Sometimes I can’t handle life anymore. It’s overwhelming, like a mountain I’m constantly climbing. There seems to be no end.
I’m overloaded. I feel like I can’t cope with all the demands bombarding me every day. It’s just too much—my friend’s needs, my aging parents’ needs, work demands, language learning, and the nitty gritty of daily life. The list never ends. The demands never stop.
My shoulders and neck are tense and achy. I’m irritable, sharp, and impatient with my husband and my children. I can’t seem to control my reactions. I’m also not sleeping well. I toss and turn all night. My body is exhausted and longs to sleep, but my mind won’t let it rest. I lay in bed, worrying about all the pressures, demands, and needs that surround me.
What is stress, and what are the effects?
“In a medical or biological context, stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness or medical procedure).”
Stress is an experience of the “fight-or-flight” part of our nervous system. It gets activated quickly, but it doesn't know how to turn itself off. It’s like the accelerator on a car. It only knows how to “go” and isn’t able to “stop” on its own. As a result, the next stressor just leads us up a bigger mountain of stress, and we climb higher and higher.
Biologically speaking, the only antidote to stress is the Parasympathetic Nervous System. This is the “rest and refresh” part of our Autonomic Nervous System, designed to counter our “fight-or-flight,” or Sympathetic Nervous System. It acts as the only brakes we have neurologically speaking. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is in charge of all our vital systems: cardiac, immune, digestive, respiratory, reproductive, etc.
When we let stress mount and don't take time to activate our Parasympathetic Nervous System adequately, over long periods of time, we can develop not only symptoms such as sleeplessness, neck and shoulder tension, inability to think, and short temper, but also long-term illnesses such as digestive problems, heart trouble, and cancer.
Here are 5 ways to counter stress and activate your “rest and refresh” system:
- Breathe. Take several slow, full breaths from the belly. Inhale for a count of 6, and then exhale for the same count or longer. Intentionally activating a slow, thoughtful respiration turns off the stress reaction and helps our body to enter its "rest and refresh" mode.
- Stretch. Lengthening our tight muscles sends a message to our brain that we are safe and, thus, activates our Parasympathetic Nervous System. Doing this in the evening also helps our body prepare to sleep well.
- Take notice. Take some moments to notice the sights, sounds, smells, and details of the place you are in. Right now, take note of four distinct colors you can see. Then close your eyes and notice how many sounds you can hear. From where you are sitting, see if you can touch at least three different textures. Now, try to distinguish more than one smell. And finally, notice what you can still taste in your mouth. This is called mindfulness, and apps such as Calm or Headspace offer other ideas on similar exercises.
- Prayer and meditation. Research has shown that those who pray to a loving God activate their Parasympathetic Nervous System and decrease their stress. In a similar fashion, meditation and mindfulness are also proven techniques to still and settle oneself.
- Yawn. Try it right now! Force a yawn. You might see that it activates your "rest and refresh" system to the point that a natural yawn will follow shortly after.
None of these practices need to take long. They can be sprinkled throughout your day and don’t cost a cent.
Rather than mounting one peak of stress after another, you can intentionally lower your stress level. As a result, your peak of stress will be lower, rather than higher, next time. That will bring your stress level back down toward a healthy baseline.
It’s time to stop climbing up this mountain of stress and change our scenery. Rather than relentless mountain climbing, our typical daily and weekly lives are to be more like a stroll through rolling hills. There are times of needed effort walking uphill and experiencing stress, and there are times of rest and refreshment as we go back downhill or have an even plane for a time before climbing up again.
It’s easy to go from relentless, uphill mountain climbing to strolling through hillsides. I just need to add some rest. So, I’m taking moments to breathe deeply, stop to stretch my body along the way, observe the beauty of nature, notice the amazing sights, smells, and sounds around me, and yawn just for the pleasure of it.
About the Author: Katie is an IDEAS Associate, has a Master of Science in Psychology, with dual specializations in Organizational Leader Development and Leadership Coaching Psychology. She is the owner of SeeBeyond in North Africa. Click here for the original blog posting, and enjoy other posts by Katie, such as Good Grief - How to Get Started on the Journey.