Our bodies start to automatically do a variety of uncomfortable things when we are experiencing stress: our heart rate increases, our blood pressure goes up, our breathing speeds up, our digestion slows down, our muscles get tense, we can’t sleep. We get irritable, or depressed, or anxious. Over time, these things add up to risks of stroke and heart attack, lowered immune system and vulnerability to illness, and interpersonal problems.
It can be hard to see how we can get out of the cycle. It is hard to focus, even if we know it’s important (which just makes us feel more stressed out). It can be hard to calm down enough to even make a plan. Here are some hints for lowering stress immediately, so that you can focus and plan, and to decrease the negative physical effects.
The first step to calming the stress is breathing; many other stress-relief techniques build on this foundation. When your body detects danger (which is how it interprets stress) it automatically enters a state of ‘get ready for an attack’, leading to a rise in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones in your blood. Slow, calm breathing signals ‘danger past, safe now.’ and gets your body out of that hyper-aroused state.
Calm breathing gives your brain both fuel and a chance to detach from the instinct to get ready to run. Once your heart-rate calms and the stress hormones quit flooding your system, you are able to think calmly about ways to deal with the cause of the stress.
Breathing is also integral to most meditation techniques; there is a lot of clinical research on the positive effects meditation has on stress relief. While you are breathing, tell yourself something helpful and encouraging like ‘I can handle this’, or vividly imagine yourself being somewhere relaxing.
Regular exercise will keep your overall stress levels lower; your body releases stress hormones and lowers the energy buildup that makes it hard to sleep. Your brain receives oxygen and increased circulation that can help release trapped thinking. Your heart and lungs get stronger and healthier, and your blood pressure lowers. Your immune system gets stronger. Finding an exercise you enjoy will have even better effects since the fun factor is in itself a stress reliever.
For a quick lowering of stress symptoms when you don’t have a lot of time, take a walk around the block, or just spend a few moments stretching. The few minutes you spend with this break will actually save you time in the long run by improving your focus. You’d be surprised how often you come back after a short exercise break and know exactly what to do with that issue on which you were stuck (and stressed!)
Eat Healthy Food and Drink Plenty of Water
Your body craves fast fuel when it thinks you are under siege; that’s why you crave chips, soda, coffee, or ice cream when you are stressed. But it is not what you need, and a diet of quickly-grabbed junk will tank your immune system and make you vulnerable to illness, as well as making your brain less efficient. If you feel you need to refuel, grab a piece of fruit or whole grain bread with peanut butter.
Avoid overdoing caffeine; it causes your heart rate to increase, which only makes the symptoms of stress worse. It can keep you going when your body really needs rest, which can make you sick. Drink water. Set a time in the early afternoon after which you do not drink caffeine.
Some smells are known to be relaxing. Try lavender, lemon, rose, chamomile (the tea is relaxing as well!), ylang-ylang, or bergamot. Keep a relaxing scented candle, air freshener, or cup of tea in your workspace. When you take deep breaths, use this to add to their effectiveness. A light background of relaxing scents can help you stay calm in a stressful place.
Get Enough Sleep
Stress makes it hard to sleep. When we experience stress, sleep is often one of the first things we jettison. But that only makes the stress worse, makes you vulnerable to illness, and makes your brain less efficient. Get at least 6, preferably up to 9, hours of sleep a day. It does not have to all be in one chunk; some people do better if they sleep a few hours, work a couple of hours, then go back to sleep to get the rest of their needed rest. Make sure the total adds up to no less than 6.
Talk to Someone
Discuss what is going on with a friend, a therapist, your religious leader, your deity. Write in a journal. Explaining what is going on can help you work it through more effectively; just talking about it might give you ideas, organize your thoughts, and help you find a solution Your confidant might have some ideas of what you can do about the things that are making you stressed. We are social beings, that is hardwired into our instincts. We feel less stressed on a deep, instinctive level when we feel supported by others.
It is possible to break the cycle, slow down the symptoms, start to get a handle on lowering the level of stress in your body. That will give you the energy to start doing things about the causes of stress in your life.