Is stress and burn-out wrecking your life, and do you ever wonder what affect your stress load has on you? We all handle stress differently. Some of us don't manage it well and are sick or unwell, whereas others seem to thrive with few ill-effects. A doctor once told me that nearly all or about 95% of the people he sees daily have stress-related illnesses. For starters, stress, in its many forms, compromises the immune system. As a result we are more vulnerable to a wide range of discomforts, aches, pains and disease. It’s important to know that whatever we experience — anxiety, sadness, negative thoughts, environmental stressors, calm, happiness or joy — bodies respond in sometimes very powerful ways. Is it possible to train yourself to make space for good things to happen? You know, learn to "let in" more good which may help "squeeze out" the bad. In my psychotherapy practice, I’ve noticed that many people seem to default to negative emotions and drama, even when things are, for the most part, fine. This pattern is very much habitual, as if early training in this behavior has created the wiring for the template of your life in the here and now, as well as all future experiences. Notice the way you talk to yourself. What is your inner dialogue like? What do you tell yourself? Are your thoughts automatic? What is your relationship to these thoughts and feelings? Do you need them and are they real and accurate or exaggerated, doom and gloom nasties, edging towards catastrophe? Or, like many, does everything have to be perfect and if experiences fall short of some idealized version or fantasy, well then it all just goes to hell? Are you "allowed" to have a good life and experience joy and happiness, and for how long? Once you shift the way you think about things, and learn to better manage your thoughts and feelings you will feel different. It takes some work and practice. When you add in more positive emotions, it squeezes out the life-wrecking hostile, negative thoughts that may be keeping you from living a fuller life. To nudge you towards small changes, I suggest learning to smile and soften your attitude towards the little annoyances of life. Be open to this -- letting go of the small stuff -- not easy, but notice if this is a problem for you. Beauty and richness is all around us in every moment -- if we are habitually in the mud with the uglies, it's hard to discern truth from fiction. As you practice this, you will breathe more fully and begin to relax into your body and the moment.
When you are under a lot of stress or impacted by negative thoughts, feelings or emotions, the muscles tense, which then negatively affects many internal organs. Where does this action show up in your mind and body? You may feel fear and anxiety, heartburn and digestive difficulties, backaches and headaches, just to name a few of the more common complaints. How about beginning with the body and trying to reduce body tension as one route to easing the grip of stress? By learning to relax and reduce muscle tension you will begin to breathe more easily. Oxygen is a very good thing — and key to revitalizing your health — mind and body. Think the opposite of vigilance — you’re off duty so to speak, not looking for anything — your only task is to relax. Encourage your muscles to melt and release as you lie still. This practice relaxes muscles and enables them to release their habitual gripping. So, be lazy, on an as needed basis, and see if your body doesn’t re-fuel and re-energize. When you reduce muscle tension it improves breathing; when you improve your breathing your muscle tension is reduced. When you learn to breathe more consciously, you improve your metabolism, you look and feel more vibrant and energized, you will likely sleep better and aches and pains will subside. Most stress experts recommend setting aside at least 10 to 20 minutes a day for your de-stress, relaxation practice. If that sounds like a big commitment to your already jam-packed day, remember that many of these techniques can be incorporated into your existing daily schedule — practiced at your desk, during your commute, during lunch or on break.
So what 3 easy steps can you take today to reduce your stress and improve your life and health?
- Breathe — do this before you sleep and in the morning before you get out of bed. Deep, full, calm and intentional breaths for 5-10 minutes. If it helps, put your hands on your belly and experience the rise as your lungs fill with air and the fall of your belly as you exhale.
- Relax — try progressive relaxation (google this if you are unsure how to do it) and make this a regular part of your self-care ritual. Allow all the major muscles in your body, including your face to deeply relax.
- Observe — notice your thoughts and inner dialogue. Begin to pay attention to habitual patterns that have become second nature to you. I have a feeling that you’ll be surprised to learn that you speak unkindly to yourself more often than you realize. See if your reality doesn’t change when you make space for the good.
Stress is necessary for life. You need stress for survival. Stress is only harmful when it becomes overwhelming and interrupts the healthy state of equilibrium that your nervous system needs to remain in balance. Start slow and easy, because small changes really make a difference. Open the windows, and let in the light. It's always about progress, not perfection.