What is Stress?
Stress means different things to different people. The World Health Organisation defines it as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” The Better Health Channel describes it as something we experience “When there is an imbalance between the demands being made on us and our resources to cope with those demands.”
However you define it, stress is a very natural physical and emotional response to threats and challenges that is part of being human. We all experience it at some point, in varying degrees, but we all react to it differently. Some people thrive on it, while others find it debilitating.
Why Do We Experience Stress?
When we find ourselves in a challenging or fearful situation, we might have a physical response, such as a rapid heartbeat, increased breathing rate, or elevated blood pressure. Mentally and emotionally, we also respond in different ways, from experiencing racing thoughts or having difficulty concentrating, to catastrophising, worrying and feeling overwhelmed.
Stress can be caused by our environment – perhaps a demanding boss and tight deadlines at work, or fractious young children or disagreeable teenagers at home. It can also come from a relationship with a difficult person in our lives, financial worries, housing affordability, exams, unemployment or illness and medical issues. Or it can simply come from having too much to do, with never enough time to do it.
Is It Always a Bad Thing?
Feeling stressed over a short period of time can sometimes be positive, in that it can motivate us to get things done, inspire ideas under pressure and enhance our performance when the stakes are high. However, chronic, ongoing stress can drain us of energy and leave us feeling confused, unfocused, overwhelmed and exhausted. Worse than this, it can have substantial negative effects on our physical and mental health, leading to illness, anxiety and depression.
Signs of Stress
When stress goes from helpful to harmful, there are often signs. These can include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Hair loss
- Skin breakouts
- Stomach upsets
- Overeating or loss of appetite
- Growing dependency on alcohol or other unhealthy coping mechanisms
Benefits of Relaxation Techniques
The good news is that dealing with stress can be very easy. Sometimes it’s a matter of removing ourselves from the stressful environments, situations or people that are negatively affecting us. Or we can prepare in advance for stressful times by having a plan in place or setting healthy boundaries.
But sometimes stress is unavoidable, so it’s important to have relaxation techniques we can call on to help us survive and thrive during busy times or challenging situations.
Meditation is an ancient and reliable tool to have in your relaxation arsenal. It helps you to slow your breathing, focus your mind, and calm your farm. You can literally do it anywhere, for free, and there are countless books, apps, youtube videos and local classes to help you get started. Do it for five minutes or an hour, regularly, and you will experience the stress-relieving benefits.
Yoga and Tai Chi
Yoga and Tai Chi are like physical forms of meditation, that aim to bring harmony to your mind, body and spirit. Both practices have been around for thousands of years, and may come from different countries, but both involve slow body movements, concentration, and deep breathing, that alleviate stress and leave you feeling calm, physically and mentally. Hit up your local community hall for a class or follow one online.
Sleep deprivation will only aggravate the symptoms of stress, so it’s important to get plenty of quality sleep. A nightly sleep hygiene routine can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. This means a clean, dark, uncluttered sleeping space, no tech, like tv or phones half an hour before going to bed (try reading a book instead), and possibly trying sleep aids like lavender pillow spray and white noise apps.
A really easy technique that can be practiced anywhere, anytime, and only takes a few moments, is muscle relaxation. Close your eyes, then tense up the muscles in your toes for five to ten seconds, then relax them. Do the same with your feet. Then move up to your calves, your butt and thighs, your fingers, hands, shoulders, etc. It’s surprising just how much tension we can hold in our muscles, and this is a very simple way to relieve the stress in our bodies.
Deep Breathing and Visualisation
Another easy way to relax is to take a moment to simply breathe. Close your eyes, breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of five, then out through your mouth. Notice how your body feels as you do this. Then once you’re in a gentle breathing pattern, let your mind wander somewhere peaceful. Visualise yourself sitting by a mountain stream or a beautiful beach. Hear the bird song and feel the breeze lightly brushing your skin and relax into the beautiful scene around you. When you feel ready to come back, slowly open your eyes and give yourself a moment, before getting on with your day.
When we’re stressed, a racing mind is common, and it can be hard to concentrate. Practicing mindfulness can alleviate this. There are multiple ways to enjoy mindfulness including forest bathing, slow eating, deep breathing, doing a jigsaw puzzle or a crossword, exercising in nature, or simply sitting on a park bench, noticing everything going on around you, without judgement or analysis.
As strange as it may sound, developing feelings of gratitude can be a wonderful way to relax. A lot of stress comes from fear of the unknown, worries over financial security, career concerns, or feeling like we don’t have enough. The next time you feel stressed and overwhelmed, sit down somewhere quiet with pen and paper and engage in a gratitude tsunami – write down everything you have to be grateful for – from big things like your loving family or being able to live in a safe country and having clean water to drink and electricity at a switch, to little things like someone smiling at you this morning or holding a door open for you yesterday, or your favourite tv show being on tonight. The more you write down, the more you will think of. Once you realise how lucky you actually are, the worries of the world tend to drift away.
Some More Relaxation Techniques to Try:
- EFT Tapping
- Vagus Nerve Stimulation
- Painting, Music or Pet Therapy
- Relaxation Massage
- Magnesium Tank Floating
- Bird Watching
Books About Relaxation:
- The Resilience Project by Hugh Van Cuylenburg
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- Instant Calm by Paul Wilson
- Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel