The path to a stress-free life

Prof. Dr. Verena Briner, FRCP
Prof. Dr. Verena Briner, FRCP
Body & Mind
All stressed out. Stress. It's a common feature of all our lives and comes in all kinds of different forms. However, there are basically two types of stress: positive and harmful. Positive stress can be enormously practical and usually comes in short bursts. It helps keep us out of trouble and generates the hormones our bodies need when faced with danger. 

The “fight-or-flight” response, as it is often called, causes our muscles to tense and pushes up our pulse rate. It helps us to perform when the situation calls for it. The fear an actor feels before walking on stage or before you take a bungee jump produced by the same chemicals. And once the stressor – the reason for our anxiety – is removed, the stress itself disappears.

Negative stress, on the other hand, is usually chronic and, left untreated, can be harmful to our mental and physical health. It is the ongoing tension caused by financial problems, for example, or unhappiness in a relationship or personal situation. It may be triggered by too much – or too little – work, or by bullying. Eventually, we may become so used to the sensation that we begin to consider it normal, which may in turn lead to medical problems causing mental health issues. Chronic stress keeps the body in a constant state of alertness and if we do not take steps to relieve it can lead to a host of serious problems, such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and depression.

 

Stress symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms of chronic stress is not always easy, and we all respond differently to the vast range of stimuli that affect us. Even worse: many of us are under so much pressure that we often fail to realize it until it is too late. Nevertheless, the symptoms of stress can affect our emotions, our physical well-being, our cognitive powers and our behaviour. The emotional symptoms may manifest themselves as an inability to relax or calm down; a tendency to be easily frustrated, agitated or moody; low self-esteem, which makes us feel bad about ourselves, lonely and depressed; and a need to avoid others. Stress relief as an activity defining one's common behaviour, can be challenging. 

Physically, we may have a variety of pains, headaches, low energy, insomnia, difficulties in breathing, high heart rates, frequent colds and infections, loss of sexual desire together with a whole host of other harmful and unpleasant symptoms such as the inability to focus, constant worrying, forgetfulness, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression, to name but a few. And from a behavioural point of view, we may find ourselves procrastinating, drinking or smoking more, using medication, eating too little or too much, and generally behaving more nervously stressful.

 

The art of managing stress

As we have seen, stress is inevitable in many different areas of our lives. Nowadays stress management becomes one of the most demanding areas of medical field. Many of us live in environments where stress induced circumstances are known to cause health problems, generating anxiety forcing our bodies to react. However stress has it s own facets. A short-lived, positive forms of stress for example can help improve our lives by helping us to avoid danger or enhancing performance in a variety of ways. Negative stress, however, can be insidious and has a nasty habit of gradually taking over our lives until we are often no longer able to pinpoint its cause(s). Since stress is inescapable, it is of paramount importance that we learn how to recognize it and deal with it. Generally speaking, most websites, brochures and individuals offer very similar advice on the issue of stress management. Below is a by no means comprehensive list of recommended approaches and therapies.

 

 

EXERCISE

Physical activities, breathing exercises and relaxation could claim to be the most convenient and immediate quick-fix answer to stress in numerous situations. Activities performed under medical guidance are a well known stress relief remedy. To exercise, walking briskly, running, dancing, cycling and practicing yoga are all tried-and-tested ways of lowering the levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and generating endorphins, a group of feel-good chemicals that have an analgesic effect, counter pain and stress and ultimately boost our feeling of happiness. They are also responsible for that well-known phenomenon “runners' high”, which often occurs after running long distances. Generally, the sensation of release and relief following physical activity comes immediately. Feeling good physically also increases our sense of self-esteem.

Sleep

In the stress hierarchy, sleep is a double-edged sword. Not getting enough sleep means we do not wake up feeling refreshed and fit to tackle our day-to-day tasks, leading to stress. Stress, on the other hand, often causes our minds to run in endless circles and prevents us from feeling relaxed enough to fall asleep. Ideally, avoid medication for insomnia and arrange an evening routine that prepares you for sleep. Refrain from drinking caffeine and excessive alcohol or eating too late. Take a warm bath. Read a non-demanding book to take your mind off everyday worries, and try to go to bed at a regular hour.

Learn relaxation techniques

Help yourself to relax by using a stress reduction technique each day such as mindfulness based- exercises. You could use a mantra or simply repeat a word or phrase which, in your mind, has positive connotations, such as “love”, “peace” or “I am in control”. The advantage of what is effectively a self-hypnosis technique is that it can be practised anywhere, anytime. You should not be discouraged if you do not get immediate results: relaxation is a skill that has to be learned. 

Practicing different types of yoga and breathing techniques will also contribute to reduce the impact of stress busting circumstances encountered during the day and your body will perceive them as a relaxation response to the quotidian tensed life style we all live. The above approaches are practical in that they can be practised almost anywhere, anytime. But let us consider now mental attitudes and simple tricks for boosting our sense of well-being and mental health. We also look at techniques for making our everyday working lives more manageable – and in the process reducing our stress levels.

 

 

Laugh a lot

Have you ever noticed how good you feel after a fit of laughter? The easiest of all stress-relieving techniques one would know! That's because laughter relaxes the whole body, relieving physical stress and tension, and leaves your muscles relaxed for as long as 45 minutes. It has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormone levels, improve cardiac health, release endorphins and give you an overall sense of well-being.

To paraphrase that well-known saying, a health tip: “A laugh a day keeps the doctor away”.

Be mindful

We live in a busy world. We want to focus on immediate tasks in the here and now but are interrupted by an often uncontrollable stream of external or internal distractions. Mindfulness, originally a Buddhist practice, has been adopted in our modern western world as a means of promoting emotional and physical well-being. A form of meditation, it focuses our attention on the present moment and accepts it without prejudice. And it has been scientifically demonstrated that mindfulness through deep breathing is a critical element in reducing anxiety, inducing muscle relaxation impacting different muscle group at a time, reducing acute stress levels and improving our overall happiness.

The power of human intimacy

With more and more of us living in single-person households, it comes as no surprise to learn that stress levels and the frequency of depression continue to rise. Technology – buying everything from clothes to groceries online, reading newspapers without having to buy them physically, ordering home-delivery meals through apps – has robbed us of many of the everyday tasks that used to require human contact. And the negative repercussions of that lack of connection are something we underestimate. 

Talking to other people, whether friends, family members or chance acquaintances, gives us a different perspective on life and its challenges. It is vital for us to have a strong network of individuals with whom we have loving, caring relationships and share our problems. Social support can help see us through tough and stressful times. Long-term a well-nourished familiar environment where active listening and genuine caring are shared, are fundamentals for a balanced, stress-free life. Finally, let us look at a different way of bringing stress under control and avoiding stressful situations.

Keep a journal

Essentially, this means noting down all stress-related factors that cause you to feel stressed: how and when they occur, their intensity and how – if at all – you manage to deal with them. It will also help you to focus on the more positive aspects of your life.

 

 

Take control

We all know the daunting feeling of having a to-do list as long as our arms and how the sight of it discourages us from tackling it. In a situation like this, it is essential to look at individual tasks and categorize them in terms of priority and deadlines, and whether we can delegate them to others. And remember: the best way to get things done is simply to begin. So: don't procrastinate. 

Putting things off means you are continuously under stress because what you know needs to be done is always at the back of your mind. Equally important as part of our campaign to take control is to learn to say “No” and mean it. How many times in your life have you taken on responsibility for more than you can comfortably handle? If it occurs regularly, you need to address it seriously. All these behaviors are true stress relievers which will have strong health benefits if practiced consciously and acknowledged in time.

In conclusion

Stress and anxiety are part of the human condition and will accompany us to the end of our lives. The vital thing is to reduce the pressure you feel on you personally. Stress management programs and stress relief techniques are not one-fit-all methods or actions which will guarantee a stress free life. The journey is paved differently on both, long and short-term and diverse programs and tailor made remedies are subject to each individual involving a wide palette of physical activities, meditation and yoga practices, breathing techniques, social interactions or simple self-care life style where mind-body balance is at centre in our day to day routines. All involves taking your mind of stress and its sources by taking regular exercise, changing our mental habits, listening to music and making physical intimacy part of our lives. These are bold but ultimately rewarding steps to take.

Aim for a stress-free life.

 

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