Stress; It contributes to illness. It’s the major factor in back pain. In fact, it makes ANY pain worse. And it’s not always caused by bad things – it can be related to celebrations, new jobs, holidays, new babies, and many other things we would never wish away.
Yes, we’re talking about stress, or as defined by Webster’s, “a strain or pressure on the body or mind.” It’s almost always presented as a reason people finally get professional help for life issues, and we diagnose and treat it daily.
The body and mind perceive any change as potential danger, and they react with heightened awareness, muscle tension, and increased cortisol production (cortisol is that nasty hormone that can increase blood pressure and blood sugar, and suppress immune response). It is essential to our overall health to learn to reduce stress responses in our body and mind. The following five suggestions are ways to reduce stress:
1. Breathing – Under constant stress, our breathing becomes shallow and strained. A simple exercise is to sit back in your chair for a minute or two, close your eyes, and just focus on your breath. Breathe in deeply through your nose to the count of four, using the ticking of a clock if you have one. Hold your breath for four counts, and then SLOWLY let the air out for six beats. This deliberate focus and attention will both calm and distract your mind temporarily.
2. Guided Imagery – This is an article all by itself, but basically guided imagery involves taking time to mentally “visit” your favorite relaxing memory, be it the beach, the woods, whatever brings a smile to your face, and mentally place yourself there using all five senses. This also works with visualizing a beloved child’s face or your pet. A few minutes of visualization a day can actually increase immune response and is simple to do.
3. Tense/Relax (Progressive Muscle Relaxation) – Starting at the top of your head, tense and relax the muscles of your face, neck, hands, shoulders, etc, all the way to your toes. Hold the tension to a count of four, and then let it go, moving on to the next muscle group. This puts a focus on muscles that may have been tight without your awareness.
4. Journaling – The benefit of scribbling down thoughts and feelings is well researched. You don’t need to watch spelling, grammar, or anything else, as no one will see it. You don’t even have to “keep” a journal – just the act of writing in itself is beneficial, even if you shred it immediately after! Try completing these sentences to start:
- It really bugged me today when…
- If I could wave a magic wand I would change… Then just keep writing without thought or censure.
5. Do Nothing – A totally foreign concept to our goal-oriented society, isn’t it? But sitting completely still in silence for a few minutes a day is a wonderful way to de-stress. As we let the mind daydream, rest, and wander, we often find new solutions to our stressors. This concept is summarized by the beautiful quote: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself” (Zen saying).
If these simple measures don’t ease your stress symptoms, the next step may be to seek help from a licensed therapist who can help you resolve underlying issues contributing to the problem. Best of all, these simple steps to de-stress can’t hurt!