What is stress? My 5 top tips to help you relax.
Everyone has to deal with stressful situations at some points in their life. Looking at this picture you may recognise feeling like this in your own life or maybe you’ve experienced it in the past. Stress is a normal part of life and it is only be knowing what stress is, that we also know how to appreciate life without stress. Unfortunatley, this is no comfort at the time we are actually experiencing stress.
Having just experienced some of the most stressful months of my life – I know this all too well. The sleepless nights, loss of appetite, butterflies in my tummy, shortness of breath and pounding heart….all tell-tale signs of stress.
Being a massage therapist, I ought to be well rehearsed in easing and calming stress but the truth is that when it’s yourself, it’s not always so easy to take your own advice. And when you’re in that spiral of anxiety, you’re over-tired and pre-occupied, it’s very difficult to concentrate on anything else.
In the modern day, many aspects of our lifestyles can be stressful, whether its health related, family, money or work. Stress is a normal part of life – it’s how we deal with it that is important.
So, what is stress in a physical sense? We’ve all felt the symptoms, but why do our bodies react that way? Way back when us human beings were living in caves, hunting for our food, our life stresses were very different than they are now. Our main source of stress was worrying about survival in a very primal sense and our bodies needed to be able to protect us so we developed our fight or flight response.
So, let's imagine we're back in cave man/woman times and you’re walking through the woods going to the stream to collect water for your family when you hear a rustle in the bushes behind you – you turn around and peering at you with piercing eyes is a sabretooth tiger, snarling and posed, ready to pounce….STRESS!!!!
Your body needs to react straight away to save your life. Your brain sets off a chain reaction beginning by flushing the body with the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Your blood pressure increases and blood sugar level goes up providing fuel for your next move. Breathing increases to bring more oxygen to your lungs and your heart starts to pound, pumping faster to supply more blood to your muscles, which are now tensed up ready for action. The body suppresses all non-vital functions including the immune system, digestive system, sexual arousal, peripheral vision and some hearing function so you can concentrate on getting away. You’re ready either to fight this tiger to the death... or to run away as fast as you can.
You choose to run, dropping your handmade clay water pot on the ground, it smashes into pieces, startling the tiger and giving you a head-start. You sprint as fast as you can manage. Leaves crunching under your feet, you duck beneath low lying branches and jump over logs, tearing through vines until you see the river up ahead. Your muscles are burning, breathing fast and heavy, heart pounding as if it might jump right out of your chest. You hear the tiger snarling behind you, the sound of its paws thudding on the ground getting closer and closer. Just as you can feel the tiger’s breath on the back of your neck, its massive sharp teeth almost touching your skin, you reach the waters’ edge and dive into the deep, cool refreshing water.
You escaped! And all due to your body’s amazing stress response!
It really is an amazing survival tool we have. The only problem is that the stresses of modern life don’t usually involve running away from tigers anymore (at least for most people)! But our bodies still go all out whether we’re being chased by a tiger, or we just dropped our new phone down the toilet after waiting on hold to speak to British Gas for the past 45 minutes and they only just answered and this was the third time you had rung them because they accidentally cut you off the first two times and we just knew we should have taken out phone insurance but it was on our to do list and now what are we going to do?!?!
In everyday life, repeated stress, even if it’s not life threatening, can have the same effect on our bodies as being chased by a tiger would. This is the reason people who are stressed out often can suffer with muscle tension, high blood pressure, digestive problems, loss of sexual desire, loss of appetite and susceptibility to becoming run-down and poorly.
I found that understanding why my body behaves the way it does at times of stress comforting. Even though it doesn’t change the anxiety of the moment, I can appreciate that in its own way my body is just trying to help, to protect me and it’s nice to know that in that way, at least I’m looking out for myself.
So how does understanding stress help us to manage it? Here are my top 5 ways to help manage stress:
It sounds so simple but it really is one of the most effective ways to calm down and reverse some of the stress response. Deep, slow breathing sends your brain the message that the stress response is not appropriate. It also helps to supply oxygen to the brain so that you can think more clearly.
Take 10 deep breaths – try counting to five as you breathe in and counting to 8 as you breathe out. Imagine bringing sunshine and light into your body on each inward breath and blowing out stress and worry with each outward breath.
Your muscles tighten up ready for action when you are feeling stressed so stretching them out can help to prevent tension building up.
Try rolling your shoulders backwards and forwards 5 times and easing your neck from side to side. If no-ones around or you’re not the type to get self-conscious, turn these movements into a little dance. I’m not joking! When I’m feeling really stressed out sometimes just making silly movements makes me laugh and remember that everything doesn’t have to be so serious.
Slightly related to the one above! Laughter has been shown to reduce the stress hormone cortisol and release endorphins, which make us feel good and can reduce pain. It has also been shown to boost our immune system.
When you are feeling stressed out, laughing is probably the last thing on your mind but just a minute of genuine laughter can really make you feel better. Remember a funny event, read something funny or watch a funny video. If you can’t think of anything that makes you laugh – try watching others laugh. It’s true that laughter is contagious. Here are 2 of my favourite funny videos.
4. Talk to a friend
I recently met up with a friend I hadn’t seen in ages and it turned out that we’d both been having pretty stressful times in our lives. We have a tendency to shut others out when we’re feeling stressed but I know that had we seen each other or even spoken on the phone for just 5 minutes that we would have both felt better. It’s surprising to find just how much others are willing to help you if you really need it.
Arrange to meet a friend for a cup of tea, ring someone, or even just send a text. Connecting with others helps to remind you that there is more to life than the stressful problem you’re dealing with right now and kind words, a hug and a nice cup of tea are never far away when you need them.
5. Get a massage
Of course I am going to advocate the amazing powers of massage here. Massage really is a wonderful tool in dealing with stress and that is why so many people already use it for this purpose. Massage helps to reverse all of those things that the body does in times of stress. It reduces muscular tension. It reduces heart and breathing rates. It stimulates repressed functions such as digestive, reproductive and immune systems. It can help to lower blood pressure. And it can lower cortisol levels and increase feel good hormones such as dopamine and serotonin.
As well as all of these physiological changes, massage gives you time and space where you have permission to not think about the things that are worrying you. It is little calm space where the focus is on you and you only need think about how you are helping yourself to feel better. All of these changes can help you to feel calmer, more relaxed and less stressed. I find massage extremely helpful at times of stress and for me it really has a big impact on making me feel better.
Each individual’s response to massage varies and everyone likes to use massage in a different way. Some people find one–off massage at times of stress can be really beneficial, whilst others like regular massages to keep stress at bay. The only way to find out what works for you is to give it a try! Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 07804249549 to book an appointment.