Stress is an inevitable part of our lives. As we become more involved there is a frantic attempt to put one more item on our to-do list. The result is we often succumb to the physical and emotional negative side effects of stress. Many times “stress” is associated with the negative experiences in our lives. The bad stress or “distress” is what is most often referred to when talking about stress. However, even the positive occurrences in our lives can create “stress” and impact our bodies physically. The positive stress is called “eustress.” How do we manage these stress filled upheavals in our lives? In this article we will focus on defining stress and then focusing on a few basic strategies we can use to cope with these stressful times more adaptively.
As a Clinical Health Psychologist I work to keep people as healthy as possible even in the face of an illness (such as cancer). I work with individuals experiencing health related stress or distress and help to identify how they respond to the stressors in their lives. My work focuses on teaching patients mind- body medicine strategies to first and foremost recognize when they are experiencing stress and then provide them the tools for their emotional tool box to manage their stress.
As individuals, each person experiences stress in a unique way. We all face physical and emotional challenges and stressors every day (sitting in traffic, family stressors, health related stressors – cancer, either our own or a loved one’s – and work stressors). When faced with these life stressors (the good ones and the not so good ones) our brains are hard wired and respond with what is called the “fight or flight” response. In the face of any perceived threat our brains respond to the threat by releasing a flood of stress related chemicals (primarily, cortisol) into the bloodstream. This triggers other physical responses in our bodies (adrenaline pumping into our bloodstream, glucose being released from the liver into the bloodstream).
All these responses are in place preparing our bodies to “fight or to flee.” This reaction is in place from millions of years ago as a protective mechanism to help us survive a danger or threat (millions of years ago a saber tooth tiger while we were hunting for food). However, physically the result of these chemicals being released includes an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, rapid and typically more shallow breathing, along with a host of other physical symptoms (increased muscle tension, cold clammy hands, decreased blood flow to our arms and legs).
So what can we do to decrease the negative effects of these stressors and actively take steps to care for our physical and emotional wellbeing? First and foremost is to identify where we hold our stress (do we get cold hands or feet, does our stomach ache, does our neck or back hurt, do we get a migraine or other headache). Next is to evaluate our breathing. Engaging in thoracic or chest breathing is associated with the “fight or flight” response. We may think we are relaxing (sitting in a comfortable chair, or lying down) however, if we are engaging in thoracic/chest breathing our brain is receiving the message that our system is under threat which results in our experiencing a heightened state of arousal. Thus, our heart rate stays elevated, our blood pressure stays elevated and we may feel tense and on edge.
Dean Ornish, MD, a cardiologist, worked closely with his patients teaching them the importance of practicing stress management techniques such as deep belly breathing to help them lower their heart rate and blood pressure with the goal of decreasing the likelihood they would require cardiac surgery.
Working with individuals I teach them several mind-body medicine techniques to help decrease the negative effects of stress in their lives. First and foremost is diaphragmatic breathing – or what is referred to as “belly breathing.” By breathing in your belly a message is sent to your brain which shuts off the Sympathetic (fight or flight) Nervous System and thereby halts the release of the stress hormones (such as cortisol) and triggers the Parasympathetic (relaxation response) Nervous System.
Herbert Benson, MD discussed this technique 40 years ago in his book The Relaxation Response. Janice Keicolt-Glaser, PhD has conducted the seminal research on the impact of stress on our immune response. Her research suggests that chronic unrelenting or poorly managed stress can down-regulate or compromise the immune system. Interestingly, recent research that has found engaging in relaxation to manage stress can actually enhance the immune response of our bodies.
Guided Imagery is a specific relaxation technique where powerful and relaxing images are developed to create a sense of relaxation for individuals. Perhaps one might visualize a favorite vacation spot (perhaps being on the beach listening to the waves lapping on the shore) where they are able to let go of the everyday stresses and experience relaxation. This simple process of imagining has been found to actually trigger the same response in the brain as if one was actually lying on the beach.
Biofeedback is a focused technique which uses sensors place strategically on an individual’s body provides that person with feedback from their own bodies which alerts them to subtle changes in their bodies to inform them when their bodies are experiencing stress response and also when they have been able to trigger relaxation response.
Typically biofeedback focuses on one specific area (typically based on where the individual experiences their stress response) to provide feedback (such as on their breathing or muscle tension). Once the individual learns strategies which increase the relaxation response then they can generalize to other areas of their bodies.
These are just a few strategies one can employ to navigate the daily stresses they experience. There is a famous quote that says, I can’t control the way the wind blow but I can control the way I set my sail.