The latest UK-wide stress survey found that almost three quarters of adults (74%) have at some point over the past year felt so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. 32% of adults said they had experienced suicidal feelings as a result of stress and 16% of adults said they had self-harmed as a result of stress. With stress being a significant factor in mental health problems including anxiety and depression and linked to physical health problems like heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia and digestive problems it is important to have the most up to date stress management skills at your disposal.
The word ‘stress’ is used to describe the physical and/or emotional response to the demands and pressures that modern living means we come under from time to time. Stress can be a positive thing, which drives us on and helps us to grow, develop and be stimulated. However, when stress reaches a certain level, it can overcome a person’s ability to cope and can impact on their physical and mental health.
In the days of the caveman, stress often came in the form of physical threats that required individuals to react quickly and decisively. The body helped out by automatically clicking into high gear at the first sign of trouble, releasing a surge of hormones (notably adrenaline and cortisol) to accelerate the heart rate, raise blood pressure, increase blood sugar, and enhance the brain’s use of glucose. This stress response meant the caveman was instantly ready to fight or flee.
In the modern day, we are usually not able to deploy this fight or flight mechanism and so although we still produce these symptoms, they have nowhere to go. The prolonged effect of these psychological stressors results in a range of impacts on our body and mind.
Everyone deals with stress in different ways and our capacity to deal with it changes throughout our lives. What we are sure of is that people who adapt to stress and find ways of managing it are less likely to develop physical or mental symptoms.
How Our Body Responds to Stress
Once we are put under stress our body immediately begins to react and there are certain specific things you will be able to notice in your body. Over time, these stress elements can build up and often cause inherent health problems with our bodies.
Once we are stressed, our body immediately begins to react. Humans have innately developed a “fight or flight” response to stressful or threatening situations over the years. Several things happen under stress:
On occasion, these responses can be good, but most of the time, it is merely an overreaction to a situation that causes this stress and it can eventually harm your physical health.
Resulting symptoms could be...
Blood flow to brain and muscles increase/Concentration heightens – Tension headache, migraines, anxiety, moods
Your heart rate increases – Chest pains, raised blood pressure
Breathing becomes more rapid – Clammy, sweaty feelings.
Digestion pauses to allow for more energy – Heartburn, indigestion, ulcers
Muscle tension increases – Aches, pains, muscle spasms
Other than the physical functions carried on by our body, stress can damage our bodies in other ways. When we are under stress, we often tend to abuse our body. This can include poor lifestyle choices such as eating fatty and greasy foods, drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, or even abusing prescription or illegal drugs. All these can have a secondary affect on the body caused by stress.
The Mitchell Method of Relaxation
Relaxation is a skill and, like any other skill, benefits from practice. The relaxation procedure described here is one that has been practised for 10-15 years. It is called the ‘Mitchell Method’. Studies have shown that it is extremely effective.
If you learn and practice the exercise it will help you to feel relaxed and calm. It is not the same as hypnosis. You will not lose consciousness at any time but, if you are lying down, it may make you feel very sleepy.
Creating the mood
As you lie or sit, reflect on the idea that you are going to give the next half-hour to yourself. No telephone can ring; no doorbell disturb you; no one will call your name. You may hear sounds around you: voices, horns, sirens, bangs and revs - think of them as being outside your world. With these thoughts in mind, draw an imaginary circle around yourself, about three feet from the centre. Create an imaginary bubble - think of the interior as your space - your own private space. Feel how safe it is - safe to get in touch with yourself. Turn your thoughts inwards.
Relaxation may be practised in any comfortable, supported position - sitting, lying and three-quarters lying are often chosen first. The
recommended sequence for the relaxation is:
Shoulders Pull your shoulders down towards your feet. STOP pulling your shoulders down. Feel that your shoulders are now lower and your neck feels longer.
Elbows Push your elbows slightly away from your side. STOP pushing your elbows out. Be aware that your elbows are open and slightly away from your side.
Hands Stretch out your hands, fingers and thumbs. STOP stretching them out.
Observe your hands, fingers and thumbs fully supported. Feel the surface they are resting on.
Hips Roll your hips and knees outwards. STOP rolling outwards. Be aware that your legs are slightly apart and turned outwards.
Knees Adjust until comfortable. STOP adjusting. Reflect on the resulting position.
Feet Gently push your feet down, away from your face. STOP pushing them down. Feel your feet hanging loosely from the ankle joints.
3. Body Press your body into the support. STOP pressing. Consider the sensation of your body resting against the support.
4. Head Press your head into the pillow. STOP pressing. Feel your heavy head nestling comfortably in the hollow you have made in the pillow.
Jaw Keeping your lips closed, pull down your lower jaw. STOP pulling down.
Feel that your teeth are no longer touching and that the jaw-line is easy.
Tongue Move your tongue low in your mouth. STOP moving. Register that your tongue is lying in the middle of your mouth.
Eyes Close your eyes, if you wish to, or state instead.
Forehead Imagine someone smoothing away from your frown lines from the eyebrows up over the top and the back of your head. STOP doing this. Feel the smoothing of the skin.
6. Breathing Sigh out. Breathe low down in your chest at your own natural resting breathing rate, with slight emphasis on the out breath.
Ending the relaxation
To bring this relaxation session to an end - gradually become aware of the room - feel the floor/chair underneath you - open your eyes – give your limbs a few gentle stretches - have the feeling that you are alert and ready to carry on with your life.
When talking about stress, we usually associate it with one large event in our lives where we are overwhelmed and so show signs of not being able to cope. Although this might often be the case, the biggest cause of stress is actually the ‘daily hassles’ that build up over time. These factors which often go seemingly unnoticed by the individual can accumulate and slowly cause damage.
Of course, the positive thing about identifying that these daily hassles are so dangerous is that, being small, it can be relatively easy to reduce their impact on our stress levels.
Of course we cannot overlook the fact that the most notably stressful times are those in which we are going through a big change, which we could also refer to as ‘life events’. These events, such as bereavement or divorce are of course potentially highly stressful and are often considered to be predictors of future illness. However, the fact is that most people can and do cope very well with these life events and certainly this is something that we can learn to do.
Typical life events:
Bereavement, divorce, moving house, pregnancy, unemployment, changes at work, legal issues, family disputes, promotion, personal injury, money problems, child leaving home, retirement.
Of course there are many more life events and we could go on listing them. What is interesting to note is that not all life events that cause stress are necessarily negative and some are even quite welcome while being stressful. This emphasises the key point that it is not the event itself that causes stress, but the perception and response each individual has with the event.
The Benson Method
In the 1970s, at Harvard Medical School in America, Professor Herbert Benson carried out a seminal programme of research into the means by which the body's physiological "relaxation response" could be triggered. Benson studied various meditation and relaxation techniques and compared their results. He found that most were equally effective in inducing physical signs of deep relaxation.
Benson developed a simplified form of meditation which was quicker and easier to teach than other methods but was shown to be just as effective at a physiological level. It simply consists of repeating a word on each out breath for about twenty minutes. Perhaps most importantly, his research demonstrated that the attitude of the participant was more important than the type of technique they used. It is normal for the mind to wander when first learning a meditation or relaxation technique. Perfectionists who saw this as a sign of failure were more likely to become tense and made slow progress as a result. People who were indifferent and accepting toward "distractions" who just "shrugged them off" said "so what?" and returned to the exercise were more relaxed and made much better progress as a result. Benson even suggests that if you fall asleep you should simply continue the exercise for five minutes after you wake as if nothing has happened.
This is a modified version of Benson's technique of eliciting the relaxation response:
Benson’s method of relaxation is very simple and can be used in many everyday settings when you have a few moments to yourself. You do not have to stick with the word ‘relax and can replace it with something else if you think you will get better results that way. It is also useful to spend as long as possible carrying out the exercise as this way you will get more out of it.