Stress - Making Sense Of It And Using Yoga To Managing It.
The amount written and talked about stress currently seems to have grown exponentially over the last decade, so it feels a little odd to be adding even more to the mountain of text already out there, but this is my take on stress and how I use yoga and a few other tools to keep myself well.
Interestingly, I think our perceptions of the word stress have changed. What emotions or thoughts appear for you when I mention stress? I would imagine, like me, in the first instance you think of being out of control.
Maybe you feel that elevated heartbeat as you remember a time of stress, or maybe you’re in it right now and your heart feels like it’s thumping away in your chest.In essence the word now seems to conjure up a negative frame of mind or emotion.
The reality for us all as a species is that stress helps us. It provides impetus, drive and action....to get something done. It links back to our early hunter, gatherer ancestors and is our response to living and surviving. In other words and research has shown, we need stress....it actually energises us.
But what that research has also shown is that too much and the fall in performance is dramatic, additionally impacting immune systems and our physiology. What also complicates the whole picture is that the point at which stress is no longer positive is different for everyone.....probably why modern medicine finds it so difficult to deal with....there is not a standard tablet that will work for everyone....oh and if there were a tablet, when do we take it?
“Am I stressed, or really stressed?” Does when to take the tablet then become something else to worry about and therefore adds to the stress, now that’s irony!
So to sum all that up, for me there are a couple of things that are key for me to live my life:
Being aware of how “I am” is key.
Checking in with the factors impacting me and understanding how I am responding to them.
Taking action to allow my mind and body to deal with the physiological responses to my stressors
Talking through big issues (that my not seem big issues to others) to help me decide and plan action
At this point I’m sure you’re thinking “nice idea Tabitha, but in between endless meetings, email arrivals busier than Heathrow, dealing with my over demanding boss and that’s before I even start to think about family meals, quality time and the rest of it......”.
You may well still be in positive stress for you, only you know.
Interestingly, often the tipping point into negative stress happens very quickly and without warning and to varying degrees of severity. So I refer you to point one above.
Find your way to do it, and make sure you do it. Maybe it’s the first cup of tea when you get home from work when you have 5 minutes, maybe it’s a glass of wine in the garden, a full on mindful practice or walking the dog/cat/pot bellied pig. Or sometimes a close friend saying “how are you?” And you actually say “do you know what, it’s full on at the moment, pretty tough” rather than just “fine!”.
Until you make yourself consciously aware of how you are, doing something to balance your stress is like cycling blindfold - you know you’re going somewhere, but you don’t know whether it’s the right direction and you may actually make yourself worse by crashing into something else. So having an awareness of your “stress state” gives you understanding and a choice.....do I need to do something? My preference is to maintain a consistent level of activity to help my body and mind manage physiological reactions to stress. Others may prefer to take action when they feel it’s needed.
I have been lucky to find yoga relatively early in life and the practice enables me to lead a far more balanced life. The original development of yoga is as a preparation for the body and mind to enter meditation and in our modern environment it has now become a powerful tool in stress relief and management.
As we begin the yoga flow we learn to focus our mind on our breath, the actual conscious awareness of breathing in and out and ensuring we take a full breath (it sounds obvious, but amazing how many of us breath fast shallow breaths, particularly when stressed).
We practice the 3 part breath; chest.....ribs.....diaphragm. As one focuses on breath it begins to clear the mind, in a funny way it’s like taking off dirty clothes and getting into a shower; in that moment of just being aware of the clean water refreshing your body.
And then the flow begins, moving through the different yoga postures, the body practicing balance, unwinding the knotted muscles and feeling the stretch release pent up “stuff”, all the while keeping the focus on the breath, until we achieve a moment of peace, tranquility and quiet. For a moment there is stillness in our lives. And like emerging from the shower, we leave the yoga practice feeling refreshed and revitalised and in my experience I feel stronger, more able to deal with the world and all its challenges.
My third element is something I have realised later in life. The ability to have a trusted friend with whom I can discuss big issues....big things (not necessarily big issues for others, but they are for me) that are giving me that intense stress called anxiety. What is the reality of these discussions? They are about enabling me to make sense of what the actual problem is, define it and help me decide what I’m going to do about it and suddenly in that moment of deciding and then taking action, the anxiety is broken. It often is still a stressor, but actually it is positive stress that means I’ll make sure I will take the action I want to take.
Finding someone who is that trusted friend is more difficult than it sounds, because there is an element of being exposed in front of them, showing them your weaknesses, before being able to decide on action, hence why I say a trusted friend.
A hugely powerful element of dealing with negative stress....the human connection.