Our bodies are a marvel. Our brain’s innate stress response system is there to help us recognize when a situation is dangerous and needs to be dealt with. The term “stress” originated from physics and related to physical pressure, or stress, being placed on an object and causing it to change. In our fast-paced modern times, the majority of the stress we generally feel is more psychological than physiological. It’s also relative rather than absolute, meaning that the same stressors can affect individuals differently. Researchers have come up with a handy acronym for the causes of stress: NUTS! The letters stand for Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to ego and Sense of control. Whenever a situation is new, unexpected, threatening to our proud sense of self or pierces through our comforting illusion of control, it can seriously stress us out. After reviewing the stages of stress, we will offer 5 simple strategies for everyday stress relief. Try all 5 or just 1, and see how much more enjoyable life can be!
Stages of Stress
The first stage of the stress reaction is the infamous fight-or-flight response, also known as the alarm stage. The energy our body uses to impulsively react to a stressor reduces our immune system’s ability to ward off disease. The second stage, which occurs as the body and mind become accustomed to prolonged stress, is resistance. The third and final stage after exposure to stress over an extended period, is exhaustion, which comes along with total burnout, breakdown and collapse.
Simple Strategies for Stress Relief
Here are some simple yet powerful practices we can incorporate into our daily lives in order to more effectively manage and reduce our stress level.
Our breath is with us from the moment of birth until our final exhalation and death. It is the one automatic bodily function that we can control intentionally. Deep, conscious breathing is the most convenient anchor that can help us stay present with whatever is happening in the moment.
Contemplate where this breath is coming from, and realize that the air we breathe is ultimately shared by all beings on the planet. Breathing with this awareness helps us remember that we are interconnected and interdependent with all humans, animals and plants and even with bodies of water, sandy beaches and mountains.
When you feel stressed, take a few minutes to sit or stand still and just breathe deeply and mindfully. Let your lungs fill up, feeling your chest rise, rib cage expand and belly relax. Hold the breath for a moment, then let the exhalation be natural, releasing the air from the lungs and observing how the chest naturally falls and the belly naturally contracts. Even breathing in this way for one minute can help lift our vibration and cultivate a sense of calm. For many, yoga offers a dedicated time to mindful breathing, regardless of the intensity of the practice.
What we eat is important, and so is how we eat. Mindful eating is the simple practice of eating slowly, deliberately and with full attention on the act of eating and the taste of the food we are consuming. Many of us eat meals distractedly, whether while scrolling on our phones, watching TV or talking nonstop with the other people sharing the table. The epitome of mindless eating is grabbing a cheap, greasy, fast-food meal and then eating it while driving.
On the other hand, mindful eating is a ritual. We prepare our own food, ideally from local, fresh, natural ingredients. We sit to eat in silence, not participating in any activity other than eating. It may feel strange or boring at first, since this is probably quite different than our customary way of eating food.
Take a moment to say a prayer of gratitude, aloud or silently, and contemplate the effort of the many people, animals, plants and elements that enabled this food to arrive on your plate. Take time to chew slowly, swallow and rest between bites. Fully taste the flavors of the ingredients melding together and feel the texture of the food. Take a few moments to sit with contentment after finishing your meal. To start incorporating this powerful practice into your life, try devoting the time and effort to eat a few meals per week in this mindful manner.
Likewise, we can bring this heightened focus on the present moment into our physical movement during workouts. Whether we’re practicing yoga poses, lifting weights or running a mile, we can bring our focus back right here and right now by paying close attention to the bodily sensations arising in each moment.
Cultivate gratitude for the mundane miracle of being able to move, stretch and strengthen your body through exercise. Try exercising without listening to music or watching TV. Be fully present to your body, breath, energy level and surroundings. Moving Meditation has become a popular alternative to the standard silent meditation that is commonplace in Eastern traditions. It allows one to be more active while still gaining a connection within.
Knowing when and how to take it easy is a skill that we can hone. We live in a yang world that tends toward ambition, busyness, hard work and achievement. To maintain balance and avoid collapsing under the pressure of too much stress, we need to offset our yang environment with complimentary yin activities — resting, relaxing, self-care, and letting things be as they are.
Taking some time each day for relaxation and getting enough deep sleep is key to lowering our stress level. According to master Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, “Many people cannot allow themselves the time to sit and do nothing but breathe. They consider it to be uneconomical or a luxury. People say ‘time is money’. But time is much more than money. Time is life. The simple practice of sitting quietly on a regular basis can be profoundly healing.”
To incorporate conscious relaxation into your life, set aside five to ten minutes at the beginning and/or the end of your day to sit or lie in bed, relaxing the body from head to toe and simply breathing. Feel the sensation of your inhale entering the nose and lungs and the exhale exiting the body. Watch the thoughts float by like clouds in the sky without grasping onto or pushing away any particular thought.
Mindful walking is a great way to start or end our formal spiritual practice, or our day. It is simply walking, barefoot, in super slow motion. Pay attention to the soles of the feet as well as the ankles, knees, legs and hips as you walk ever so slowly in a line or circle.
The feeling of the feet touching the ground is the anchor for this awareness practice. Develop a sense of gratitude for the simple ability to walk and to move around on the Earth. It is a skill we too often take for granted as we rush through our days from one task to the next.
We can’t eliminate stress from our lives completely, but we can learn how to better cope with it by integrating any or all the above routines into our lives.
What are some healthy habits you’ve found to help decrease stress and increase joyful balance in your daily life? We would love to hear from you; please share your comments below.