Stress? Is that a thing?
Updated: Oct 20, 2022
Last week I asked my spouse, Emily, “do you think everyone is as overwhelmed with life right now as I am?” We talked about how challenging the last few years have been and how different life is as a result. Regardless of where you stand on political or pandemic views, life is not the same and likely never will be. It’s as though we have a base layer of stress from the uncertainty or acclimation to the changes.
So when you have the “normal” stressors in life, ranging from someone nearly hitting your car with theirs, some bad news from your boss, raising a small child, an illness…it’s all on top of your new base layer. You’ve likely heard about increased anxiety or the possible practice of screening for anxiety as part of regular medical care (in this case, starting with children, ages 8-18). This is the result of stress we are all feeling.
Chronic stress can be very harmful and contribute to negative issues in a number of ways. Thich Naht Hahn tells a great story about perception. You see a rope and believe it is a snake. Your fight or flight response is triggered, releasing hormones that stimulate the pituitary and adrenal glands, and then cortisol spikes (among others). You may be sweaty with an increased heart rate and blood pressure. This is all natural and meant to prime your body for escaping a dangerous situation. You then realize it was a just a rope and calm down. But imagine this happens constantly and you never calm back down. You have the possibility of cognitive (brain fog, inability to focus, worrying), physical (low energy, headaches, diarrhea, chest paint), emotional (agitation, inability to relax), and behavioral (nervous behaviors, changes in appetite). And it can all get worse from there. You’ve probably felt one or many of these issues when having a hard time with life. It’s real, my friends.
So what do we do about it? How can we manage some of this stress? Two practical options are mindfulness and meditation, both typically including breathing exercises.
Speaking of Thich Naht Hahn or “Thay” (teacher in Vietnamese), I was reminded that I first came across one of his books (No Mud No Lotus) on a list somewhere and placed it in my Amazon cart – saved for later. I asked my father-in-law if he was familiar with the book. As frequently happens with him, he was not only familiar, but was a long-time follower of Thay, had read many books, watched many of his talks, and sadly, his funeral proceedings. I became a little obsessed with Thay’s teachings and have now read many of his books and listened to hours of his talks. He is known for Mindfulness, among many other amazing contributions to the world. (I encourage you to read about him or one of his many books.)
He teaches the importance of being mindful in all you do. If you are washing dishes, brushing your teeth, eating dinner – focus on the task. Look at the dish you are washing, think about the movement of the toothbrush, take pleasure in chewing your food. Enjoy deep, calming breaths. With this technique, you are living in the here and now, not worrying about past stressors or those yet to happen. You can be mindful in everything you do as a method for stress management.
Meditation is another, similar option for you to consider. When I was working at the University of Toledo, the jazz guitar instructor had just moved to town and was a Buddhist teacher. I attended some of his sitting sessions, which were difficult for my constantly moving mind. However, I enjoyed the idea of being aware of your environment, acknowledging that it was happening. But sitting in silence, albeit background noise, can be difficult. One way to make it easier is to use Thay’s strategy of thinking “this is my in-breath” when you breathe in and “this is my out-breath” when breathing out. Amazingly, the mind has trouble focusing on more than one thing, so forcing yourself to focus on breathing does wonders.
Now I frequently use Peloton guided meditations on a variety of topics. I can meditate on happiness, sleep, courage, etc. (If you don’t use Peloton, you can find many free guided meditations on YouTube.) The Peloton meditations are different, much like Yoga, where you bring your awareness inward.
Try both types of meditation and see which you prefer! If you do 5-10 min a day for a while, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get to 20 or 30 minutes. Take your pulse or blood pressure afterward, and you may be surprised at the physical effects.
Well, that went longer than I expected, but stress management is important. Like sleep, another topic for another day, stress is not given the attention it deserves in a healthy lifestyle. I encourage you to try increasing your mindfulness and/or meditating to see how it improves how you feel! Please feel free to share techniques that work for you. Be well.
PS. I would also be remiss if not mentioning that there is a lot of research to support gut health’s correlation with these issues. So it never hurts to also think about eating well!