By Annan Boodram
The brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for protection. When the brain perceives a threat, it signals the body to release a burst of hormones that increases the heart rate and raises the blood pressure.
This “fight-or-flight” response fuels the individual to deal with the threat. Once the threat is gone, the body is meant to return to a normal, relaxed state. Unfortunately, the non-stop complications of modern-day life means that some people’s alarm systems rarely shut off but, instead, keep going, day and night.
Over time, chronic stress can lead to serious health problems. Don’t wait until stress damages your health, relationships or quality of life, start practicing stress management techniques, today.
Stress management provides a range of tools to reset this alarm system, helping the mind and body to adapt, so the body is not always on high alert. Note however, that stress management is not about eliminating stress; it is about converting unwholesome stresses into wholesome ones. The fact is, good stress can foster healthy challenges and enhance your engagement in any endeavor — and push you to explore and experiment.
To monitor stress, first identify the triggers. What makes you feel angry, tense, worried or irritable? Do you often get headaches or an upset stomach, with no medical cause?
Some stressors, such as job pressures, relationship problems or financial concerns, are easy to identify. But daily hassles and demands, such as waiting in a long line, or being late to a meeting, also contribute to your stress level. Even essentially-positive events, such as getting married or buying a house, can be stressful. Any change to your life can cause stress.
Once you’ve identified your stress triggers, think about strategies for dealing with them. Identifying what you can control is a good starting point.
For example, if stress keeps you up at night, the solution may be as easy as removing the TV and computer from your bedroom and letting your mind wind down before bed, perhaps while listening to soothing, calming music or reading an enjoyable book in bed.
Other times, such as when stress is based on high demands at work or a loved one’s illness, dealing with the stress will be more difficult.
In effect, learn to take care of yourself, emotionally and physically. Get a massage, soak in a bubble bath, dance, listen to music, watch a comedy. Exercise regularly, get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, with emphasis being on healthy.
According to Dr. Mark Hyman — acclaimed medical practitioner, best-selling author, leading food allergist, social medicine advocate et al — eating whole, real foods restores balance and reduces the effects of stress on your body.
Replacing harmful substances, such as caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugars, with clean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats helps regulate your hormone levels, including stress hormones.
Food As Medicine, (a professional nutrition training program for physicians and other healthcare givers) Education Director, Kathir Swift (author, educator, dietitician and integrative clinical nutritionist, a lead teacher in the Healthy Living programs at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health) cites the connection between the gut and brain in relieving stress. The gut and brain are constantly sending signals to each other, so by keeping your microbiota (the bacteria in your gut) healthy, your brain feels less stressed.
Make a conscious effort to spend more time relaxing. Relaxation techniques can help slow your breathing and focus your attention; select a technique that works for you and practice it regularly. Techniques include deep breathing, tai chi, yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation. More active ways of achieving relaxation include participating in sports or walking outdoors.
In fact, walking outdoors, especially where there is lots of greenery, is highly recommended. Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces fear, anger and stress and increases pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature, not only makes you better emotionally, it contributes to your physical well-being, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones.
It may even reduce mortality, according to scientists, such as public health researchers, Stamatakis and Mitchell. Research — done in hospitals, offices and schools — has found that even a simple plant in a room can have a significant positive impact on stress and anxiety.
If you find that your self-esteem is based on how much you weigh, your dress size, or if you are intensely-preoccupied with food and exercise, it is worth seeking out the counsel of a mental health professional. Low self-esteem can contribute to, and sustain, disordered habits, which require specialist-help to overcome.
Going through a separation or divorce can be very difficult and traumatic, but there are things you can do to get through your day and to make adjustment. Keep to your normal routines, as much as possible. Try to avoid making major decisions or changes in you plan. Avoid power struggles and arguments with your former spouse. If a discussion begins to turn into a fight, calmly suggest that you both try talking again later, and either walk away or hang up the phone.
Recognize that it’s OK to feel sad, angry, exhausted, frustrated and confused, and these feelings can be very intense. You also may feel anxious about the future. Give yourself permission to feel and to function at a less than optimal level, for a period of time. You may not be able to be quite as productive on the job or care for others in the exactly manner the way you’re accustomed to, for a little while.
Take time to explore your interests, heal, regroup and re-energize. Reconnect with things you enjoy doing apart from your spouse. Volunteer. Make new friends. Engage in journaling. Many studies have shown that journaling is a valuable tool to improve mental health. Sing, dance, write and perform poetry, meditate, do yoga…just simply find one or more endeavor that will get your mood up, activate you and occupy free time positively.
If you own a dog or a cat, you already know that your pet gives you unconditional love. Pets seem to know what you’re feeling, and mirror those feelings back to you. All of those feelings — love, sharing, empathy, and much more — pick you up when you’re feeling down, and they make you feel less stressed.
As well pets can make us laugh. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter relieves stress and reduces tension. In fact, a recent study, by researchers at the Miami University and Saint Louis University, found that pet owners had better self-esteem than non-pet owners. They also were less fearful and less preoccupied, all of which contributed to a decrease in overall stress levels.
Finally, seek help and support from family and friends, whether you need someone to listen to you, help with child-care or give you a ride to work, when your car’s in the shop. Sharing your feelings with friends and family can help you get through this period.
Don’t be afraid to get outside help if you need it. Consider joining a support group, where you can talk to others in similar situations. Isolating yourself can raise your stress levels, reduce your concentration, and get in the way of your work, relationships and overall health.
It is also important to note, that recent research has shown that stress, trauma and repressed emotions are capable of causing persistent, real pain and other physical symptoms. This is called Psycho-physiologic Disorder (PDD) or Mind-Body Disorder. Therefore, if you suffer from persistent pain that cannot be medically taken care of, it might be worthwhile seeking counseling therapy. When it comes to mental health, counseling works.
Annan Boodram is the President of The Caribbean Voice, a New York-based, registered, volunteer-driven, not-for-profit NGO, engaged in suicide and all forms of abuse prevention in Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines — in partnership with sister NGO, ‘Say Enough is Enough Support Group — and the Caribbean Diaspora in North America. The Caribbean Voice offers free counseling. For more information, please contact us at: email — firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com; telephone — What’s App 646-461-0574 or 592-621-6111; or check out our website at www.caribvoice.org.