Catching Stress Before It Catches You
We’re in an ever-accelerating “hurry up” culture, one in which human beings are required to make remarkable adaptations to increasingly technologically driven lifestyles and consumer-oriented pressures. This spiraling pace requires us to move so quickly that we tend to override and become desensitized to our bodily sensations and our feelings. In this anesthetized state we ironically require more stimulation- bigger, better, newer, louder, faster – just to grab and hold our attention. We become so saturated with excessive stimulation and cumulative tension that we may become numb to all but the most adrenaline producing experiences or else attempt to soothe the frayed nervous system with alcohol, drugs or ignore it with compulsive activity.
One of the unfortunate effects of being assimilated into such a system is that we become increasingly alienated from the awareness of physical sensations, so that it becomes difficult to notice the more subtle signs of stress and tension where they first manifest- in the body. When these subtle tensions are ignored, one of the more damaging cumulative effects is that the immune system is compromised. Resources typically available for the immune response are shunted into dealing with a consistently high level of activation present in the body. The potential for illness increases proportionate to the length of time these signs are ignored. It may take a physical breakdown or exhaustion to get us to slow down and allow the immune response to regenerate; sometimes this ignore-ance over a period of years can contribute to a major life-threatening illness.
So what can you do? One of the keys to managing stress is creating a lifestyle that will incorporate adequate exercise, rest, proper nutrition, a strong support system and active relaxation methods – things that are sometimes difficult to do in today’s world, yet so essential to maintain a quality of life. Developing these habits supports your immune system and can help you maintain a healthy balance with mind, body and spirit.
Yet an often-overlooked aspect of stress management is enhancing your body awareness. By paying closer attention to your body’s signals, especially areas of tightness and tension, you can learn to honor those signs that say “Slow down! Rest! Get a massage! Eat! Exercise!”etc., before your body reaches critical mass. By doing so you may be practicing “Distress Prevention” rather than simply stress management.
So I propose three simple steps to incorporate on a daily basis that will alert you to what’s happening in your body and give you a better sense of what you need to do in order to reduce tension. These are: Slow Down, Breathe and Tracking Your Body’s Messages.
Easier said than done! Not only can the increasingly fast pace of the world these days influence your own pace, but also you may be habitually driven to maintain a vigilance just to stay ahead or even keep up. Slowing down from time to time may even trigger some anxiety, primarily due to the discrepancy between your conditioned habits of haste and the novelty of a different rhythm.
Try the following exercise once each day for the next two weeks and see what happens: For three minutes each day, make all your physical movement – walking, reaching, grasping, sitting, etc. – at about 80% of their usual speed. The purpose is to help you attune to a different pace and rhythm, allowing you to pay attention to the more subtle nuances of your body. Be sure to breathe while doing this.
Well . . .of course you breathe or you wouldn’t be reading this! Here, however, I’m proposing a more conscious type of breathing. Most of us tend to be shallow breathers, so the intent here is to not only breathing more consciously and conscientiously, but as another means to bring your attention to your body and the physical sensations.
There are several methods of conscious breath work. One of my favorites is as follows: For just 3-4 minutes twice a day, close your eyes, and first take three deep, comfortable breaths, holding on the inhale for a short count of three, and releasing completely on the exhale. Then resume a more regular pattern of breathing, perhaps a little deeper and a little slower than you might typically breath.
As you’re breathing, when inhale say silently to yourself, “I am…” and when you exhale, “…relaxed,” until you have created a pleasant rhythm with your breathing and this simple affirmation. Doing this over a period of time attunes you to this type of breathing, and you will likely find yourself breathing more fully in other situations.
Another simple one that you can do a couple of times during the day is to close your eyes and simply count your breaths as you breath deeper and slower. Count each from one to four then repeat until you have counted a total of 12-16 breaths. Do this for about three minutes twice a day, gradually increasing the length of time. It’s also a great one on those restless nights when sleep seems a distant possibility. Try either of these some time. They really do work!
Tracking Your Body’s Messages:
Go through the first two steps in sequence and as you breathe, notice areas of tension in your body. What else are you aware of as you tune into your physical sensations? When you put your attention on these sensations, it also facilitates your intuitive processes. Are you getting any messages?
If you feel like you’re body is tight and holding onto some tension, rather than focus on your entire body, choose one of those areas, such as the shoulders, chest, stomach, and simply place your gentle attention on that area. Continue your deeper breathing, and eventually that particular area will let go and you’ll find that area will relax. When your attention is drawn to another area of your body, focus there and breathe through whatever is occurring.
Practicing these simple steps on a regular basis will cultivate a greater confidence in dealing with stress of any kind and help support the best of who you are to come forward.