To say the last two years have been a bit stressful is a gross understatement. Stress negatively impacts not just our mental health, but our physical health as well. In fact, people under chronic stress run the risk of developing a variety of diseases, from headaches and insomnia to high blood pressure and heart disease. It’s no wonder we dedicate the month of April to stress awareness. (April also being tax-filing month has nothing to do with it, right?) If you’ve wondered how long-term stress affects you and need ways to cope, take a deep dive with us.
The top factors that cause stress for many Hoosiers include money, work, family, relationships, and economic outlook. If you add to that the health crisis caused by a global pandemic, stress rates skyrocket.
Why is stress part of human nature?
Stress, when taken in small doses, is actually helpful to our bodies. For example, it can be a motivator to reach that work deadline. It can also be lifesaving in situations where danger is imminent and you need to think on your feet. During these times, your body releases the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. This causes a cascade of reactions within the body like a pounding heart, tightened muscles, increased blood pressure, blunted pain response, and sharpened senses. All of which put more energy available for quick action, while diverting it from long-term uses like digestion and growth.
But stress becomes a problem when it hangs around too long, and those hormones begin to have a negative impact on the body. For example, motivation from stress to handle a crisis at work is great, but when you fall into a state of chronic stress over a long-term goal, it is detrimental to you actually achieving it. Chronic stress keeps your body from functions like using and storing energy normally, which can increase your risks of diabetes, and relaxing the walls of your arteries, which increases your risk of hypertension—it can even stunt growth.
What can I do to manage stress?
This is why it is so important to manage stress. Healthy stress management looks different for everyone and depends highly on what works best for you. The good news? There are as many stress-reduction techniques and tricks as there are people, and you will surely find a method to gain some relaxation and release from stressful situations.
Meditation is a great way to reduce overall stress and find a sense of well-being. That being said, meditation can be really difficult for some people, especially the “sitting still” aspect. There are a variety of methods for meditation; it’s not just a seated practice. Walking meditation, for instance, is a great way to move slowly and mindfully while focusing on your breathing. You can also lie down for a guided meditation or do what is called a “body scan” while relaxing your body completely. Seated meditations are great, too, and generally incorporate breath awareness. Also, don’t forget that yoga itself counts as a moving meditation, which might be a fit if your mind tends to wander. You can find many practices online through websites such as Yoga International and apps like Insight Timer.
Have you ever noticed what your breath feels like when your body is calm? Usually, your inhales and exhales feel long, steady and slow. It makes sense, then, that if you consciously breathe this way, your nervous system will get the message that it’s time to calm down. Many breathing practices, also called “Pranayam” in yoga, aim for just that. One simple method of slowing the breath is to exhale for longer than you inhale. For example, inhale for a count of 4 and then exhale for a count of 6. By practicing breathwork, you can lessen the impact of daily stress and learn to calm your nervous system any time you feel stress building.
Moving your body in a way that you enjoy is a great way to relieve stress. Cardiovascular exercise is especially helpful. Join your local Hancock Wellness Center to take advantage of a variety of group cardio classes, such as water aerobics, Zumba and more! Find something you enjoy that feels like stress relief. Don’t pick an exercise you hate and add to your chronic stress!
Just being in nature calms and soothes our frantic nervous systems. Hancock County has a variety of wonderful nature preserves, and places like Pennsy Trail in Greenfield provide an opportunity for long walks or bike rides with plenty of fresh air. If you find yourself stressed at work or home, take a walk outside and see how it helps you gain space and solitude in the quiet of natural surroundings.
No matter what your level of stress, it’s incredibly important to be in tune with your body and mind so that you sense when it is time to take a break. If your daily stress level is too high for your well-being, it may even be time to make some big changes. First, celebrate Stress Awareness Month by incorporating meditation, breath work, exercise, some time outdoors and other things you enjoy into your daily, weekly, or monthly routine.