I’m on the island of Maui this week, the perfect place to relax and let go of stress. The first few days of my trip I am noticing the vice-grip of muscle tension wrapped around my shoulders and neck. That is how stress manifests in my body. When I step into spaces of being (experiencing things as they are, right now, without trying to change anything), like this beautiful island, the vice-grip becomes visible to me.
I don’t notice it in the busyness of my work and family life, even though it’s there impacting my body, showing up as pain, tightness, or shortened breath. Mostly I distract myself from it. That seems better right? Distraction—not being aware of the discomfort. It’s actually worse for me in the long run. Not being aware that there is stress and how it is impacting my body is what causes my muscles to develop tightening patterns in the first place, as well as what causes my hormones to release stress through my system on a regular basis. It’s what keeps me stuck in life. It’s how I come to function with stress as the norm, and relaxation as the vacation.
When I step into relaxation, why do I suddenly notice the vice grip? It’s because I’m stopping and noticing in these places. When I try to step into a place of peace and ease, I’m coming into the present moment and my awareness comes online letting me know what needs attention. It’s trying to move me towards wellness. It’s in these places that I notice just how difficult it is to let go…to stay in the present moment…to simply stop, notice, and be.
Stress: For Better
Stress as Growth: We all know that stress is bad for us, but did you know that it can also be good? In manageable doses, stress challenges our system in ways that actually strengthens us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience reports that “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Something that stretches us to our limits is a stressor and that stress can increase our growth and happiness, depending on how we meet it. If we can’t learn to effectively manage, maybe even welcome stress at times, we impede our growth and that impedes our happiness. And we’re meant to grow our whole lives.
It’s all about the story: Amazingly, the story we tell ourselves about the stress also impacts our health and well-being, as well as our performance in life. Believing stress is bad and avoiding all stress leads to bad health outcomes and decreases performance. On the other hand, believing stress is beneficial does the opposite. One study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people who had a lot of stress and believed stress was bad had a 43% increased risk of death and worse mental health outcomes than people who thought stress was beneficial. Manageable amounts of stress can actually enhance our immune system, promote learning, enhance brain development, and lead to feelings of wellbeing.
Avoiding things that bring stress to the point of narrowing our lives, or seeing stress as an obstacle, as opposed to part of the journey of life with golden nuggets, harms us. In fact, it is at these times of greatest stress that we need our awareness the most, and for awareness we have to be present.
Stress: For Worse
Too much stress, however, or prolonged stress as a way of life is bad for our physical and emotional health. As the level of stress rises and the story that we tell ourselves about the stress becomes more negative, damaging effects of stress emerge and create or exacerbate health problems.
Stress kills. One study found that people die from stress every two seconds. “The World Health Organization has called stress the epidemic of the 21stcentury.”
Chronic stress is linked to problems with physical health (poor digestion, lowered immune system functioning, cardiovascular disease, and inflammation) as well as mental health (PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder) and substance abuse (Addiction, Relapse).
Chronic stress is stress as a way of life. In today’s society, we are bombarded by stress, reinforced for accepting this at the expense of our health, and looked down upon for too much relaxation (idle time). No wonder someone dies from stress every two seconds and depression is rising and emerging at younger ages. Relaxation has to be more than a vacation. De-stressing has to be the way of life, even more so when we have stressors constantly coming at us.
So how do we do this?
Effective Stress Management Leads to Better Health and Wellbeing.
Mindfulness is Good Stress Management: For Better and Worse.
Few things are more stressful to a child than a shot. One day I picked my ten-year-old daughter up from school for a doctor’s appointment where she was going to get a shot, terrifying for most elementary school children to go willingly to what my husband calls “the big fat needle.” Sitting in the back seat, my daughter said, “Mindfulness does help. It helps me realize that a shot is not so bad…if you compare it to the dentist.”
Mindfulness isn’t relaxation. In fact, it can feel like the opposite at times, but it does lead to de-stressing, and it often leads to feelings of peace and ease. It actually calms down areas of your brain, like your amygdala, which activates under threat. Mindfulness is about training your brain to hold a certain kind of awareness and presence so that you can gain greater clarity in your mind, hold a healthier rhythm in your body, and have more awareness of what matters most. Brain imaging studies show that mindfulness results in brain changes that improve attention, emotional well-being, relationships, and physical health; and it is a great form of stress management. As little as five minutes a day practiced over a three week period can significantly reduce stress and increase life satisfaction. Click here for a free audio link for free 5-minute Mindfulness of Breath Break.
Interested in a Mindful Practice for Health and Wellness course? Click on the blue for a flyer on an eight-week introductory course in Temecula, California. Mindfulness sessions are also available individually.