In the middle of an incredibly stressful year, I seem to be intent on adding to it by doing this crazy September Learning Challenge. So makes sense to start with a recap of what I learned on the first session of my Living with Less Stress course!
The word stress can be used in different ways, but often it’s referring to the ‘flight or fight’ response in our bodies – the production of extra adrenaline, etc in preparation for fighting a sabre toothed tiger or running away from a man with a spear. In the modern age, the stress response kicks in in the same way, but to less obvious ‘dangers’: bills needing paid, health worries, uncertainties and just the fast pace of modern life. These are not always stresses that can be tackled directly. We can often develop the habit of being in a permanent state of tension.
While some stress is good – the kick of adrenaline before a race, or the additional focus this brings for an exam, for instance – long-term stress can be detrimental to health (e.g. frequent colds) and even alter our personality (more irritable, easily overwhelmed). Often this has become the new normal, meaning we don’t always recognise that we could be managing our situation better.
Think about having an emotional thermometer (0-100 degrees). Your normal, base temperature – just from day-to-day life – might be something like 40 degrees. When something stressful happens – an upcoming presentation at work, perhaps – this might give you a jolt of 30 degrees, taking you up to 70 until the additional stress disappears. Even with the presentation stress, you still have some spare capacity – it might be difficult, but you could probably cope with a puncture on the car, for instance.
However, if the stress is something that goes on for a longer time, the baseline might have risen to 70 and stayed there for long enough that you don’t recognise it as abnormal. Now imagine that same presentation stress hits – suddenly the additional 30 degrees takes you to boiling point: you feel out of control, unable to cope. If the puncture happens, you’re already in meltdown.
Right, that’s the background (and future posts will NOT be this long!). Good news is, over the next few weeks I should be learning how to do something about all of this – because apparently stress IS something we can choose to change!
The two exercises we started with were paying attention to the breathing, and a stretch and relax routine.
If you pay attention, you will notice your breathing is shallower when you’re tense. Notice this by placing a hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen – which moves more when you breath? It’s more difficult to breath from your abdomen sitting or standing, but practice it when lying down. This is how you breath when you are asleep, and your body will automatically find it more calming.
As well as ensuring you’re breathing into your belly, try this: breathe in counting slowly to 4; breathe out counting slowly to 6.
The stretch and relax routine involves tensing and releasing different muscle groups in turn. I must confess, I was initially worried about straining something, but you don’t have to be too aggressive with the tensing – just hold a lighter tensing for a little longer. Start from feet first, or head first. E.g.:
- legs – from sitting, lift your leg in front of you and point the toe towards your face until you feel a stretch. Hold for a few seconds, then release and allow the leg to relax back to the floor. Do the other leg.
- thighs and buttocks: tense, hold, release
- lower back: curve and push back into the chair. Release.
- upper back: put your hands around yourself onto the opposite shoulder, as if giving yourself a cuddle.
- arms and hands: pull your arms in close and form your hands into fists. Might be worth repeating the hands a few times – they hold more stress than you’d think!
- shoulders: bring them up to your ears
- neck: drop your chin down to your breastbone as far as you can – feel the stretch on the back of your neck. Also, try looking round to the side as far as you can, holding for a few seconds each way
- face and jaw: clench your teeth and/or grin like a maniac! Scrunch up your nose and eyes as if you’ve caught a nasty whiff!
The advice is to practice the above twice a day for a few weeks, dropping to once a day as you become more aware of how tense your muscles are.
Overall, the message is to try and spot tension early and reduce it before it builds up to more critical levels! This means being very purposeful for a while, perhaps carrying out the above exercises to a schedule while you learn to recognise the signs that you need them.