"For fast-acting relief, try slowing down." ~ Lily Tomlin
Significant events in our lives, even ones that we expect to be positive, such as falling in love, usually cause many changes in our daily existence, and affect our perception about our life or plans for the future. As creatures of habit, any deviation in our routine creates some level of stress, as do more difficult situations such as the loss of a job or a loved one.
Dr. Dave Richo pointed out in his book, The Five Things We Cannot Change...and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them, that one of the five things that can't be changed in life is that "everything changes and ends." So considering that everything in life is in a constant state of change (in fact, the molecules of the chair you may be sitting on are actually changing at this very moment), stress is a necessary part of life.
If we were to have no stress at all, we would not experience new and exciting adventures. Good stresses consist of positive events, such as falling in love or starting along an exciting new path toward our dreams. These stresses are referred to as eustress, and while too much of a good thing can cause us to feel stressed out, in general, eustress is caused by stresses we can cope with and that motivate us, focus our energy, create excitement and a feeling of vitality and passion about life--even improve our performance. Distress, on the other hand, is caused by situations that we believe we cannot handle and result in us feeling stressed out.
Whether we believe that the changes caused by a life event are exciting and that we can handle them -- or we believe that they are overwhelming and beyond our ability to cope -- determines if we adapt smoothly and enjoy the excitement of a new experience or feel stressed out by it. Therefore, it's our reaction to the changes we face, as well as our ability to adapt to them, which creates the impact on our lives
One of the greatest causes of stress is our lack of acceptance of our present circumstances. "What is" includes how things are right now, as well as the fact that everything changes and ends. Wrote Dr. Richo, "Every beginning leads to a finale. Built into all experiences, persons, places, and things is a life span." When we cling to things or to situations, we feel stress because, no matter how hard we try, we can't stop this reality of life.
The stress response is also often referred to as the fight-or-flight response. Our body prepares to fight or to run from any situation we perceive as threatening. At this time, both mind and body make adjustments in order to deal with what we believe to be a potential threat. These include increased blood pressure, rate of breathing, metabolism and muscle tension. Even brain waves rise in intensity and frequency. Blood flow to the muscles of our arms and legs actually elevates by 300 percent to 400 percent when we're in this mode. And production of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol surges in order to increase our energy and alertness. All of these adjustments occur so that, in the case of a real danger, we're prepared to fight it or to flee from it.
In reality, most of the stressors we face are false alarms. The threat is rarely one of life or death and there rarely is a reason to fight or run. Usually, there is no threat at all beyond what we create in our own minds. If we have a tendency to interpret events as dangerous, then we'll frequently (perhaps daily, or even many times per day) experience this fight-or-flight response and will, most likely, experience it for extended lengths of time.
The research has demonstrated again and again that chronic stress can cause damage to every system of the human body, as well as depression and anxiety disorders, which consist of frequent or constant feelings of fear that interfere with enjoying life. According to cardiologist, stress researcher, and author of The Relaxation Response, Dr. Herbert Benson, because we don't actually have to fight or flee in most situations in which we experience this fight-or-flight response, we don't burn off the energy that we produced during this reaction. So, for example, the chronic increase of blood flow and the resulting chronic increase of blood pressure can then lead to cardiac problems, arthrosclerosis, strokes, and internal bleeding. In addition, the rise in production of adrenaline and norepinephrine, if it continues for an extended period of time, can cause irregular heart rhythm and increased sensitivity to physical pain, as well as emotional distress, such as anxiety, depression, lower frustration tolerance, irritability, and quickness to anger.
But, take heart -- there's good news. The very same mechanism that turned on the stress response can also turn it off. Dr. Benson,coined this the "relaxation response". When our body is in a relaxed state, it's impossible to experience the stress response because these are two totally opposite biological states. According to Benson, "The human body is geared to react by providing this calm state -- the opposite of the fight-or-flight response -- whenever the mind is focused for some time and disregards intrusive, everyday thoughts. In other words, when the mind quiets down, the body follows suit. So powerful, in fact, is this process that you need not believe."
Even better news is that by inducing that relaxation response on a regular basis, we can heal health issues and psychological distress caused by stress. "Just as repeated activation of the fight-or-flight response can lead to sustained problems in the body and its mechanics, so too can repeated activation of the relaxation response reverse those trends and mend the internal wear and tear brought on by stress," wrote Benson.
Said Steve Kane, yoga instructor, when he was on my radio program, "We can build our resilience to stress by shifting our awareness to our body and our breath. Just a few minutes per day of conscious breathing can help us to build this resilience."
Here are 10 tips for manifesting the relaxation response and building our resilience to stress:
1. Breathe in slowly and gently through your nose to the count of 6. Breathe out slowly and gently through your mouth to the count of four. As you inhale, try to expand your belly. As you exhale, notice your belly sinking. With each inhalation and exhalation, think of this little meditation recitation from, Peace Is Every Step, by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, "Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment!"
2. Be like a child again and color. Adult coloring books are the new craze and for good reason. Coloring has been found to calm the mind, slow down thoughts, and ease anxiety and stress.
3. Terry Hershey, in his book, The Power of Pause, suggests looking at the moon, if you can. "Stare at it and breathe in, breathe out. Think of this moonlight bathing your whole life -- even the parts that are disorganized and unfinished."
4. Use relaxing imagery. For example, close your eyes and imagine that you are floating on a giant leaf and gently drifting along with the slow current of a lazy river.
5. Listen to relaxing music in combination with any of the above techniques.
7. Do yoga.
8. Take a 20-minute Epsom salt and lavender oil bath.
9. Get a massage.
10. Try on an attitude of curiosity and openness about changes in your life, even allowing yourself to feel excited, rather than fearing these new experiences.
Finally, here's an extra tip for inducing the relaxation response: Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Be grateful for everything that is, all of the changes of life, even those that we don't particularly like. The painful experiences help us grow and they prove that we're actually living life and taking risks, opening the doorway for new experiences and deeper love. As Leonard Cohen wrote in his song, Anthem, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."