Chronic stress is a widespread health concern that has reached epidemic proportions. Stress can have emotional and physical repercussions, including anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and migraines, and can lead to more serious illnesses like heart disease and cancer.
In looking for ways to escape stress, people commonly adopt unhealthy behaviors such as overeating or unhealthy eating, excessive media consumption, drinking alcohol, smoking, or other habits. These behaviors and substances may provide temporary relief from stress, but have long-term negative health effects on the body, and do nothing to address the root causes of stress. Over time, these temporary fixes lose their effectiveness and can lead to addiction.
In my work, I have encountered many individuals who don’t consider themselves to be alcoholics, but who consume alcohol on a daily basis to unwind and get their minds off the stressful situations they encountered that day. Many of these individuals have admitted to me that at times when the demands of life, family, and career are especially turbulent, they will increase their alcohol intake from their usual nightly glass of wine to two, or even three, glasses. The concern with this type of behavior is not necessarily that a person will lose his ability to moderate his drinking altogether, it is the idea that alcohol (or other substances) should be used as an antidote for stress in the first place. To illustrate with a metaphor – if the kitchen sink springs a leak, a piece of tape will only solve the problem for so long.
Dealing with chronic stress by using substances to self-medicate, or other avoidance behaviors, leads to health problems, negatively affects wellbeing, and causes relationship problems. This, in turn, leads to increased stress. Even more troubling to consider is that if we currently use unhealthy patterns of behavior to escape daily stress, what will happen when we are faced with situations that are even more daunting, such as the break-up of a relationship, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one?
This is why it is important to understand what stress really is and to commit right now to finding healthy ways to address stress in our daily lives.
What is Stress?
Stress is most simply described in relationship to the body’s survival instinct. In emergency situations where our lives are threatened, the body’s sympathetic nervous system reacts in what is known as the fight-or-flight response. When we are stressed, our brain releases cortisol and adrenaline, causing our senses to become alert, respiration to accelerate, blood pressure to rise, and muscles to tense.
However for the average person, most of life’s challenges are not direct threats to survival. Financial worry or an argument with a co-worker do not require a physical reaction from the body in the way that say, an attack by a predator would demand. Nevertheless, if we don’t have positive ways to cope with daily challenges, the result is the ongoing production of stress hormones that negatively affect us.
It is important to recognize that stressful situations always stem from emotions such as worry, anxiety, cravings, anger, or fear. These feelings often come up when we are faced with the unexpected or the uncomfortable. In actuality, stress isn’t caused by external situations, but by the way we handle those situations. Once we recognize that we have a choice as to how to handle the situations we encounter in our daily lives, we can more easily shift our responses.
3 Ways to Manage Stress
The following life-affirming tools can help relieve stress by changing how we respond when faced with stressful situations.
Mindful Body Awareness
When experiencing stress, bring your attention to the area of your body that feels uncomfortable. Allow yourself to feel the sensation in the body without judgment until it starts to dissipate. Experiencing the body’s feeling will allow you to break reactivity.
This simple, powerful tool helps us to calm the mind, dissolve accumulated stress, and respond more consciously.
Yoga balances mind and body, releases stored toxins, and increases the production of stress-relieving hormones.
Life can be short for some of us, and it is very important to live in present moment and enjoy all the beautiful gifts life has to offer.