It is all too easy to let stress be the master of you, rather than you controlling it. We now know, compared with when I was under 30, that there is good stress and bad stress. But I only heard about that after 1990; before then I don’t recall anyone discussing ‘stress’, and we didn’t think we were suffering from the effects of stress, even though we often were. We were ‘frazzled’ or ‘overworked’ and we might feel ‘tension’, but we weren’t told that it was a health hazard. Of course, we were also younger and considered ourselves invincible. In our 50s we need to address stress levels and find ways of avoiding the things that send our autonomic nervous system into overdrive.
I’ve published several books on complementary therapies, and understanding the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is an important part of appreciating how things like yoga or tai chi work. The system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and it plays a key role in dealing with the things that stress you, both good and bad.
Without good stress we wouldn’t feel motivated to achieve certain goals; we might not even get out of bed. We need it and we can cope with it. However, when we have to deal with work that is way beyond our capacity, bad stress starts to affect us. The SNS sends out the “fight or flight” hormones adrenalin and cortisol. You’ve probably experienced the effects of these: raised heart and breathing rates, sweating and churning stomach. Your body is designed so that when the “threat’ has been removed, your body quickly returns to a balanced state, helped by the PNS.
However, we are living in such a way now that we bypass the “return to normal” action and keep our SNS in constant activity with a perpetual stream of stresses. As a result, our PNS loses its function. It really is a “use it or lose it” situation with your PNS, but there are ways that you can revive it. By following these methods you exercise your PNS and consciously combat your own stress. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation admittedly, but your PNS function won’t help you cope if you don’t help it to function.
Here are six techniques for tackling stress:
Go to a yoga or qigong/Tai Chi class and you’ll learn great breathing techniques that can turn all those stress effects around in minutes. Once you’ve explored the art of breathing you’ll realise just what an enormous influence it has over your body and mind. I highly recommend learning a variety of breathing techniques and using them on a regular basis. You’ll also realise that you haven’t really been breathing properly before.
2. Define your stress triggers
You’re probably aware of some of your stress triggers, but perhaps not all. Write yours down in a personal journal, because once you have identified them they already start to have less power over you. Or, you can at least avoid them. If, for example, a certain person has you wound up like an eight-day clock in minutes, then limit your exposure to them if possible.
3. Pour it out
Here’s a trick I learnt from this wonderful book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Buy yourself a notebook and first thing every day write for 15 minutes without thinking. Just let every thought and word that comes into your head exit via your pen. It doesn’t have to make sense and you’re not supposed to re-read it. It’s a way of flushing out all the toxic thoughts that keep you in stress mode. It also allows your good ideas to surface, and you don’t need to be a creative person to benefit from this technique.
4. Make a date with yourself
This is another Julia Cameron idea. In the same way that you might go on a ‘date night’ with a partner, this time you make a date with yourself. You choose how long it lasts and what you do, but ideally it should be activities leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
5. Look after your health
Good health helps us to cope with stress better. Look after your diet, drink more water and keep a positive frame of mind to minimise the effects of any events that crop up and throw you off balance.
Add exercise to the above. Physical exercise like walking or swimming is excellent for maintaining a healthy body and mind. Yoga or qigong/Tai Chi are more meditative and are powerful stress relief forms of exercise. Add in a meditation class and you are all set for a less stressful life.
If I had to choose just one of these tips, it would be this; don’t forget to breathe deeply. Your breathing will make you master of your stress and stop it from controlling you.