by Darra McMullen
Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher

Author’s Note:  Ordinarily, the December topic of the month is anxiety and depression, and there are past articles addressing those topics available on this website, but due to an overwhelming interest in the topic of stress reduction, this month we’re going to take a little diversion from our usual topic of anxiety/depression, and instead, look at the arena of excessive stress and investigate ways to effectively dial down our responses to life’s challenges.

Stress, modern lives, and “ancient” bodies:

Although humankind has progressed enormously throughout the ages with regard to technology, science, and general understanding of the world – to name just a few areas of growth – there is a particular biological response that hasn’t changed markedly through the millennia.  That biological response, often referred to as “fight or flight”, still functions pretty much the same now as it did thousands of years ago.  Unfortunately, the modern world’s demands are not well suited to this type of biological response, or conversely, one could say our “ancient” biological responses don’t fit well with modern life.

Though increased blood pressure, respiration, muscle tension, adrenaline, and cortisol levels can all be quite helpful if running from a wild animal, as our ancestors had to do, the aforementioned physical responses can now instead cause emotional discomfort and long-term physical ills if the stress response occurs too often or too strongly due to everyday modern life events.

In present-day America, most of the time, we live lives of relative comfort and safety due to improved technology, lawfulness, and basic prosperity.  However, the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that generates our primitive survival instinct, continues to do its job as it always has throughout time.  Only now, when the limbic system senses a “threat”, it is reacting to ordinary discomforts, frustrations, and pressures of daily life rather than a true physical danger or life-threatening event.

The trick to stress reduction involves retraining the brain’s response to unpleasant (but not life-threatening) events to be a more productive, rational, and yes, less “stress-producing” outcome.

Often, we will hear that the following can help with stress reduction: exercise, meditation, and positive self-talk.  All of the above listed things can definitely help reduce stress, but sometimes the limbic system is simply too over-stimulated for any of these tools to be able to “get in” to do any good.

Instead of trying to figure out how to reduce stress when already in a “worked up” state of mind, practice good stress responses when in a calm and leisurely atmosphere.

To regain control of the “survival” response, use three sensory tools (one each of auditory, visual, and olfactory) that can be practiced at home under relaxed conditions and then, once mastered, can be brought to mind when stressful situations occur.

Learning to use these sensory tools can effectively “dilute” or weaken the impact of the brain’s fear center, thereby allowing the individual person to maintain some perspective and control over behavioral and biological responses to stressful events.

The brain’s fear response is not controlled by the same region as are the auditory, visual, and olfactory senses.  Therefore, stimulating these “competing” areas of the brain serves as a distraction to the brain’s “single-minded” fear response to stressful conditions.

To use this method of stress management, do the following:

  • Choose a favorite, uplifting song.
  • Choose an inspiring person, real or fictional, that represents strength and stability to you.
  • Choose a scent that has a positive connotation for you.
  • When relaxed and at home, first imagine a stressful situation. Then practice singing (aloud) the chosen song.  Likewise, visualize the person of strength, and imagine the positive scent chosen as your calming trigger.
  • Continue to practice the previous step at least three to six times over the next week. When feeling confident about “at-home” practice, try using these techniques the next time a stressful event occurs.  (Singing “in your head” can be substituted for singing aloud once good habits are established through home-based practice.)

Additional options for stress reduction:

Physical Activity:

Whether it is a formal exercise regimen, informal dance practice, yard work, house cleaning, or an enjoyable walk in the outdoors on a beautiful day, physical activity is an emotional stress reducer.  What is a bit physically taxing is, in most cases, a stress reliever for the mind.  If feeling stressed, get the body moving and emotions will calm down.  Thinking will be clearer and more focused, and attitudes will be more positive.

Meditation and Positive Self-Talk:

Positive affirmations from self-talk are proven stress relievers, as are any number of meditative methods, whether faith-based or not.  Basically, what these meditative prescriptions have in common is a goal of slowing the person’s swirling mind down into a calmer state and forcing the mind to focus on one thing long enough to “short-circuit” the limbic system’s over-response to stimuli.  Once the mind is calmer and focused, it can then sort out worries, plans, and experiences in a logical manner, and order is restored.

Positive self-talk can serve to remind a person that he/she really can handle the various challenges placed before them, and that life stressors are frequently not as bad as they might at first seem anyway.

An Attitude of Gratitude:

Studies have shown that an attitude of gratitude for life’s positive aspects can actually help thwart anxiety, depression, and simple feelings of being “stressed out”.  Biologically speaking, these studies make sense.  When the brain is focused on recalling and counting positives in life, it has difficulty focusing on fear and fear responses that lead to stress.

“Cut Some Slack” to Your Fellow Humans:

If you find yourself getting stressed out over a rude driver on the road or someone who bumps into you at the grocery store or an overly chatty co-worker on the job, before you “blow your top”, try calmly thinking about what set of circumstances might have led the person to behave in such a manner.  Usually, whatever is troubling them has nothing to do with you personally, and as such, you have no “need” to get defensive, angry, or stressed.  Even if there is a direct link between you and the other person’s behavior, in most cases, it is better to diffuse a situation, rather than escalate it.  See if you can find a way to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.  Your stress levels and the stress levels of others will all go down.

Let’s all start the New Year on a calm, peaceful, and stress-free note!

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