Deadlines are piling up; your boss is on your back and you’re clenching your jaw so hard it’s about to crack. Instead of saying something that might get you fired, you reach for that extra piece of cake from morning tea or guzzle your fifth cup of coffee.
By 3pm you’ve hit a sugar slump and your anxiety has hit a caffeine-induced peak giving you palpitations. By the time you get home, you automatically reach for the bottle of wine and zone out in front of The Witcher.
We’ve all been there. It’s a vicious cycle, and our coping mechanisms to deal with stress aren’t necessarily the healthiest.
In fact, it’s costing the Australian economy over $14.2 billion in productivity a year.
The impacts stress has on the body are widely documented. Stress is causally linked with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, lower immune system responses, cancer, lung disease, cirrhosis of the liver and also a higher degree of drug or alcohol abuse.
Common symptoms of prolonged stress include irritability and anger, fatigue or low energy, lack of motivation or a loss of interest in things you once enjoyed, indigestion and upset stomachs, and appetite changes.
A lot of how we cope with and experience stress is due to our ‘stress threshold’. We develop our stress threshold in-utero. Our genetic makeup contains individual personality traits as well as our tolerance to stress, which can be impacted by our mother’s stress levels during pregnancy. When expectant mothers’ have high cortisol levels, which can be found in the amniotic fluid, these children have a lower stress threshold than children born to mothers who were relaxed during pregnancy.
A stress threshold is basically our breaking point, or the point to which we can handle stress in a healthy way. Stress in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A healthy amount of stress, when processed through the body’s nervous system, can help us perform better, increase our alertness and increase our productivity.
Stress becomes an issue when it reaches a point where our parasympathetic system is unable to shift out of the fight / flight / freeze response. When we’re stressed, our body releases a chemical called cortisol as well as a lot of calming chemicals to absorb the excess cortisol.
If we’re experiencing prolonged stress and the cortisol is continuing to be released into our system, it throws our biochemistry off balance and this can have significant impacts on our health.
Long term stress has a negative impact on our brain cells and brain function too. Too much cortisol affects our memory, preventing our brain from creating new synaptic connection. This can impact your ability to learn new things, perform well at work and achieve your goals.
A great way to counter stress is through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way of being that counteracts stress by intentionally focusing our attention on the present moment, without judgment.
When we’re living mindfully we are paying attention to the needs of the present moment. We are more aware of our needs and the needs of those around us, allowing us the space to respond appropriately to situations, instead of reacting to them.
We live more purposefully, and take actions that are aligned with our goals. We can notice when we are no longer aligned with our desires, or if our goals are no longer aligned with our values. We experience less stress because we are aware of our parasympathetic state and can self-soothe.
Here are 5 mindfulness techniques you can use today:
Bring your attention back to your breath. Your breath is your most powerful tool. As you breathe in, focus your attention on your ribs moving out, as you exhale allow them to move back in. Inhale for 3. Hold for 3. Release for 5. A longer outbreath helps you return to a ventral state.
Grounding exercises are powerful. Bring your attention into your body. Gently notice 5 things you can see, then 4 things you can feel, then 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. This practice brings you back into the present and into your body. One of the responses we have in stressful situations is dissociation.
Shake your body – have you ever noticed a horse or deer that experiences a threat? As soon as the threat passes they shake out their body, releasing the build-up of energy within their nervous system, returning them to a ventral state. Whether it’s a short walk around the block, a dance class after work or a HIIT session at lunchtime, movement is vital to the way we process stress.
Give yourself a hug, or receive one from someone. The technical term is Havening. Cross your arms over your body, touch your shoulders and run your hands down your arms to your elbows, saying a mantra such as ‘calm and relaxed’ in your mind. On a neurological level this puts us in a parasympathetic state.
When you eat pause and reflect on how this simple piece of food contains the earth, wind, rain and sunshine. Think about the people from around the world who contributed in making the ingredients. Give thanks for the food and the interconnection of all things.
The trick to successfully using mindfulness techniques is to practice it in short sessions – usually around 30 seconds to 2 minutes maximum, periodically during the day.