Modern life is full of balancing work and home duties, being overwhelmed by technology, facing pressures from money and relationships, and many other constant stressors.
A study by the Regus company surveyed 11,000 employees throughout the world and found that around 60 percent of these employees felt higher levels of stress in the workplace during the two years prior to the study than they had previously. And this is only one type of stress found in a person's life. People can be facing caring for children, caring for elderly parents, foreclosure, an inability to pay the bills, divorce and many other stressors.
Everyone has a different idea of what stress is because different aspects of life stress them out. One person might be more likely to find work stressful, while another is more stressed out by her family. We all have different situations and we react differently to different stressors. Nonetheless, we all have some kind of stressors in our lives and stress is common in today's world.
Stress can also cause separate reactions for different people. Some people might become angry, while others will become withdrawn. One person might experience one specific health problem caused by stress, while another person will face a different condition from stress. Nonetheless, stress affects us all, and although it has become a common part of life, it can be a serious risk to our health.
What is Stress?
Everyone talks about stress like it's a horrible thing, but in actuality, stress is meant to be a part of our lives. Good stress can help you be motivated and finish a job you started. For instance, having a deadline can give you positive stress that pushes you to get the job done. Stress can also help save you if you're faced with a dangerous situation. The problem comes when we experience ongoing stress, which is something that has become more and more common in today's world. When this happens, stress becomes overwhelming to your body.
Stress occurs when your mind thinks you are threatened by something. Part of your brain sends messages that can change your fear level, your mood and motivation. It also tells your adrenal glands to release cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones to help you deal with the threat. Cortisol pauses some of your body's functions that you won't need to deal with the stressor at hand. These include your digestive system, reproductive system and immune system. Think about an example of a dog about to attack you. At the moment when your body is faced with this threat, it finds it more important to deal with the situation at hand than to digest food, so it puts the food digestion on hold.
At the same time, cortisol and adrenaline boost certain substances and functions that your body might need during times of stress. It adds glucose, or sugars, to your bloodstream, helps your brain use the sugars and boosts other substances that your body will need to heal body tissue. Adrenaline boosts your blood pressure and your heart rate. It also increases your energy.
All of these processes can be positive, and can help save your life if you're faced with real danger. However, in modern life, these same processes are happening when we are faced with stressors that are not life-threatening. So your body is still releasing those chemicals when your boss yells at you, when you don't have enough money to pay the bills and when you get in an argument with your spouse. Normally, your body should control it's response to stress and even out so you go back to normal. But when you constantly feel stress, your body never goes back to these normal levels. Ongoing stress levels create ongoing stress responses in the body, which can lead to many serious health problems.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress
Many symptoms of poor mental or physical health can be from stress, although these can also accompany other health conditions. Some of the symptoms you might notice include having trouble sleeping and feeling tired, pain or tension in your muscles, headaches and chest pain. You might also have an upset stomach and your sex drive might be different from normal.
Some mental and emotional symptoms include feelings of anxiety, irritability, anger, sadness, depression, restlessness and possibly having trouble paying attention. You might also act in ways that are different from your norm. For instance, you might stay away from social situations, your eating habits might change or you might start using drugs or alcohol to deal with the stress. If you notice some of these symptoms, think about whether you are facing stressors in your life and whether that could be causing these symptoms.
Health Problems Caused by Stress
Stress can affect every system and function of the body. This makes it much more of a threat to our collective health than we tend to give it credit for. It affects the mind and the body, on a short-term and a long-term basis.
The April 2008 study in the European Journal of Pharmacology warns that although short-term health consequences of stress seem to be reversible, it is unknown whether ongoing stress for months, or even years, is reversible. Therefore, there is the potential that stress can cause long-term consequences on health that we're not currently aware of.
A December 2004 study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences addresses the issue of long-term consequences to a degree. Researchers explained that the body and mind adapt to stress in the short-term, but that stress causes damage to your mind and body when you are exposed to it over a prolonged period of time. The study notes that over time, stress can cause obesity, a weakened immune system, demineralization of the bones, brain nerve cell atrophy and atherosclerosis.
Since your body seems to adapt to stress within a short length of time, you should try to manage stress before it goes too far. Short-term stress is what this body system was designed for. But, as you can see, the longer you let stress continue without trying to control it, the more it can potentially cause negative consequences for your health.
Physical Symptoms of Too Much Stress
Constant, ongoing stress can eventually lead to many serious health problems. These can include high blood pressure, heart problems, ulcers, trouble sleeping, digestion troubles, weight problems, diabetes, stroke, upset stomach, muscle pain, headaches, teeth grinding, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and many more. As you can see, stress can have far-reaching consequences to your health. It is not something to take lightly.
Problems caused by stress
An April 2008 study in the European Journal of Pharmacology explains that stress can lead to health problems through the same systems of the body that help your body adapt and survive when faced with stress. These include the immune system, the neural system, the autonomic system, the cardiovascular system and the metabolic system.
As you probably know from personal experience, stress can also lead to an unhealthy lifestyle, which can perpetuate health problems from stress.
The April 2008 study in the European Journal of Pharmacology notes that you can have allostatic overload, or changes in normal body functions, when you experience a combination of chronic stress and lifestyle changes from that stress.
Lifestyle changes can include eating more than normal, eating unhealthy foods, stopping exercise, smoking, drinking and problems sleeping. All of these lifestyle factors can lead to numerous health problems, such as diabetes, lung disease, cancer and liver disease – depending on the factor.
Stress has a negative effect on the central nervous system, which includes the spinal cord and the brain.
For instance, researchers from Texas A&M presented at the 115th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in 2007 about chronic stress. Their mice studies showed that stress caused inflammation in the central nervous system, which lead to infections, inflammatory diseases and neurodegenerative diseases including multiple sclerosis. Stress can also cause a lack of sleep, partially because it can be difficult to turn your mind off.
If you are thinking and worrying about stressors you faced during the day, this can cause insomnia. A lack of sleep can cause some of the same health problems that stress can cause. These include serious illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, as well as obesity. And you probably already know that a lack of sleep can lead to many other problems, including irritability, dangerous driving, unhealthy lifestyle habits and a reduced quality of life. Plus, if you don't get enough sleep, you can have more difficulty dealing with stressors in your life. So this can cause a vicious cycle, where stress leads to a lack of sleep, and a lack of sleep leads to more stress.
Some studies have looked at the effects of specific types of stress. While work stress can potentially cause numerous health problems, a 2000 study in the journal Hypertension noted that work stress has a high correlation with heart disease.
This study of 109 white-collar male workers found that work stress increased the heart rate and blood pressure of the participants. A July 2003 study in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) looked at the effects of stress on people caring for loved ones with a disease or other health concern. The study found that this population of caregivers that were facing ongoing stress had higher levels of a protein that can cause inflammation. This protein is correlated with a higher risk of many diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, gum disease and some types of cancer. It can also potentially cause additional conditions related to aging, such as functional decline and frailty.
Mental Symptoms of Too Much Stress
Stress can also cause many mental and emotional problems. In general, when you're faced with stressors, you can have difficulty controlling your emotions. You might be more prone to crying, irritability, anger, impatience and other emotions that can be negative when they are a constant part of your life. Stress can cause anxiety, which has become a common concern in modern society.
Generalised anxiety disorder is characterized by constantly worrying and having trouble stopping, having trouble relaxing or concentrating, having trouble sleeping, experiencing pain throughout the body and other symptoms.
A study of Australians in 2007 by the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing found that 14 percent of people from the ages of 16 to 85 had anxiety in the previous year. Anxiety disorders were more prevalent than any other mental disorder. Stress can also lead to or worsen a number of other mental or emotional problems, such as depression, anger, emotional eating and psychosomatic illness, which is where you have physical symptoms in your body because of mental and emotional aspects like the way you think and emotional stress. You can also experience mood swings, have trouble concentrating and other issues resulting from stress.
Relationships and Stress
The World Health Organization defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." When you think of health holistically like this, you can factor personal relationships into your health as well. After all, they have an effect on your overall well-being.
This is another area that can be affected by stress, and that can cause stress. First, relationships with others can cause stress. There are many ways you interact with others every day that can cause stress in your life. Caring for your children, caring for elderly parents and your interactions with your spouse can all potentially be stressful. You can get in fights and arguments with people, you can face people trying to control or manipulate you and you might have people putting too much responsibility on your plate.
You might be overwhelmed from dealing with negative or overbearing people. There are many ways relationships can affect your stress levels. Stress can also put a strain on relationships, and therefore, on your social well-being. If you are stressed out, you might be more quick to anger and less patient with your friends and family. You might be less loving or you might not have enough time for others. You might feel like people are a burden to you, and treat them that way. These behaviors can all cause problems in your relationships.
If you can learn to deal with stress, you can prevent many of these health problems, and potentially reverse many of them, and you can live a better life.
Meditation and yoga are two methods that can help you learn to deal with stress and think about life differently.
Using Meditation and Yoga to Counteract Stress
Stress can be a large problem for the mental, physical and social aspects of your life. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent some of the effects caused by stressors in your life, as well as ways to manage stress when it is affecting you. Meditation and yoga are two practices that might help you deal with stress in your life.
Ways to deal with stress
Meditation involves clearing the mind, although it can also take you to new levels of consciousness and spiritual enlightenment. When you meditate, you try to focus inward and then let go of your thoughts and worries, instead of focusing on the distractions of the world around you.
Yoga is a mind, body and spiritual practice that combines poses, meditation and relaxation. Yoga and meditation are often practiced together, although they can also be practiced separately.
A June 2007 study in Complementary Therapies in Medicine studied 131 participants who were mildly stressed ranging to moderately stressed from South Australia.
The study looked at whether yoga and relaxation techniques would improve the stress of the participants over a 10-week period and a 16-weed period. Participants practiced Hatha yoga or relaxation for one hour at a time once a week. Both practices lowered the participants' stress levels over time, plus they lowered anxiety and boosted the participants' quality of life.
Yoga and meditation can help your stress levels in many ways:
Different Ways to Meditate
When you think of meditation, you probably think of someone sitting on a meditation cushion with their legs crossed so their feet are sitting on their thighs, with a hand on each knee, with two fingers on each hand held together and the person chanting "om".
This is certainly one method of meditating, but there are numerous additional methods. You can meditate in certain yoga poses like Corpse pose, where you lie on your back on the floor, or Easy pose, which is a simple cross-legged position. You can also practice a moving meditation, which involves slowly and deliberately moving your body while calming your mind.
Meditation is a very personal practice, so you can make meditation be anything you want it to be. You can practice meditating to music, guided imagery or silent meditation without the use of any thoughts or sounds. It can be religious, or it doesn't have to be. You can use tools like meditation cushions, meditation benches, zabuton mats or music, but you don't have to. You can meditate while sitting in nature, relaxing in a bath or in a special room you created for some peace and quiet.
When you get better at meditation, you might even be able to meditate while there is noise around you, because you will have trained yourself to focus inward and ignore the distractions around you. In general, all meditation requires is for you to relax your body and clear your mind. You only need yourself.
Meditation can have some powerful effects against stress. A September 1991 study in the Physiology & Behavior journal studied males engaging in Buddhist meditation. In the study, the meditation lowered levels of cortisol, one of the main stress hormones, to a significant degree. It also lowered blood pressure and the heart rate in the participants.
Deep breathing and guided relaxation are techniques that can be practised within meditation or yoga. These practices can greatly reduce stress.
Deep breathing helps calm the central nervous system. Many people breathe shallowly into their chest.
To practice three-part deep breathing, begin by breathing into your belly. Then, breathe a little deeper up into your chest, and finally, breathe slightly deeper into your upper back and shoulders. Then, slowly let out your breath. Pause for a moment after letting it out, and the air will naturally come back into your belly first.
If you practice breathing into your belly, your body will start doing it more without you even thinking about it. This really helps calm the body. Throughout the day, if you're feeling particularly stressed, taking a few deep breaths can make more of a difference than you might think.
You can also practice some form of guided relaxation. This can include guided imagery, where you imagine being in a place that will relax you, such as the beach or a field of flowers. You imagine all the sights, sounds, scents and more. You could also try guided muscle relaxation. With this technique, you lie down and go through each part of your body, imagining letting go of the tension in each one part, one at a time. Start with your feet and as you exhale, let go of the tension in your feet and let them completely relax, melting into the floor. Move onto your ankles, your calves, your thighs and so on. This can really help you feel the tension throughout your body and learn that you can let much of it go with your mind. After relaxing your entire body, allow yourself to meditate.
The separate types of yoga and the various aspects of a class can help stress in different ways. Some classes are focused on vigorous poses and exercises while some classes are more about meditation and restorative, calming poses. Many types of yoga are somewhere in between, incorporating a mix of vigorous poses, gentle poses and meditative practices. All of these types can help stress in various ways.
Power yoga, Bikram yoga (hot yoga) and Ashtanga yoga are some of the physical and exercise-oriented types of yoga. Plus, many balanced classes include some elements of exercise. Exercise can help reduce stress in your body and mind. Exercise boosts happiness-promoting hormones you know as endorphins. It also gives you a positive outlet to deal with stressors you have been facing. Further, it helps your body be healthier, to better combat stress.
Yoga can become more of an aerobic workout when you perform series of poses, you flow from one pose to another or you practice a more vigorous type of yoga. ome types of yoga, like Restorative yoga and Kundalini yoga, don't incorporate exercise as much, and focus much more on meditation and breathing.
Some types of yoga, like Restorative yoga, focus mainly on calming, non-aggressive poses Child's Pose, Legs-up-the-Wall Pose and Reclining Bound Angle Pose. These classes often use props like blocks, pillows, blankets and straps to minimize stress on the body. They might also use tools that help facilitate a calm environment, such as soothing music, aromatherapy, gongs, chanting and more. They also include calming and meditative practices like deep breathing, meditation, guided imagery, guided relaxation and a spiritual connection. These aspects are often missing, or the focus is misplaced, in many of the more vigorous, exercise-oriented yoga classes. These calming types of yoga combat stress in a different way than the exercise-oriented ones, in a way similar to meditation. Also, the focus on deep breathing is important.
A February 2005 study in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that yogic breathing can help stress and health conditions caused by stress, as well as concerns sometimes related to stress, like anxiety and depression. Many yoga classes, particularly Hatha yoga classes, balance exercise and meditation. The combination can be beneficial because the poses can help you get out some of your nervous tension, anxiety, extra energy and stress. Then, when you practice some form of relaxation or meditation after getting this energy out, you are much more likely to experience the full benefits of it. You can find many types of yoga that combine these different aspects, and these might be the ones to best help you deal with stress. But whatever helps you personally, and the one you will stick with, is the right one for you.
While yoga in general can help your stress levels, some specific poses can specifically benefit stress. Bharadvaja's Twist and Noose Pose are twisting poses that can alleviate stress. You can try backbends like Bridge Pose, Cobra Pose and Cow Pose. Inversions, which are poses where you bring your legs above your head, like Feathered Peacock Pose and Plow Pose, might help. Additionally, you can try Cat Pose, Extended Triangle Pose and Dolphin Pose to alleviate stress.
Some other stress-reducing yoga poses are meditative poses. These include Corpse pose, where you simply lie on the floor, or Easy pose, where you sit down in a cross-legged position. Some others include Child's Pose, Fire Log Pose and the Salutation Seal. In these types of poses, you are instructed to attempt to clear your mind and let any thoughts or worries float away. If you need help with this, you can try to focus on your breathing, chanting, music, a candle or another tool. Deep breathing techniques and guided relaxation that are often part of a yoga class can also help relieve stress.
One of the main goals of meditation and yoga is to connect with a higher power. Even if you are not looking for this aspect when you begin a yoga or meditation practice, you are likely to open up to the experience as you practice quieting your mind and meditating.
A sense of spirituality can help you deal with stress. It helps you feel differently about the world, in that everything and everyone, including the negativity and stressors, have their place. You can feel more inclined to share love with the world, instead of spreading hatred, anger and other negative emotions. This also gives you more of a sense of what is important, and what is not important, in life.
It helps you feel like there is more to this life, and that many of the little things are not worth focusing your energy and attention on. For instance, if you are stressed about a report at work, that your kids don't clean their rooms or that someone was rude to you, having a spiritual connection can show you that some of these "little things" might not be as important as you once thought.
You can think about whether it's more important to stress over a clean house or to spend more quality time with your family without the nagging and stress related to forcing them to clean. This doesn't mean you can't try to work out problems, but when you do, you can come at them in a more loving and understanding way.
Stress in the Body
Yoga and meditation not only help mental stress, but also physical stress. You will start to notice the tension in your body when you stop focusing on external stimuli and go inward. You will feel the tension in your shoulders, you will notice that your jaw is constantly clenched and that your brow is furrowed. By realizing these things, you can focus on relaxing those areas of your body. Throughout the day, you can practice relaxing those tense areas.
Yoga can help you deal with tension and pain in your body due to stress, or you might have pain that is causing some stress in your life. Back pain, which is very common, is often caused by stress and tension in the back muscles. Many yoga poses can help ease that tension.
Yoga and meditation can both help you catch some z's. These practices help you sleep by calming down your mind and body. They can also teach you to quiet your mind from incessant thoughts and worries that often keep people awake at night. Yoga can also help you get out some nervous energy that might be keeping you awake. Plus, it contains certain poses that promote sleep, including Seated Forward Bend, Corpse Pose, Downward-Facing Dog, Cat Pose, Cow Pose and many others.
A good amount of sleep is important for counteracting stress. Making sure you are comfortable with the right covers to keep you a pleasant temperature, along with a comfortable, but supportive, sleeping pillow, such as a buckwheat hull sleeping pillow, can help you get a good nights rest. When you sleep, your body deals with stress you faced during the day. Plus, your body gains the strength it needs to handle upcoming stressful situations. When you're more rested, you'll be less irritable and more patient, and overall better able to handle stressors that come your way.
Having a consistent meditation or yoga practice can change the way you think and the way you react to the world. These practices often help you feel calmer and less angry. Plus, they can help you feel more connected to others, more connected to a higher power and they often create feelings of more respect and compassion for others.
For instance, if your partner is angry and irritable one day, instead of acting with anger, defensiveness and impatience, you might pause to calm yourself, detach yourself from the situation and realize that he or she is experiencing a lot of stress and is taking it out on you. Then, you can react in a more rational way through love and compassion instead of through negative emotions. This process can help you with your relationships and to deal with many stressors in your life.
These practices help create awareness of yourself and your surroundings. You can learn to focus more on the positive aspects of your life, instead of stressing about the negative ones all the time. You realize when you are becoming stressed, and what the triggers are, which can help you deal with it or prevent it. You might see if there are situations you need to change in your life and come at them with a better perspective. For instance, instead of nagging, you can explain how a chore around the house can help you be there for your family more. You might see if other parts of your life are negative for you and are only going to cause stress. For instance, your job might not be right for you, so you might want to pursue another path that would cause less stress in your life.
You'll often notice that when you practice yoga and meditation, you start to want to be healthier in all aspects of your life. You might exercise more, you might devote more time to relaxation, you might think differently, you'll probably be less stressed and you might start to eat more healthily. When you practice healthy habits, like a healthy diet and exercise, it can help your body be as strong as it can be, even strengthening your immune system. A strong body and mind can help you be better prepared to deal with stressors in your life.
Not only can meditation and yoga help you deal with stress you're already facing, but they can also help you deal with stressors as you're facing them to prevent stress. By practicing these techniques, you might have a better attitude when a triggering stressor, like an aggressive driver or an impatient boss, comes your way, which they inevitably will during the day. You can learn not to react with impatience, anger and hostility, but to breathe, stay calm and not take in negativity. You can learn to calmly deal with the situation if it needs to be dealt with, or if it doesn't, to let it go and not let it bother you. Meditation and yoga can give you the feeling that you can take on the world better.
These practices can also help you identify your stressors – the triggers that cause your stress – so you can learn to avoid them, deal with them or change your lifestyle. When you're more aware of your body's reactions, more aware of your personal symptoms of stress and more aware of the world around you, you'll be better prepared to see stressors in front of you. Meditation and yoga can teach you these habits.
Research has even backed up the idea that meditation can help you deal with stressors. A June 2012 case study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine studied the effects of meditation on an ice bath acting as a stressor. Through meditation, the man in the case study was able to minimise the effects of stress on his body from the ice. Overall, meditation and yoga can greatly help you prevent stress in your life or manage it if you're experiencing stress.
Consistently engaging in one or both of these practices is the best way to deal with stress. Simply setting aside a few minutes or a half hour each day for these practices can help your mind and body better handle stress.