Clammy hands, trembling fingers, shallow breaths… Sounds familiar? That’s how your body reacts to stress. All these are dead giveaways that you are waging an internal war with your emotions and logic. But whether such overwhelming feeling of anxiety is due to a particularly difficult financial situation or an imminent danger, the body’s reaction to stress remains the same. You see, stress does not only spike up your blood pressure and make your heart beat erratically. Stress also triggers something that can prove just as damaging as a possible heart attack—the release of the hormone cortisol.
To give you just a brief overview of the hormone cortisol, you need to understand that it is the reason doctors refer to stress as the number ‘one’ killer. For one thing, it is the release of the hormone cortisol that leads to a suddenly high blood pressure for a stressed-out individual. Another thing is that the release of cortisol can lead to serious medical conditions such as depression.
You might be thinking now that the hormone cortisol is a bad idea for our body to release altogether. However, that is not entirely the case. The release of cortisol hormones in our system also triggers the adrenaline rush that characterizes our body’s reaction to panic. Such reaction keeps our body alert—either to fight or to take flight from the perceived danger. Without the adrenaline rush, you could not possibly carry out an instantaneous physical action in response to the danger you have perceived.
Cortisol, then, proves useful in cases where you have to fight the source of tension physically. However, we rarely do find ourselves in such tight spots, do we? Too much cortisol hormones in our bodies is therefore not a good thing for us whose stressors rarely require physical action. It is thus vital that we learn how to control our body’s response to stressors and find a way to relax immediately and keep the cortisol hormones at a minimum.
There are plenty of stress management methods that experts recommend. For this article, however, let us consider just five methods that scientific data supports for successfully dealing with stress.
1.Go Out for a Brisk Walk
The classic response to a potentially explosive situation—a couple arguing over finances, for example—is walking out before things could get out of control. Walking out when you are experiencing extreme emotions is the wisest course to take if you want to prevent yourself from doing and saying things you are bound to regret. Scientists, however, urge you to do more than just walk out from a stressful situation. They urge you to keep walking, at least for ten more minutes. Why? Walking does not only give you the time to think about the situation but also allows your body to boost your endorphin level. A rise in the level of your endorphins consecutively lowers your cortisol levels, helping you calm down.
Walking also provides your body with a fresh supply of oxygen, which in turn helps your brain function optimally and thus helps you think straight. So, the next time you feel stressed, go out for a short walk, and you will find that it could make all the difference to your objectivity in such a stressful situation.
2. Regulate Your Breathing Pattern
Taking deep breaths is a common relaxation technique that I am pretty sure you are familiar with. However, do you fully understand how taking deep breaths could help you relax? If you do yoga, you are aware that your breath or pranayama plays a vital role in sustaining your body. Scientists will also tell you that deep breaths allow for a fresh supply of oxygen to enter your brain, helping it to function properly and come up with solutions.
Try to observe your normal breathing pattern. You will notice that deep breathing characterizes a feeling of serenity. So, when you take deep breaths during a stressful situation, you force your body to believe that it is calm. Once you take deep breaths, your parasympathetic reaction kicks in, allowing you to relax your frayed nerves. On the other hand, shallow breathing characterizes panic, which works to stimulate your sympathetic nervous system into action. Allowing panic to set in can prove disastrous, as your personal experience most likely proves. As you know, panicked people barely think; they just act—often, unwisely. So rein in your stress levels by taking the time to control your breathing.
Make breathing exercises a routine. Such exercises are beneficial even if you are not feeling particularly tense, as these help you lower your blood pressure and help repair the stress-related damage.
3. Use your Imagination
I am sure you would agree that our minds have the tendency to become paranoid about things that do not present any danger yet. It is thus with good reason that a saying goes this way:
“The feeling of fear is often worse than the fear itself”
Indeed, our imagination can carry us far away from reality—something that can be negative if we let it. Often, the things we fear would happen do not happen at all, and we find that we have just worried too much. Needless to say, visualizing negative things can only produce harmful results.
However, you can also use your power to imagine as a way to counter your stress. For instance, if you feel that your stress levels are escalating to panic, close your eyes and conjure a vision of a peaceful scene. You may want to imagine yourself lying on the beach, listening to the melody of the waves and feeling the summer breeze on your face. You could imagine any scenario, as long as that scenario can help you feel peaceful. Allow your imagination to carry you away from your stressful reality until you find yourself breathing normally. Such guided imagery can help your body relax and, therefore, minimize your stress levels.
4. Fill your Stomach
Have you ever felt the urge to eat something when you feel stressed? Scientists attribute such urge to the link between your gut and your brain, with your gut playing an important role in your body’s stress response. Filling your gut with food to address stress is, therefore, not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, you need to watch what you eat. After all, you would not want to load your system with unhealthy calories, would you? Munch on a healthy snack—nuts, fruits, eggs, and while doing so, focus your senses on the taste and texture of what you are eating. Make sure that you enjoy your food as far away from your source of stress as possible. That way, you have made eating your form of meditation.
You may also find that a cup of tea—green tea, in particular, can calm your jittery nerves. How so? Green tea is a natural source of L-theanine an important substance that, in your body, can help induce calm without a sedative effect. So if you are feeling restless and overly anxious, take the time to munch on a healthy snack—maybe some whole-grain biscuits—and pour yourself a cup of tea. You will find that doing so can help you get a grip on yourself.
5. Go for a Digital Detox
Often, what causes us stress is the technology that surrounds us. For instance, an e-mail from your boss reminds you of an urgent task that freaks you out because your hands are still so full with other obligations. Your mobile phone then rings an alarm and notifies you about impending deadlines. Such notifications do pile up on you one stress after another, don’t you agree?
Are you aware that prolonged usage of computers can lead to depression as well as an increase in stress levels? How can that be? Regardless of what activity you are doing online—mindlessly surfing the Internet, checking your work e-mails, doing research—staying in front of the screen for a long time stresses your body physically. Studies show that those who use the computer for a long, uninterrupted period, as well as those who use it late at night, have problems with sleep. You do know that without enough sleep, your body cannot fully recuperate from the whole day strain.
So, here is a piece of advice. If you need to use the computer the entire day, make sure that you allow for some breaks in between. Also, make it your habit to log off your personal computer and other gadgets at least an hour before your bedtime to improve your quality of sleep. You may also want to go for a digital detox, that is, keep yourself gadget-free for a time. Many individuals have found that going gadget-free for a certain period of their week has helped them lower their stress levels.