Mind Matters — Stress

Stress! We all have it, we can’t get away from it and evolutionarily speaking it may even have its merits. But the question becomes, Do we have it, or does it have us? When we get overwhelmed by stress, we’re in trouble.

We may think of stress as having difficulty with the boss at work, getting a flat tire on Route 95, or financial worries, or concern about what the children are up to. But, according to the Harvard Medical School Report on Stress, these are all stressors. Stress itself is actually a bodily response to anything that requires you to adjust and accommodate to change. The important thing to note here is that what we perceive as stress really are the stressors to which the body has a response!

We can recognize very quickly some of the signs of stress—heart pounding, tense muscles, sweating, hot flushes to the face. So stress is not just a mind game but is a felt response in the body, oftentimes referred to as the “fight or flight” response or the stress response.

To some degree, we need stress. Our stress response makes it possible for us to react and respond quickly to perceived danger. In the case, for example, of a fire, our stress response and our surging adrenaline enables us to flee the burning building. The problem arises however, when we respond to everything as though it were a burning building. And the build up of stress in our lives can lead to anxiety and depression.

So what can we do to alleviate stress? Self-care is most important. We don’t need to hike to a mountaintop and visit a yogi; we don’t need to fly to Hawaii and lay on the beach. While we need extended vacations from time to time, more importantly we need to find ways for self-care and relaxation everyday.

Each of us may find a different way of relaxing that is our brand of self-care. It can be prayer, meditation, exercise, walking, swimming, yoga, tai chi. The important thing is to find what works for you, depending on your personality, your lifestyle, your time constraints.

Learning how to breathe diaphragmatically and practicing deep breathing in the grocery line or finding a soothing affirmation to say to yourself as you sit in traffic are all mini-methods of relaxation and self-care that can be accomplished daily.

Here are some recommendations for reading about stress and its antidotes: The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, M.D.; Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.; and Minding the Body, Mending the Mind by Joan Borysenko.