Next Thursday the BBC will launch a new programme 'The Truth About Stress'. In this programme Fiona Phillips will explore some of the very latest scientific research behind stress and demonstrate a number of techniques designed to decrease common stress factors. They will ask the question "is stress inherently bad for us?", and will explore the notion that stress in small doses can actually be quite good for us. This has certainly piqued our interest. We have taken the opportunity to also consider how stress affects us by looking at how our bodies respond to stress, where we can learn from this and turn it into an advantage.
It is true that stress can take its toll on the body in many ways. Cortisol is a stress hormone which plays an important and beneficial role in the immune system, maintaining blood pressure and improving mood. When stress levels are increased, cortisol is produced in excess which can lead to raised blood sugar and weakened immunity, leaving us vulnerable to colds, flu and their immune related disorders. It also promotes poor gut health as digestion remains perpetually low on the to do list when the sympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system kicks in.
Going into the Lion's Den!
Stressors, however, are a normal component of life and can be a positive influence on the body when appropriate mechanisms function well.
- It keeps us safe. During a stressful situation adrenaline and noradrenaline are released to prepare us for “fight or flight”. Blood sugar levels rise as stored glycogen is converted to glucose, the heart pumps faster to get more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, respiratory passageways dilate to increase the airflow and even blood clotting agents are mobilised in case we are wounded. Blood is directed away from our gut and if a lion were to enter the room right now, digesting that quinoa salad we had for lunch would be pretty low on the agenda! Nowadays the lion is more likely to be an angry boss or an unrelenting deadline but the physiology remains the same now as it did in the Stone Age. This highly sophisticated stress response is actually protective, not harmful, and is designed to keep us safe
- It improves our brains. Stressors may stimulate growth and strengthen neural connections in the brain and can actually improve memory. If an animal encounters a predator and manages to escape, it’s important to remember where and when that encounter happened, to avoid a similar scenario occurring in the future. If you’re walking down an alley and somebody threatens you, it’s important to remember exactly where this occurred in order to avoid that alley in the future. The brain is constantly responding to stress. Extreme or chronic stress can have a negative effect but stress in moderate doses - like an upcoming exam or a public speech - improves cognitive performance and memory.
- It boosts immunity. Stress provides the body with a temporary immunity boost. When the body responds to stress, it prepares itself for the possibility of injury or infection. One way it does this is by producing extra interleukins - chemicals that help regulate the immune system - providing at least a temporary defensive boost.
- It helps us to focus. Stress improves focus and heightens our sense of awareness driving us to success. If we are working towards a deadline at work or preparing for a match point serve in tennis, those extra levels of adrenaline and cortisol that are released make sure we stay focused.
- Boosts confidence. If you have experienced and overcome adversity, you know you are capable of dealing with other stressful situations when they arise. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger as they say!
- It can enhance child development. Studies have shown that mild maternal stress might help children to mature quicker. Of those tested, children of mothers who were anxious during pregnancy showed greater motor and developmental skills as two-year-olds than those of entirely relaxed mums-to-be.
It can be said then, that our bodies are built to deal with stress and can even benefit from it. However, when we no longer feel in control of a situation, stress can have a negative impact on our health and wellbeing and it is at this point that the introduction and maintenance of personal coping mechanisms is essential.
There is light at the end of the tunnel!
Here are some of our tips for when the stress levels start to creep up beyond a comfortable level:
- Laugh out loud! A good belly laugh doesn't just lighten the load mentally, it lowers cortisol and boost our endorphins making us instantly feel alive.
- Tune in! Lighten up mentally by tuning into your favourite TV programme, read something funny or make a call to a friend you can guarantee will make you smile.
- Decompress. Place a warm wheat or cherry stone pillow around your neck and shoulders for 10 minutes. Close your eyes and relax your face. Remove the pillow and use a tennis ball or foam roller to massage away any tension in these areas.
- Reaching out. Your social network is one of your best tools for handling stress. Talk to others, preferably face to face or at least on the phone. Share what's going on. You can get a fresh perspective while keeping your connection with your friends and relatives. You may also consider reaching out and stepping into a talking therapy such as life coaching to help you explore the foundations of your self-limiting beliefs and move though the fears which are causing your stress in the first instance.
- Relaxing treatments. Book yourself in for a relaxing treatment. Treatments such as massage, reflexology, facial therapy and reiki are all proven to reduce tension in your mind and body. We recommend a minimum of one treatment every month will give you the opportunity to take time out of your busy and hectic schedule to strengthen and reconnect.
- Become inspired. Blow the stress away by turning the stressful energy into mindful action. Make a to-do list starting with one action that will move you away from your current negative thought process. Maybe that action is to make more time for yourself or book a holiday you have been meaning to do for a while.
- Step outside into nature. This also lowers cortisol and regulates heart rate and rhythm.
- Practice mindfulness focusing on the here and now. We can't be stressed in the present moment, it's physically not possible. Walk bare foot to ground self back to the present moment.
- Consciously breathe. We are a society of shallow breathers, starving our body of replenishing oxygen. With each breath fill from our bellies up towards our hearts. Use other breathing techniques to calm and centre the mind and body but also to draw in energy to fire up our systems and get going.
- Use colour. Different colours represent different emotions. Become aware of when choosing dull, lifeless colours and ask… Why? Make a change and add in a splash of colour to your outfit and notice how your mood changes. Use colours like pink and green to give yourself some loving, balancing heart energy; visualise standing in a shower of colour and as it falls over you and infuses every cell of your being; calming, revitalising etc. Powerful colours like red and orange can be used to ground self, helping you feel confident in your choices and actions to move forwards.
- Take time intentionally to be still and embracing that fully. Being still and consciously surrendering to all that IS and equally importantly all that ISN'T in your current reality and observing and checking in with yourself regularly. That dialogue within yourself is wholly important. Checking in with your perception of things and feeling the response inside. Stillness can be the biggest shift and movement where you become the prime mover of your life rather than being moved which can slow things down. Then you feel strongly when it's time to physically move and take action.
- Be creative. Painting soothes the mind and helps to clear negative thoughts.
Rebecca, Sarah, Karenanne, Sam, Indiana and Jo xx