Stress and Stress Reduction





Here you will learn all about stress, identification, how your body reacts to it, and what you can do to learn more effective coping skills and stress reduction techniques.





Identifying Stress


To learn more about identifying stress, there are many sources on the web that have stress calculation exercises where you can quantify and analyze what type of stress you are under. It’s not necessary for relaxation to know “why” you are stressed, however decreasing negative stimuli from your life, solving unresolved issues, and changing thought patterns to ones that are more positive are all beneficial and will reduce stress in the future. If you need help identifying your stressors: See Thomas Holmes “Schedule of Recent Experiences”, keep a diary, or make lists of all the things that are causing you stress, the extent to which these things cause you discomfort, & the symptoms of stress you exhibit with each experience.

Sources of Stress


Stress researchers Lazarus & Folkman (1984) said stress is felt when you define your situation as dangerous, difficult, or painful and you don’t have the resources to cope with it.


Environmental – pollution, weather, traffic, noise, pollens, toxins, or natural disasters.


Social – to succeed & accomplish, perform, love & be loved, competing demands for your attention & time, loss & grief.


Physiological – bodily changes in maturity & old age, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, inadequate sleep, injury & trauma.


Psychological – how you interpret your past & present experiences, what you predict for your future.


How Your Body Reacts to Stress


Symptoms of Stress


Emotional Symptoms – anxiety in specific situations, general anxiety, anxiety in personal relationships, depression, anger, irritability, resentment, phobias, fear, unrelenting shame, oppression.


Physical Symptoms – muscular tension, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, headaches, neck aches, backaches, muscle spasms, insomnia, sleep disturbances, indigestion, abdominal pain, cold sweat, dry mouth, and hyperventilation.


Mental Symptoms - worry, repetitive thoughts, faithlessness, inability to “let go”, inability to forgive, holding grudges, excessive guilt, excessive mistrust of others, paranoia, ingratitude, inability to concentrate, nightmares, blaming.


Flight of Fight Response


Walter B Cannon was the first to describe the “flight or fight response”. The essence of the idea is that when you interpret or predict a situation as dangerous, painful, or too difficult there is a series of biochemical changes that occur giving you the energy to either fight the threat or run away. It is a useful & necessary survival technique. I would add the “freeze” response to this list.


Hans Seyle (1978), the first major researcher on stress, was able to trace the biochemical process of stress, and found that any threat, real or imagined, can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system.


The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is what regulates the “flight or fight” biochemical processes. It is characterized by symptoms such as increased heart rate, increased breath rate, pupil contraction, capillary constriction, a stop in digestion, burst of energy, increased sweat, increased ATP (energy) production, increased muscle tension, increased metabolism, hearing becomes more acute, blood gets directed away from extremities and digestive system into larger muscles and core protection, the adrenal glands secrete corticoids (adrenaline, epinephrine), collagen production increases, etc.


The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) does the opposite functions & increases relaxation, digestion, and dilation.


Chronic Stress


If everything works correctly, when we experience stress, our body turns on our SNS, called the “Alarm” or “Arousal” Phase, we cope with the stress (using the increased energy to alleviate the negative stimuli), and then our body turns on the PNS so we can relax again when the situation is no longer dangerous. But what happens when our SNS won’t turn off? The long term effects of increased SNS activity inhibit digestion, growth, reproduction, tissue repair, immune function, strength & muscle function, flexibility, etc. and cause abnormal rhythms, fascial restrictions, poor biomechanics, chronic physical pain, disease, and mental trauma.


When stressors are unrelenting, or small stressors accumulate, your body continues to perceive a threat, remains aroused, and you are unable to recover. The stress becomes chronic. It interferes with normal life. It becomes disease.


When we are already in a state of chronic stress, what happens when we experience more, new stressors? More stress means more tension, and decreased function. The shoulders rise a little bit higher. Over time, if there is no let down, we forget what it feels like to be relaxed. The “stressed” state becomes our new “normal”. We lose the ability to relax. This is called adaptation.


Adaptation Syndrome


In 1951, Hans Selye’s research on stress showed that the body always reacts to various stimuli in the same non-specific way. This was termed the adaptation syndrome consisting of a bodily alarm phase, resistance phase, and exhaustion phase.


Alarm- When we are injured we go into a state of dissociation. It is a survival technique. Our body and mind experience the instinctive “freeze” response. This positional, physiological memory becomes imprinted into our subconscious and our conscious body awareness. The nervous system becomes stuck in a state of hyperarousal. The more stressors we endure, the greater the hyperarousal becomes.


Resistance or Adaptation Phase- If stressors continue the body adapts to the stressors. Changes take place in order to cope with the stressors or reduce their effect. For example, your posture changes to shelter or protect a dysfunctional area. Symptoms of stress appear. Patterns of stress related emoting, thinking, and behaving are reinforced in our brains and become part of our identity. Soon, they become our primary responses because they are the most used.


When clients come to my office in this state, their muscles are like 2x4s. The massage work does very little. After treatment, they say they feel relaxed, but to me their muscles feel just as tight. They’ve lost the ability to discern between stressed and relaxed. The goal then becomes re-learning to differentiate between what “stress” and “relaxation” feel like in the body, and then increasing the space between the two extremes.


Exhaustion Phase- The body’s resistance to stress may gradually decline or just collapse. The body’s ability to resist disease is eliminated.


Bibliography

Holmes, Thomas, MD. (1981). Schedule of Recent Experience. The University of Washington Press.
Davis, Martha, PhD Eschelman, Elizabeth Robbins, MSW McKay, Matthew, PhD. (2008). The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. New Harbinger Publications.
Lazarus, R.S., and S. Folkman. (1984). Stress Appraisal and Coping. Springer Publishing.
Seyle, H. (1978). The Stress of Life. McCraw Hill.

Coping With Stress

Because we all live in a stressful environment, and undergo periods of high stress whatever our lifestyle, I believe it is a good thing to learn stress management. Learning stress management skills is essential to being able to cope with stress. But, we must first consider whether we need to be “coping” with stress at all on a regular basis.

Managing stress means two things: One, managing the feeling of stress so that it doesn’t hurt so badly, and two, managing the symptoms of stress (adapting) so that we can continue to function. It is a survival strategy and is sometimes necessary. However, our bodies and spirits are ill equipped to undergo long term stress. Eventually our strategies will give way to the pressures of stress and we will collapse.

People who think they can “cope” with stress on a long term basis are essentially numbing or ignoring stress. You can stay on top of too many emails and telephone calls, sleep less, work 60+ hours a week, work while on vacation or don’t take one at all because you can’t afford to be away from work. You can print out your family schedules, organize, & reorganize all the carpools and activities. You can eat standing up. You can take a shovel and relocate all the stressful stimuli from one room to the next. You can try controlling everything and being aggressively diligent so that you don’t get behind. You may even feel like your way too busy life is not hurting you. All this “coping” is a band-aid covering up the real damage stress is doing.

People who live wholeheartedly don’t “cope” or “manage” their stress. They change the behaviors that create stress. This means that they align their lives around their values. They set boundaries. They practice shame resilience. They practice gratitude. They practice relaxation. They have faith and choose not to live a life full of fear.

It’s important to keep in mind that stress reduction will probably not just happen all at once like magic. It is not uncommon for people to become overwhelmed with all the stress in their lives. It takes time to put in place effective stress reduction strategies. Sometimes, especially in the case of victimization, it is extremely difficult to part with our current survival strategies. They have kept us alive. It takes significant support and cultivation of replacement strategies in order to let the old ways go. There is hope! You can do it! Find the support you need and have patience. Like any healing, it takes practice, patience, compassion, & intention.

Before you begin to change, consider how you already cope with stress, and how effective those coping mechanisms are.

Do you employ negative coping strategies like addictions: addictions to alcohol, drugs, medicine, shopping, working, eating, exercise, sleep, etc? What about emotional shields like cynicism, inappropriate humor, anger & irritability, withdrawal? What about numbing & escapism- deny the problem and it will go away, distract yourself from feeling pain, numbing so you don’t have to feel anything at all, work harder faster longer? Engage in distorted thinking patterns?

Positive coping strategies tend to be more constructive activities like focusing on things in your control and letting go of what’s not, praying, meditating, seeking out support, slowing down, gratitude, regular exercise, balanced nutrition, vacationing, having hobbies, breathing exercises, practicing body awareness (bio-feedback), and most of all- stress reduction!

The wear and tear on our systems from negative coping strategies increases our stress load over time. We increase our stress when we engage in negative behaviors.

Stress Reduction

Essential to stress reduction are valuing calm, simplicity, and time. You also need to set and honor boundaries, believe that you are worthy of living free, practice gratitude & lovely thinking, and practice relaxation.

Value Check

Valuing Calm

Not only do I practice calm through many of the relaxation exercises listed on my website, like deep breathing and meditation, I also find it extremely helpful to spend quality time in nature (where calm is abundant), listen to relaxing music, and hang out with people who are calm.

I also try to avoid things that diminish my spirit like violent music, bloody television programs, and aggressive individuals. I think most of us are not even aware of how those things diminish our spirit, but I believe those things cause negative physiological responses even if they don’t cause negative mental responses. Our bodies tense up when we come in contact with negative stimuli. It’s as simple as that.

For exercises to practice calm see Meditation, Progressive Relaxation, Breathing, Autogenics, and Nature Therapy.


Valuing Simplicity

We live under the misconception that more is better. When stated plainly most of us can see beyond the deception that says if a little bit makes us “not miserable” then the more I have the happier I will be. In fact, most research shows that rich people rate themselves less happy than poor ones do. However, most of us still live like more is better. We spend our money, time, & energy on getting more, keeping more, and being more, and primarily running away from the shame of not being enough. This is a misaligned value.

Valuing simplicity means we resist the urge to accumulate, and enjoy what we have. It means getting rid of all that useless clutter. Why do we have so much junk? If you haven’t used it, worn it, loved it, watched it, listened to it, enjoyed it within the last year- get rid of it!

Living simply without all that junk has been one of the most rewarding things in my life. It makes space for the things that really matter to me.

For help living simply try self-hypnosis and visualization.


Valuing Time & Slowing Down

We all want more “time” to live the life we have, but maybe we just need to stop wasting the time we have. This doesn’t mean becoming more efficient, it means slowing down. Slowing down may be the most important thing you can do to reduce your stress. It means getting rid of all the “stuff” (now we're talking about mental stuff). It doesn’t just mean stopping every once in a while to smell the roses, but it does mean living a life free from the worry of hurry.

Mark Buchanan says, “Being in a hurry, getting to the next thing without fully entering the thing in front of me, I can’t think of a single advantage I’ve ever gained from being in a hurry. But a thousand broken and missed things lie in the wake of all the rushing. I thought I was making up time, instead I was throwing it away.”

The hurry makes us hurt, it empties the soul. The key to having enough time and slowing down is to be present in the moment, to give the present moment your attention. To be truly present with another human being, without thinking about the next task you have to accomplish- imagine how that can transform your relationships filling you with intimacy! To be present in the sunset fills your soul with beauty. To be present in your play fills your soul with adventure.


In body work, being present lets us tune into the body’s language which is rife with information. It is fascinating to see how our bodies assist in telling our stories. It is a language all its own. It is in the quiet stillness where we see how our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits connect together. And it is only in the slowness where transformation happens.


When we slow down we are less likely to go “unconscious” and traumatize each other. It is a way of interacting that honors others and facilitates deeper levels of unity and resonance.


When we slow down we let go of our attachments - attachments to outcome, agendas, judgments, pain, fear, & ego. It arises out of a state of non-doing or wu-wei. It is surrender. It is abiding. It is stillness and grace. It allows us to touch into something greater than ourselves. In our ability to simply “be” we create the space for whatever wants to surface organically. It is integrity. It is authenticity. It is a way of experiencing without censorship, dissociation, or numbing.


To practice slowing down try meditation and inner presence exercises to focus your mind on the present moment.


Setting Boundaries

Boundaries are not always about closing off completely. Healthy boundaries are flexible and adaptable. Healthy boundaries are similar to a semi-permeable membrane. We can decide who/what comes in and who/what stays out. Boundaries are as much about saying yes as saying no. They give us opportunities to practice discrimination. Boundaries provide ground for real intimacy and trust to be developed. They allow us space to acknowledge and respect our individual experiences.

Setting boundaries requires you to first know where your boundaries are, to practice having safe boundaries, and to intentionally explore and push your boundaries safely into new dimensions.

I honor and respect my own boundaries when I stay true to my values, when I stand up for myself, when I ask for what I need. I do not feel ashamed when I say no. I stay safe. I stay healthy. I practice discrimination. I break a situation down into its most simple terms of wants, needs, and values. Confusion is a good indication that things have become too complex. I practice self compassion.

I honor your boundaries through my compassion towards you. I ask you what you need and listen to you. I acknowledge you and stay present with you without judgment. I stand up for you. I respect our differences. I respect your limitations without shaming you. I honor your vulnerability and encourage and inspire you to risk and grow. I agree to move forward, stop, and away as you ask me to.

To practice see Boundaries.


Shame Resilience

See Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly. This is about the “not enough” syndrome, and how we can have courage and live free of shame. This is important to stress reduction, because if you feel like you are not worthy, or are driven by your shame into seeking “more” (as all of us are), it will be an insurmountable barrier to achieving a stress-free life. You will pursue having and being more at the cost of your health and sanity.

To practice shame resilience try Inner Presence, Self-Hypnosis, and Refuting Irrational Ideas.


Gratitude

Gratitude is the key to a fuller life, the way to find joy. Augustine said that, without exception, we all try hardest to reach the same goal- joy. We all want a full life. We are desperate for joy and will sacrifice everything for it. What most people don’t understand is that joy is found within gratitude. Gratitude comes first. It is opening your hands to freely receive whatever is given. It is seeing the blessing through, and in, even the ugliness. It is based on things that we already have, so joy cannot be “taken away” from us. Practicing eucharisteo (thanksgiving) is essential to stress reduction because it allows us to experience everyday epiphanies, freedom & peace.

To practice see Gratitude and see Ann Voskamp's book, "One thousand gifts".


Lovely Thinking


Keep your eyes on Christ and your mind on lovely things. "Think on these things and whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy" (Phil 4:8). This is the third greatest truth I have learned in order to live well and it is essential to stress reduction because it keeps our minds from generating stress. You must practice lovely thinking diligently. Every time negative thoughts enter into your mind, you tell your mind, “No. Stop it”, and force those thoughts to leave your brain. Then you must fill your brain up again with good things so that the negative ones don’t come back. Your mind is a battlefield and you must fight. Eventually, with practice, negative thoughts just don’t enter in as easily and are easier to banish. You may never be completely free from them, but it does get easier. Negative thoughts are like a cancer that rot your brain. Lovely thoughts are freedom.


Relaxation

Relaxation is not just the absence of stress and activity. It is the feeling and employment of calm, peace and contentment. You have to practice relaxation if you want to reap the benefits of relaxation. It takes intention. You set aside time & space, let go of distractions, duty and ego, and find solace and renewal.

I find relaxation exercises very useful for maintaining a calm and peaceful spirit, regaining a positive perspective over my life, and inspiring me to live with more intention. For these reasons, I encourage others to learn and practice relaxation on a regular basis.

Stress Reduction Exercises and Positive Coping Strategies

In my website section “relaxation exercises” I have written instructions for several different relaxation techniques and positive reduction strategies you can practice.

Begin practicing today, and if you need help with any of the exercises, or have more questions about stress and stress management, please contact me!

Bibliography

Brown, Brene. (2012). Daring Greatly.
Voskamp, Ann. (2010). One Thousand Gifts. Zondervan Publishing.
Buchanan, Mark. (2007). The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Your Sabbath.