Who hasn’t said, “I’m so stressed right now!” Seems like our lives and society are set up to stress us out on a fairly regular basis.
What is Stress?
In fact, stress isn’t all bad. A degree of stress is good: it helps you grow and develop, to gain strength, and it encourages you to make necessary changes. For example, doing exercise that challenges and strengthens your muscles, be it your biceps or your heart, causes your body some stress. Taking on a new job, or starting a new relationship, are also both stressors. Stress is a physical response to allow you to respond quickly to situations around you. So, it encourages you to make changes, which can be vital and life-affirming.
However, a lot of people end up chronically stressed, because they get no down-time from life’s stressors. A little stress is good, but a lot of stress is terrible.
You may not even put the name to it, but that doesn’t change the effects. Chronic stress can lead to a whole host of physical and mental issues, ranging from poor sleep, to overeating, and even to depression.
To assess whether you might be suffering from stress, you could consider whether you have any physical symptoms, and how often you get them: headaches, sleep issues, dizziness, muscle tension or pain, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain.
Additionally, consider how often you’ve felt stressed over the last month: never, occasionally, often, constantly? How about feeling angry about situations you can’t control? Overwhelmed, anxious, or lacking in self-esteem? Thoughts whirring, difficulty concentrating and making decisions? Have you been drinking or smoking more, snappy and irritable, avoiding things or people?
The Effects of Stress
When you are stressed, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol. In the short term, these hormones give you a boost of energy and wake you up. In the long term, they keep your body wired way past the point of usefulness, and into ill health.
A new study also shows that a brief episode of stress causes relapse in cocaine-addicted mice. As ever with science, more studies are needed. However, it is suggestive that any addiction you have might see a relapse from even a brief stressor. In even worse news, the relapse lasted far longer than the actual stressor, for days, in fact. The scientists are looking into what medications can switch off those brain synapses triggered by the stressor, but there are certainly things you can do right away.
What To Do About It
There’s a great acronym to help remember the six keys to beating stress: S-T-R-E-S-S.
S – Social Connection
As the song goes, no (wo)man is an island. Having a network of people that you can be with is incredibly supportive. We are social animals, at heart, and need to feel cared for and understood. This doesn’t mean you need to be at the centre of a group of people all the time. However, you do need at least one or two people you connect with regularly.
Part of this is chemical – oxytocin is released when you have positive social contacts, and is great for counteracting stress hormones. Another part is that caring for others helps you get outside of your own head and concerns. And you can also be positively influenced by others, seeing different perspectives, and being encouraged to adopt good, health habits. So, it’s great to have friends, and even better to have friend’s with healthy habits.
T – Therapy/Meditation
Both therapy and meditation stimulate reflection, attention and forethought. These are ways to help get a handle on your stress, and to calm your automatic negative thoughts and your emotions. They also stimulate the brain at a physiological level, leading to increased blood flow. That, in turn, helps clears out the effects of cortisol and adrenaline, ‘washing’ them away.
Therapy has the added benefit of being a form of social intimacy, with several studies showing the release of oxytocin being stimulated in the therapy environment. However, if you don’t like sharing your feelings, then meditation gives you many of the same effects, and may have more benefits in terms of creating a calm and relaxed state.
R – Relaxation
In itself, relaxation is another stress-buster. You may find that listening to calming music helps you. Laughter is also a great medicine in this regard. Then there are things like getting a massage, or even natural stress reducing substances like spearmint or chamomile tea, or lavender and other herbal essences such as bergamot, clary sage or ylang ylang.
Or consider doing some breathing exercises. There are so many studies on the benefits of breathing that it’s impossible to deny this is a major game changer. Somewhat harder to define is which type of breathing may be ‘best’.
Fundamentally, any type of slow, deep breathing is calming.
You can try deep abdominal breathing as a first step. This is just getting in touch with your breathing, and making sure that your diaphragm is getting involved. A good way to start out is to lie down and place a hand on your stomach. When you breathe in, your hand should rise. This shows that you are breathing deeply.
The next step would be to keep breathing into you abdomen, and start trying to lengthen your inhale and exhale. It’s a good idea to count your breaths. You might start out just trying to extend the count. You can also check that the inhale and exhale are of equal duration. Or, better yet, extend the exhale beyond the inhale. For instance, it’s great to try to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in.
After that, there are plenty more breathing exercises that you can explore. I’ve mentioned the 4-7-8 breathing technique before. And there’s also alternate nostril breathing. In fact, there are so many options that they really deserve a post (or a video) all to themselves, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
E – Exercise
Physical exercise is another great was to relieve stress. It’s not just kickboxing workouts that act as a pressure release valve (though imagining kicking or punching someone or something that has been stressing you can be very cathartic). Any kind of physical exercise has stress benefits.
Cardio workouts get your heart pumping and stimulate the release of seratonin, a happy hormone. This could be cycling outdoors, or a static bike in the gym. It could be an aerobics class, or dancing around your bedroom. It could be a brisk walk or something more energetic. Extreme cardio workouts cause an increase in cortisol, though, so don’t overdo it.
Weights workouts focus more on your other muscles, while also stimulating human growth hormone and testosterone. These counterbalance cortisol, and it has been shown that your body can tolerate higher levels of cortisol so long as these other hormones are also strongly present.
And yoga has some of the benefits of a weights workout, while also boosting your relaxation levels.
So, find something you enjoy that gets you moving.
S – Sleep
This is a biggie, and not all that simple, I know. It’s really important to get enough good quality sleep. Yet, so many things in your life work against this. Here’s another heading that deserves a post of it’s own.
Basically, try to improve your sleep hygiene. Reduce caffeine and sugar in the evening, ditto to blue light screens (the new iPhones have a setting called NightShift so that you can still look at your phone without getting that melatonin-suppressing glare). Make sure your bedroom is dark and cool, and that your mattress and pillow are comfortable. Try establishing a relaxing bedtime routine. And as often as possible, go to bed at about the same time – you can get a mini-jet lag from varying your bedtime too much!
S – Substitute Snacks
It’s one of those bitter truths that being stressed triggers cravings for sugary, fatty, carby foods. And that those self-same foods aggravate stress, causing inflammation in the body. So, this is a negative cycle that can easily develop.
The best advice here is to substitute healthy snacks for junk food. In time, your body will adapt, and thank you for it. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
How Hypnotherapy Can Help
Hypnotherapy is a great all-round helper for stress. It is a clear way to bring relaxation to both body and mind. It is also a talking therapy, helping you to deal with automatic negative thoughts, and to reflect on your situation. Hypnosis helps promote change, and with the therapeutic relationship, it gives you a social connection oxytocin boost.
Indirectly, hypnosis has been shown to benefit sleep, even when that isn’t the aim of the hypnotherapy. Though you can also specifically work on sleep disturbances very effectively with it. And of course, hypnotherapy can be used to target habit changes such as exercising more and controlling what you eat.
The bottom line is that hypnotherapy can help with all six of these proven ways to target stress. If you’re interested in trying it out, why not get in touch?