Stress management refers to a variety of techniques and psychotherapies that are designed to controlling stress levels within an individual, especially chronic stress.
We all know, or at least think we know, what stress is but even the professionals, who have spent their lives studying it, still have difficulty in exactly what stress is. Despite their efforts over the last half-century there is still no agreed deﬁnition yet we all know what stress is, in the same way that we all know what happiness is, but like happiness it has different qualities for different people.
Basically, stress is a term that describes our natural fight or flight response. Our primeval survival response that helped our species to continue existing. It is this inborn response that prepares us for fight or flight from anything that we perceive as dangerous, or a threat to our survival. And in the interests of our survival, this response is extremely sensitive and is set to recognise and react to even minute levels of potential danger, whether it is real or merely a perception.
In the 21st Century we may not be being chased by sabre-toothed tigers but this response to danger is still hard-wired into our system. Today’s modern stressors produce the same emotional and physical response but are brought on by a perceived imbalance between demands placed and what resources and time are available. They can be the result of fear of missing a deadline, of making a mistake in a tender, of not getting the job right, of redundancy, of not matching up to one’s peers…………… the list goes on. This means that you experience stress whenever you are faced with an event or situation that you perceive as challenging to your ability to cope. If you see the event or situation as only mildly challenging, you will probably feel only a little stress; however, if you perceive the situation or event as threatening or overwhelming your coping abilities, you will probably feel a lot of stress.
Is this, in itself bad? No, not really. Imagine the relief and sense of achievement of the caveman who has outrun the sabre-toothed tiger………….. Stress is a motivator and, on completion of a successful task, it can be rewarded and the stress levels drop to be replaced by a feeling of euphoria…………… However, it rarely works that way and one stressor can be piled on another until coping is no longer possible. Daily exposure to stressors can have negative consequences by causing hyper-vigilance or over-reaction during times when a state of calm awareness would be more productive. With daily exposure to these stressors, stress hormones can accumulate in the body and cause feelings of being burnt-out or depressed.
Effects of stress hormones
Stress hormones act by mobilizing energy from storage to muscles, increasing heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate and shutting down metabolic processes such as digestion, reproduction, growth and immunity.
Constant stress causes continual release of various stress hormones which can cause:
- High blood pressure
- Stress-induced hypertension
- Effects on metabolic processes
- Lowered energy levels
- Stomach ulcers
- Decrease in testosterone levels in males
- Irregular menstrual cycles in females
- Lowered immune system
Research has shown that stress hormones are a major contributing factor in many major illnesses including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Certain skin disorders, infections and psychological problems like generalised anxiety, panic, OCD, PTSD, depression, dissociative disorder, phobias and psychosis, have also been linked to cumulative stress.
Self-help methods of managing stress
- Exercise – The easiest way to deal with cumulative stress is through physical exercise. During exercise, we metabolise excessive stress hormones and restore our body and mind to a calmer, more relaxed state. Even five to ten minutes of exercise, where a sweat has been worked up, will metabolise stress hormones and prevent their excessive build-up. Exercise releases endorphins, which help us to feel better.
- Taiji – Developed by the ancient Chinese, Taiji is one of the internal (soft) martial. It is increasingly practised in the West as a means of stress management and holistic exercise. Taiji is a series of slow, choreographed movements, or postures. At the core of Taiji is the concept of life essence, or Qi (pronounced ‘chee’), that flows, in meridians, through the body. When the flow of Qi is disrupted, illness is the result. Regular practice of Taiji is said to strengthen and improve Qi and according to scientific studies, Taiji is an effective healing tool for a range of disorders, particularly chronic (for example, arthritis and heart disease) and stress related conditions.
- Qigong – Qi Gong is a combination of meditation and gentle, fluid, body movement with an emphasis on abdominal breathing. The, proper, practice of Qigong fills the mind to the point where there is no room for the stressors that permeate our daily lives. It is extremely difficult to empty our minds, our thoughts. The universe loves a vacuum and as we try to empty our mind, it takes the opportunity to fill it to overflowing. With Qigong the mind becomes full, full of one thing, the focus on the Qigong exercise. There is no room for anything else and this lets the practitioner step into the eye of the hurricane, to that calm spot where the stresses of life are absent. From there, these stresses can be observed with an air of detachment and life can be prioritised in a way that is beneficial to body, mind and spirit.
- Meditation – It does not necessarily take years of meditation to combat stress. Meditation provides stillness and nourishment for our conscious (spirit) brain (cognitive mind) and. There are many types of meditation to choose from but they all share the understanding that the more you meditate, the lower the stress levels and the better you will feel. Zen meditation is particularly good for reducing stress levels.
During Zen meditation, you become more accepting of your thoughts and feelings and how they relate to the world around you. This enables you to reassess your life, your goals and your relationship with the world, enabling your mind to become increasingly peaceful.
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