Stress is all around us. From annoyances such as sitting in a traffic jam or missing a bus to serious stress-inducers like losing a job or the grave illness of a loved one, we face stressful situations throughout our lives.
When we experience stress, our bodies respond by making hormones that speed up our heart rate, make us breathe more rapidly, and release a burst of energy. This is called the stress response or the fight-or-flight response. It prepared our ancient ancestors to protect themselves when their lives were in danger—for example, from an attack by a wild animal they were trying to kill for food. Today we rarely find ourselves in those types of life-and-death situations on a daily basis, but our bodies still react to stress in the same way. A little stress can help us excel in a sporting event or finish an important project on schedule, but too much stress too often or for too long can have negative effects on our health, causing headaches, back pain, upset stomach, or difficulty sleeping. It can also weaken our immune system, making it harder for us to fight off disease.
The first step in controlling stress is to determine what is causing the stress in our lives and looking for ways to reduce it. We’ll never get rid of all of our stresses; some stress is a fact of life, so the next step is to learn healthy ways of managing the stress to reduce its harmful effects.
Some of the things that can help fight the effects of stress include:
• Eating a healthy diet
• Getting regular physical activity
• Doing something you enjoy, such as spending time on a hobby, watching a movie, or listening to calming music
• Keeping a journal and recording what makes you feel stressed and what relaxes you
• Expressing your feelings to someone you trust—a family member, friend, or professional counsellor
• Learning relaxation techniques
There is no single relaxation technique that is right for everyone. You may have to try several until you find what works best for you. Here are some common ones:
• Concentrate on your breathing. Take slow, deep breaths and turn your mind away from what is causing your stress. Feel the air entering and exiting your body in a controlled manner. This can be particularly helpful for some people, but it may not be appropriate for those with respiratory problems or heart failure.
• Try silently repeating a short phrase or prayer while focusing on your breathing. This may be particularly helpful for people who feel connected to a religion or spiritual path.
• After a few minutes of focusing on your deep breathing, direct your attention to one part of your body and mentally release any tension you feel there. Once you have released the tension from that spot, focus on another part of your body. Continue the exercise until you have released the tension from your whole body.
• Imagine a soothing scene, place, or experience that has personal meaning for you. Relax and enjoy the serenity this vision brings.
• Focus on the moment. Sit comfortably and turn your attention to that very moment in time. Don’t let your thoughts drift to the past or the present. Live in the now, even if only for a little while.
• Try yoga, tai chi, or another of the ancient arts that combine rhythmic breathing with a series of physical positions or flowing movements.
• To get the most benefit from relaxation techniques, combine them with other positive coping methods such as positive thinking, finding things to laugh about, getting enough sleep, and reaching out for support from family and friends.