Stress is something we simply can’t avoid in our modern day, highly connected and information heavy lives. As an Osteopath in Doha, I encounter many people with aches, pains and health problems that are linked to chronic or ongoing stress. The prevailing narrative around stress is that it is something we should be trying to avoid, however, this is simply not possible for the majority of us. Instead, it may be much more productive and realistic to focus on building our resilience to stress and using it to our advantage, instead of trying to avoid and supress it.
Stress can come at us in many different forms- physical, psychological, chemical, emotional, environmental etc. It can also be classified as good and bad or ‘Eustress’ and ‘Distress’ Chronic or ongoing stress contributes to disease and distress whereas more acute or momentary stress can be healthy. After all, stress gets us out of bed in the morning and helps us perform at our very best, so if we can harness it and use it productively, we can use it to become more connected, build relationships, improve our performance, and enrich our day to day lives.
This starts with the way we actually think and talk about stress, followed by lots of simple habits that will help us thrive in the face of life’s inevitable stress.
The way we actually perceive a stressful experience can change the way our body responds. When we perceive stress as a challenge and not a threat, we release different hormones associated with growth and learning, our circulation improves, we experience lower levels of anxiety and cognitive performance such as memory is improved. Most of the stress we experience on a day to day basis is not life threatening, however we have a similar response to our day to day stressors as we would toward a life-threatening situation, so the first step in making stress work for us is to approach it as a challenge, not a threat, and try to appreciate the meaning that each stressful experience has in our lives, because if an experience has no meaning to our lives, it probably wouldn’t be stressful!!
My most recent rendezvous with ongoing stress involved one of most stressful experiences of our modern lives which was relocating to an unknown country. Coming to work as an Osteopath in Doha pushed my mind, body and marriage to it’s limits. In hindsight I could see that it wasn’t as threatening as I was perceiving it to be at the time and had I perceived it more as a challenge, I may have been able to transform my distress and fear into eustress and excitement!
So should we try to avoid stressful situations?
It’s very hard to avoid stressful experiences because the very things that stress us out a lot of the time, give our life meaning and purpose- our jobs, our families, our social activities all give us a sense of identity and purpose but they can also be a great source of stress, so by taking a second to appreciate the meaning that stressful experiences have to us, we can approach our challenges in a more positive and productive manner.
Great, but what about if we are in the middle of a really stressful situation how can we actually calm ourselves down and deal with things like the feelings of anxiety, pounding heart rate, tension, sweating etc.
Our breath is one of the most powerful buffers of the stress response. By simply breathing into our stomachs and using our diaphragm, which is the main muscle of respiration, we can quickly reduce anxiety and stress. Slow belly breathing is associated with reduced blood pressure, improved circulation, focus, cognitive performance and better digestion. By taking around 6-10 breaths per minute we can deactivate or calm the limbic system which is responsible for activating our fight or flight response. So, counting an inhale/exhale ratio of around 3-5 seconds in and 3-5 seconds out, is a great way of restoring, calm and composure in moments of high stress.
I use diaphragmatic breathing techniques with many of my patients during my osteopathy treatment here in doha. This can instantly reduce muscle tension, calm the nervous system and reduce pain.
Nature’s most effective buffer of Stress- Exercise
Exercise and movement is probably nature’s most effective use of the stress response, which basically prepares us for physical activity- run or fight! The body prepares the body by dilating our blood vessels, speeding up our heart rate, making more energy readily available in the form of glucose, and sharpening our reactions, so what better way to put this all to use than going for a brisk walk, having a workout or even something like a good tidy up! Anything that puts the adrenalin, energy and muscle tension to good use! If you’re in the office, just get out of your chair and go for a quick walk with a few slow belly breaths on the way.
There is always a better way to reduce the symptoms of stress than smoking a cigarette, sitting in your chair and boiling up inside, or drinking alcohol.
Unfortunately, we tend to create more stress on the body through trying to relieve ourselves of it, or escape from it! Drinking alcohol, smoking, eating poor quality, high calorie foods.
Yes, I guess it’s easy to know when we are feeling stressed, but harder to know what detrimental effect stress is actually having on our body and overall health. Many people think that they are not stressed but have maybe just found coping mechanisms that are actually damaging their health. How can we monitor our stress levels?
Monitoring our Heart Rate Variability is an effective way of displaying how well we cope with stress and the balance in our nervous system. In simple terms- HRV measures the time differences between successive heart beats. A higher variability is associated with greater resilience to stress and better cardiovascular fitness. A lower HRV is associated chronic anxiety, an increased risk of heart attack. We can also use HRV to gain real time feedback on our responses to stressful experiences and how efficiently we can calm our nervous system using techniques like the belly breathing. Research suggests 5 mins of belly breathing can significantly reduce anxiety and stress!
HRV can let us know when we are doing too much and burning the candle a little too hard. This gives us vital info for managing levels of fatigue and establishing suitable exercise intensity levels. Apps like Welltory and elite HRV are simple user-friendly apps that provide you with results on your energy levels, performance, and also give you live feedback and guided breathing exercises.
Some of the most influential factors over our HRV are our thoughts, feelings and emotions. Negative emotions such as fear, anger and frustration can create a low HRV and an incoherent heart rhythm pattern (an irregular and erratic heart rhythm). Developing positive and uplifting emotions such as gratitude, joy, love and appreciation can create a more coherent heart rhythm pattern that is more harmonious and helps our bodily systems function better. Coherence is regarded as a state of optimal function, which reflects a healthier balance within the nervous system and improved synchronization between the activity of the heart and the brain. Simple habits such as gratitude journalling, reciting positive affirmations, belly breathing and mindfulness are all effective tools in cultivating a more positive mindset and building stress resilience.
Building resilience to stress is about being proactive with regular habits. Being active in the face of stress and not reactive. Stress is one of nature’s most powerful performance aids that just needs utilizing properly, not avoiding. So it’s time to embrace the inevitable stress that a full, active and rewarding life contains and don’t get more stressed trying to avoid stress!
If you want more information, coaching or consultation on the most effective ways to utilize, cope and be more resilient with stress, get in touch with me via email or follow me on facebook or Instagram. Take care and don’t forget to tune in tomorrow when I’ll be talking about the next Pillar of Health- Exercise and Movement.