - by appointment only
Stress management and health workshops and talks at your workplace - by appointment only
Ph: 0421 487 406 Email email@example.com Or book here!
So if you or someone you know needs to unwind, you want to treat your friend to a secret Friday escape, give me a buzz and we'll set up an appointment.
I am super excited about this TED Talk I want to share with you all, 'How to make stress your friend', by health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal. As a yoga teacher and mindful wellness coach, I'm all about reducing unnecessary life stress, but does that mean there is no place for tension in our lives? Current research shows there is a place for stress and making friends with it is a good idea.
New research out of Harvard demonstrates that it is not stress itself which causes health problems and possible early deaths. Rather, it is the way we perceive stress which is the big issue. What I want to show you is that we can experience the stress response* in a healthy way.
* What is the stress response? Follow this link to a clear explanation on the stress response via the Harvard Medical School. As you will see, the stress response begins in the brain and induces a whole-body physiological and emotional response. This response was borne through evolution and serves a very important purpose in our survival, but these days it is often induced in non-threatening situations time and time again, day in and day out. Chronic activation of the stress response has been linked to high blood pressure, anxiety, poor sleep, depression, and more. It is important to understand the role of this stress response, befriend it so to speak, but also to develop personal tools to help counteract the negative effects.
Of course that doesn't mean we have free reign to head out and overload our lives with stressful situations thinking it is good for us! No doubt, it is better to try to reduce the amount of stress in our lives as much as possible. However, sometimes we are in situations which really do call for a natural stress response in the body and, if that does happen, research shows it is better to consider this reaction as a normal part of your physiology. Listen to your body, rather than trying to fight it.
Yes, it sounds like a bit of a Catch 22, and in some ways it is. The point is, do as much as you can to reduce stress in your life, but if it does come up, roll with it rather than fight it!
If you have or you know someone who has stress-related health issues, have a listen to the link above. It might change your life, and may make you think twice the next time you are stressed out.
---> For those short on time - and stressed out about it! - here are some of the main points from the talk:
- For many years Kelly McGonigal preached against stress, considering it our worst enemy, something to be avoided at all costs. She pushed the notion that stress makes us sick, reduces immunity and can bring on preventable illness and death from cardiovascular disease.
- Her beliefs were dramatically reversed when she came across the results of a longitudinal study in the U.S.A of 30 000 people. The study found that people had a 43% increased risk of dying after a highly-stressed year, only if they perceived that stress as harmful. If they didn't consider it harmful, their risk of dying was even lower than people who only reported a little stress. I know! Crazy right?! So, all this time we have been thinking it is stress itself which is the issue, but it may be the way we look at that stress which really needs the work.
- Science indicates that if you change your mind about stress and consider the experience in a positive way, your body will listen and act accordingly. This doesn't mean the physical stress signs disappear. Rather, what happens is that you view those physical changes in a positive way, which allows the body to move through the process naturally and comfortably.
- Key points from the Harvard study: Participants were told that the heart pounding is to energise the body and prepare for action, the increased breathing rate is to give the muscles much needed oxygen. In short, they were told their body is doing exactly what it is supposed to do in a stressful situation. The study found those participants then had reduced anxiety and stress over this reaction and were more confident in stressful situations.
- The results: In typically stressful situations, the heart rate goes UP and the blood vessels CONSTRICT, a situation which is commonly associated with cardiovascular disease and a possible increased risk of stroke. In this study, after participants learned to be aware and accepting of their stress response, their heart rate still went UP, which is normal, but their blood vessels STAYED OPEN AND RELAXED. This type of physiological response is quite similar to the positive emotions of JOY or COURAGE. Clearly this is a much healthier response for the cardiovascular system.
- The stress response also releases the famed neuro-hormone OXYTOCIN, known to be the love hormone of the body. Many people do not know that oxytocin is as important as adrenaline when responding to stress. So what does it do in this situation??
Firstly, oxytocin creates a sense of connection, it makes you crave physical contact. You know when you're all stressed out and all you really want is a hug? Well, good! Your body is working! Hopefully you'll get that hug and your oxytocin will increase even more!
- The other thing oxytocin does is work on helping your body. It is an anti-inflammatory agent, helping the blood vessels stay relaxed and open, as discussed above. It also does incredible things to the heart muscle itself. The heart has receptors for the hormone and the oxytocin helps the heart cells to heal and regenerate from any damage caused to the heart muscle during stress. So it all works in a cyclical, healing way! The stress response is a natural part of our physiology, and we have in-built mechanisms to reduce the damage caused by the stress!
- Final study: 1000 adults in the U.S.A. ranging from 34 to 93 years of age. The participants were interviewed about the level of stress and kind of stressful events they had experienced in the previous year, and also how much they had been involved in helping out friends, family, or the community. They were followed for 5 years and rates of death were recorded.
- Findings: For every stressful life event, the risk of dying increased by 30%....BUT! Those who reported caring for other people (family, friends, community), had 0% increased risk of dying. SO...caring created resilience! Yay!
The take aways on this...
So what does this mean?
Should we run-out and get stressed-out as much as possible in the hopes of increasing our oxytocin levels and possibly getting more hugs?? Obviously not! Though hugs are great - I'm all for extra hugs in your day!
Ultimately, the more you can avoid landing in a stressful situation, the better. This may mean improving your planning or communication skills, working on your romantic relationship, talking to your manager about your workload, or whatever you need to do to help reduce stress in your life. Even doing this though, it is likely we will still come across stress in our lives.
In that case, the first thing to do is develop the skills to differentiate between normal stress versus over-reactive stress.
There are various techniques available to us, such as mindfulness and meditation, which can give the ability to step back from a situation and evaluate it, deciding whether it really is a stressful situation, if you are over-reacting, or if the situation can be viewed in a different, more positive way.
If the situation calls for some level of unavoidable stress, perhaps one of the best things to do is to accept it for what it is, understand that your body is fuelling you and preparing you for what is coming up, and possibly go seek out a hug from a mate or partner to boost that sense of connection with the outside world.
No mate or partner available? A sense of connection can also be found by heading out to a community sport, grounding yourself with a yoga class, or receiving the healing touch of a full body massage.
--->In short, don't fight stress, or perceive it in a negative way. Your body is your friend trying to help you, so roll with it!
Note: If you are experiencing high levels of stress or illness induced by stress in your life, it is important that you seek external support and visit your GP for advice and medical support. (Dr Google is handy, but information you find on the internet is not a substitute for a face-to-face physical examination by a health care provider!)