In observance of Stress Awareness month, I would like you to think about a few questions:
1. Is stress bad for you?
2. What causes your stress?
3. How do you handle stress?
The Stress Management Society defines stress as a “physical response to a perceived threat.” You might know it as “fight or flight,” but let’s not forget the third option: the freeze response.
When you perceive a threat your endocrine system (think hormones) releases a mix of chemicals to prepare the body for action. One such hormone is cortisol, which increases heart rate, dilates blood vessels to major muscles, decreases blood flow to various organs including those controlling digestion, and increases insulin production which triggers the release of glucose from the liver. The body is now ready to exert tremendous amounts of strength and energy. This is great when we’re faced with an emergency or threat, and is vital for our survival.
When the threat is over, our cortisol levels lower to normal, our bodily functions normalize, and we give a sigh of relief.
Is stress bad for you? Obviously, it’s not in truly dangerous situations. The challenge many of us face is to not trigger this response inappropriately. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in a chronic state of stress.
What causes your stress? Chronic release of cortisol leads to overproduction of insulin, increased blood pressure, and a compromised digestive system. As a result, the American Psychological Association concludes people are aging faster; dying sooner; and having increased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. The Medical News Today website cites cardiovascular disease as the number one cause of death in America with diabetes in the top 10!
How do you handle stress? Another definition of stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Unfortunately, our culture has not given enough time and resources to effectively relate to the increasing strains and tensions of the Information Age. Our individual coping mechanisms/solutions to our faster life can even acerbate the effects of chronic stress. Do you cope with stress by overeating or eating the “wrong“ food, drinking too much alcohol, or sleeping less to check off more items on your list?
Fortunately for us research has shown us a clear path to proven, effective strategies which cut stress at its source. Since the beginning of the stress process is in the mind (a perceived threat, a mental/emotional strain), the two most effective methods of alleviating stress at the source are mindfulness/awareness meditation and/or getting out in nature.
Time spent in nature calms us down for a number of reasons. The April 2016 Business Insider magazine cites numerous scientific studies attesting to more green space: The more trees in your life, the lower your stress hormones, the lower your mortality rate and the higher your happiness quotient.
In studies of the brain, the effects of chronic stress are seen in the increased utilization of certain areas of the brain. They are more active in EKGs to the determent of other functions of the brain. As a result we are rewiring our brain to make quick split second live or die decisions by default. Just as nature nourishes our more reflective modes, mindfulness/awareness meditation purposefully directs us to first observe and ultimately be in the present moment.
In meditation our awareness is continually brought back to the present moment by connecting to our breath. As we take a comfortable seat we focus on our breathing, and our awareness of the thoughts in our mind is enhanced. Through this training we begin to experience thoughts completely differently than before. We naturally begin to experience our life more reflectively. Our thoughts, our perceptions become less stressful because they do not trigger the “fight or flight” response.
A simple prescription of 10 minutes a day of meditation or being in nature could change your stress levels in as little as 8 weeks. There are many ways to connect with meditation and with nature. Find yourself a good hike and a good meditation teacher for a meaningful reduction in your stress.