Most people these days recognize that daily life is stressful, and that being under pressure about anything can cause problems with your health.
Stress in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’ve probably all known someone who thrives under pressure, which proves that when stress is positive it’s often an acceptable part of daily life. When it’s negative, however, the technical term is distress, according to the American Institute of Stress, which can be very damaging and cause problems with your overall health.
Causes of Distress
Most people think distress is a heightened form of regular stress, or a medical condition. Often, you’ll hear medical teams say “the patient is in distress,” which usually means they are in a high-risk situation such as struggling to breathe or survive. Actually, any form of negative stress is distress, because it’s the polar opposite of eustress (euphoric stress), which is an enhanced state of awareness caused by positive factors.
While some causes of negative stress are obvious and well-known, such as divorce, death of a loved one, moving house, losing or changing jobs, financial problems or sleep deprivation, others are less conspicuous. For example, general adaptation syndrome can develop just from the stress caused by sitting in heavy traffic, being late for a meeting, or discovering your smartphone’s battery is run down. These are all part of daily stress, and although neither of these occurrences seem to be very serious on their own, an accumulation of them can build up enough pressure in your brain to cause distress.
Signs of Distress
So how do you know if you’re suffering from distress, or simply experiencing a bit of daily pressure? Negative stress usually shows up as a number of issues, not just a single one. First, your body sounds an alarm, which kicks your defenses into gear. This causes hormones and chemicals to churn out at higher rates, which you can recognize by an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and, often, perspiration. This is likely where the term “hot and bothered” originated.
The next stage is that of resistance, when your system accepts the challenge and begins to try and protect itself against the effects. The resulting tension can, as most people know, create stiff, sore muscles, especially in areas where skeletal muscles are located. These are muscles that support movement and posture, such as the neck, shoulders and upper back. The tension is accompanied by resistance to microcirculation, which results in less than optimal blood flowing through and over these muscles, causing them to have less oxygen and nutrients than they ideally need.
The last stage is that of exhaustion, because the body simply can’t continue fighting against itself like this for long without depleting its resources. At that point, stress becomes chronic and people often experience other medical conditions as a result of the drain on their body and mind. The good news is that there are a number of relaxation techniques that can help you combat negative stress, though.
Combatting Stress Through Relaxation
It’s possible to combat distress from a number of angles, starting with the obvious one which is to avoid it. Many of the situations that develop in our lives are out of our control, however, so unless we can remain completely numb to events around us, it’s usually not feasible to avoid reacting. What we can do, however, is try to address and treat it before we reach the dangerous exhaustion stage. That means dealing with it during the resistance stage, or, if possible, in the earliest alarm stages. At the very first signs that you may be experiencing negative stress, try and put some of these techniques into action.
Just a few minutes of meditation a day can help you to ease anxiety, which is a common precursor of distress. Research shows daily meditation can adjust the neural pathways of your brain, which means you can potentially build up some resilience before a situation occurs. Even if you’ve never meditated before, however, you can try it. Sit up straight with both your feet on the floor, close your eyes and empty your mind.
Refuse to think about the issues causing you stress, and instead focus on reciting over and over to yourself something like “I am at peace” or “everything’s going to be ok.” Try and do it in time with your breathing, for extra calming measures. If distracting thoughts pop up, don’t get agitated—just let them pass by and bring your mind back to your mantra.
Repetitive prayer is also a useful form of meditation and it will have the same effect as long as you keep repeating a neutral, positive mantra instead of passionate or heartfelt prayer.
2. Breathe Deeply
Concentrate on the sound and rhythm of your breathing. Sit up straight as for mediation, close your eyes and rest your hand on your belly. Inhale slowly to the count of 7, mentally pushing the air down into your abdomen. When you’re full of breath from belly to head, stop and hold it for the count of 4. Then exhale slowly to the count of 8. This is one of the popular pranayama or “yoga breathing” techniques, and it is believed to extend your life by an hour for every minute you spend doing it.
3. Do a Body Scan
This is a combination of deep breathing with focused physical relaxation, and is especially helpful when your muscles are tense and sore. Start with a few deep breaths as in #2, then focus on relaxing and releasing a part of your body at a time. You can begin with either your head, your hands or your feet, or the area that is particularly tense. Breathe in, and with each exhale concentrate on relaxing the specific area until it seems completely loose and soft. Work through different sections of your body for as long as you have time, or until you’re feeling significantly better.
4. Get Physical
Any form of physical activity is helpful for relaxation, and it has the added benefit of stimulating your blood circulation. This is best done when you’re in the second stage of distress, rather than during the first stage when your heart is racing and your blood pressure is up. Yoga, tai chi or other martial arts, running, swimming or good old walking will help to clear your mind and redirect your energy from the negative stress. Take care not to do anything too strenuous for your capabilities. If you have physical limitations, use other methods of relaxation to address your stress.
There’s another way, too, by which you can increase your microcirculation and strengthen your overall health. Used in conjunction with the techniques listed here, you can learn to control negative stress and avoid the health problems that go hand-in-hand with it.