Acute cases of stress are temporary and in response to external events such as changes in life situation: a move, job loss or change, relationship transitions or loss of a loved one. In the field of psychology, these events are called “stressors” and they affect us by changing the physiology of our bodies when they occur. We feel their effects in our increased heart rate, rise in blood pressure, constriction of blood vessels and decreased digestive function. This fight, flight or freeze reaction is an evolutionary response to danger. It is essential to our survival as a species. Our bodies respond to danger by diverting blood flow to the areas of the body that need it most and a flood of hormones fills our bloodstream to be able to confront or evade the threat. Once the threat has passed, our bodies come back to their “rest and digest” mode. The problem is that stressors have become so chronic in a society that has created threats in forms of social pressures, career aspirations, competition on social media, countless deadlines and expectations to meet standards that are often unrealistic and unattainable. The stressors are everywhere we go and in any place, we look and we have not evolved to be able to differentiate between life-threatening stress and modern life stress.
These issues can manifest themselves emotionally as well. Emotionally we can feel unbalanced as we experience feelings of sadness, grief, disconnectedness, loneliness, lack of purpose or the inability to meet expectations that society or that we ourselves have placed on ourselves. Sometimes this manifests into temporary bouts of depression, where these feelings leave us feeling helpless, hopeless and unmotivated. However, for many of us, we recognize that these feelings are momentary and that taking time to wallow in these feelings is actually ok. Grieving a loss is completely appropriate, feeling underappreciated is a normal response to losing a job, feeling unmotivated or insufficient is something we all feel at some point. However, many of us are able to process these emotions and we use tools that are available to overcome these temporary life upsets. Here are some tools that may be helpful when you are going through some of life’s obstacles:
Breathing and stillness: Breathing slowly and intentionally has the ability to slow down our heart rate and bring us back to the present moment. This mind-body connection is nowhere more pronounced than in the breath and its effects on the physical body. There are many different breathing techniques but simply counting to 4 and inhaling all the way to the belly and counting to 4 on the exhale and pulling in the belly, has the ability to bring the body back into physiological balance.
Movement: Movement can come in many forms and moves stagnant or stuck energy through the body and out. Exercise or rigorous cardio type activities get you out of your head, into the moment and release all kinds of feel-good hormones into your body. If rigorous exercise is not your thing, then try yoga or pilates or even just put on some music and dance around your living room. Shake out any emotions that are unwelcome and watch how music and movement can bring a smile onto your face.
Communing with nature: There are numerous studies on the effects of nature on our mood and wellbeing. Taking a walk amongst trees, flowers, rivers, oceans, mountains, meadows or any other natural environments, have numerous positive effects on our heart rates, blood pressure, mood and outlook on life. Nature reminds us that being you is enough. You do not have to compete, be anything you are not. Everything in nature has its time and flowers do not need to bloom all year to be beautiful and appreciated. Nature lessons are really important in understanding how to navigate a world where who you are is defined by society’s many metrics. A career, family, outward appearance, money and having to embody all of these things perfectly. Just remember that you cannot compare yourself to anyone else. You can only compare yourself to well, yourself and to appreciate how far you have come in this life. Life is a garden and you are the gardener who chooses what to pull and what to plant.
Having a cup of tea or a hot cup of cacao: Although herbs are thought of as supportive actor in the healing process, the healing that they can bring is very real. There are numerous herbs to support a depleted nervous system. From Tulsi to Lemon Balm, Chamomile to Mimosa, Milky Oats to Linden, teas can be really nourishing and give us an excuse to sit down, breathe in essential oils, sip on a warm drink and let the herbs do the rest. It is amazing how something like tea can act like a hug on your insides. Cacao contains magnesium and has been shown to bring on the happy hormones. Don’t feel guilty for relishing in this moment.
Talking to friends: Humans are social animals and we are not meant to be isolated. Although this world has made us more connected than ever before, we are also craving more authentic connections. It is not enough to look at someone’s profile on Instagram and feel like we know them. Humans are reciprocal in nature and we need the reciprocity of genuine relationships. When we talk to a friend, we can get a perspective on a situation and maybe even realize that we are not alone in what we are feeling. So don’t be afraid to pick up the phone or meet a friend for coffee, even when everything in your being wants you to hide under the covers.
Getting a massage: Sometimes the tension in your body is very real. Shoulders might be tight, you may be clenching your jaw without realizing it, your back might be pulsating with pain. The mind-body connection is very very real and tension and pain are direct embodiments of your stress. Getting a massage will relax your body, calm your mind and bring your body back to homeostasis. Massage literally moves energy through your body and disperses it to where it needs to go. Touch is also incredibly powerful. When a lack of connection is a symptom of modern society, sometimes the closest connections are what we need most.
Being creative: Creativity is so wonderful to diffuse stress because it takes your full attention. Whether you are creating art, gardening, dancing, singing, coloring or writing, there is a reason why these activities are so therapeutic. They get you out of your head and into your heart and they demand your presence. Even if this is a momentary fix, you will notice how much lighter you feel after indulging in these activities.
Practicing gratitude: We know. This seems cliche and more than that, difficult to do when you are in the pit of darkness. However, it also works. It will not alone pull you out of the depths of your sadness, grief or suffering but in conjunction with some other exercises, it is amazing what counting our blessings can do for our mental health. Did you know that humans remember the bad things a lot better than they do the good things that come their way? Have you ever noticed how you hold on to negative events and are so quick to get over the positive things that happened? This isn’t just your imagination. This is really how our brains work. So, in order to counteract that and in order to remember just how good things are, count your blessings every morning or night. Was there a smile that lit up your day? Did someone compliment you? Did you get your favorite spot at the cafe? Was your lunch delicious? Even in the midst of some of the worst crisis, there are glimmers of hope. Grab those and hold on and with time those glimmers might just shine a path out of the dark.
The underlying theme of all of the above is self-care. We often feel selfish or guilty for taking a moment to ourselves and often ignore the signs of our own depletion. We have become human doers at the expense of human beings and do not afford ourselves the space and quiet to just relax. We also deem feelings of anxiety and sadness as unwanted and try our very best to make them go away without confronting the root of the issue. At times, we may not have the tools to confront the issue and at other times we may be completely unaware that there is an issue to begin with. Perhaps our stressor is something or someone that has been around for far too long to be able to point to and recognize that it is causing you stress or anxiety. In many cases, it might be so chronic that there is no single underlying cause but an environment of dis-ease.
Chronic stress is really at the root of not just many mental illnesses but also at the root of many physical illnesses. Chronic stress has a direct effect on the functioning of our immune system. In fact, our nervous system governs many other “systems” in our bodies, including our endocrine system, digestive system, and immune system. Chronic stress is dangerous and will often lead to other conditions such as anxiety and depression, and will shape a person’s life as the ability to respond to any situation becomes clouded by impaired judgment, perhaps even furthering the stress in our bodies. Sometimes this cycle can seem too daunting to break, sometimes we may just not know how to break it and sometimes we simply do not have the reserves to make any changes, feeling that our basic survival is all that we can muster the energy to ensure. Of course, the obvious thing would be to remove the stressor from your life but sometimes this is not possible and the next best thing is to manage the levels of stress. Well, you may have heard this before, but lifestyle has a huge impact on the stress in our lives. When we eat nutritious food, move and exercise enough, get good quality sleep, disconnect from our electronic devices at certain points throughout the day, we help mitigate stressful environments and events. Here are some ways you can diffuse the stress in your life:
Nutritious Food: You may have heard the expression, “you are what you eat” and this could not be a more accurate statement. What goes into your body will be directly reflected in how you feel. “As within, so without. As above so below, as the universe, so the soul…” This quote is attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and highlights the fact that everything that you attract is a reflection of what you exude. Food is our sustenance and we have had a troubling relationship with our sustenance for the last 100 years or so with the advent of industrialization, factory farming, fast food movement and a chemical industry that has poisoned our food and has wrongly convinced us that the world’s hunger problem is due to a lack of food production and not a food distribution problem. We have to learn to source our food properly, eat well balanced and nutritious food, eat in community whenever we can and adhere to a slow food movement when possible. Nutrition has a direct impact on your body and your health and can affect everything from your levels of energy to your mood and eventually take a toll on your overall health and wellbeing.
Sleep: Sleep is so important. There is a reason why new mothers often report feelings of stress and anxiety and why sleep deprivation is used as a torture tactic. Low quality and quantity sleep directly impacts our mood in the short term and our cognitive health in the long run. Most people who suffer from anxiety or high stress will report poor sleep and it becomes a chicken or egg situation, sending you into a downward spiral of despair. To ensure better sleep, make sure you do turn off all electronic devices an hour before bed, sleep at a reasonable hour to ensure at least 7 hours of sleep, read a book or do something relaxing before bed and stay away from any caffeine or alcohol a few hours before bed.
Exercise: Moving our bodies is essential to our wellbeing. We have become so sedentary in our lifestyles and many of us do not afford ourselves the time to go to a yoga class, take a walk, an aerobics class or ride a bike. However, in many eastern philosophies, dis-ease occurs as a result of stagnant energy and movement is one of the best ways to move that energy through and out of us. Not to mention, exercise releases serotonin and other happy hormones into our bloodstream and keeps us really focused and present with the task at hand.
Meditation: Meditation is one of the best tools for quieting and centering the mind. It is also wonderful for focus and being present. Meditation has numerous benefits for your mind studies have shown that meditation can decrease anxiety, depression, pain, increase grey matter and protect an aging brain, create new neural pathways leading to better judgment and perception. There is no downside to meditation. It is free. It can be done anywhere and at any time, uses the breath to bridge the mind-body connection, increases oxygen to the brain and the list goes on. Meditating with plants is highly recommended as well. Sitting and breathing with a plant friend is extremely fulfilling and rewarding.
Laughter: They say that laughter is the best medicine. Just like meditation, there are no rules with laughter. It lowers our blood pressure, increases bonding and relieves feelings of social anxiety. It floods the body with feel-good hormones and good times.
Therapy: Sometimes, we all just need an objective listener and therapy is a wonderful option for those who can’t seem to feel more at ease or who can’t find the motivation to do any of the above. Sometimes anxiety and depression are difficult to overcome because the things it takes to get out are precisely the things that you cannot seem to grasp. If you were able to laugh, breathe and see friends, you wouldn’t be depressed or anxious. Sometimes to get us out of the feedback loop, we need to break the pattern somewhere and having an unbiased professional can be a wonderful place to start.
Of course, there is another wonderful way to deal with stress in your life and that is with the help of herbs. It is said that nature has an innate intelligence that surpasses any kind of human intelligence. Plants do not grow in isolation willy nilly. It is probably very likely that the plants that you need are in places where you wonder often and are waiting to be noticed by you. As if by coincidence, nature has also given us a number of plants to help with stress and anxiety as well as with depression, sadness, grief, and scattered thoughts. In part 3 of our blog series, we will discuss herbs for stress and anxiety.