“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”~Hans Selye
The word ‘stress’ derives from the Latin stringere (to draw tight), and can be defined as “A situation where demands on a person exceed that person’s resources or ability to cope.” (Stress Management Society)
It’s not possible to avoid ‘being’ stressed, however it is possible to change the way we deal with it, and therefore the emotions we ‘feel’ in response.
What ways have you discovered that work for you?
There’s a myriad of self-help possibilities out there to choose from, I’m not going to list them all or provide a panacea for all possibilities!
What I hope to provide is one inspiring strategy you can easily use to form an automatic response, reducing the adverse affects of hormones produced.
It’s a tool I share with coaching clients and they find it enormously beneficial – when used regularly.
What is stress?
There’s three main types of stress. Routine (happens most days at work and general life), sudden (usually negative and unexpected) change, and traumatic stress (accidents, death of a loved one for example).
Our bodies are programmed to respond to them all in similar ways, though people react and cope differently, depending on their individual life experience and knowledge of helpful ways of dealing with the situations they face.
The flight or fight response is the body’s way of ensuring we’re alerted to potential threats to our safety. Facing a perceived dangerous situation, your heart rate and breathing quicken, muscles tense, your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity.
All functions aimed at survival, and in the short term the body’s automatic response can even boost the immune system. The surge in adrenaline production provides us with the energy to react promptly, which can be life saving.
However, if this state is encountered too frequently, or for prolonged periods of time, it results in an imbalance contributing to ill-health.
It’s encouraging that the Health and Safety Executive’s latest estimates from the Labour Force Survey (UK) show the total number of cases of stress in 2010/11 were significantly lower than in 2001/02 – 400,000 out of a total of 1,152,000 for all work-related illnesses. They also found the number of new cases of work-related stress had reduced to 211,000 from 233,000 in 2009/10, though that change isn’t statistically significant.
The industries reporting the highest rates of work-related stress were health, social work, education and public administration, whilst the occupations reporting the highest rates of work-related stress were health and social service managers, teachers and social welfare associate professionals.
Findings from the ninth annual NHS staff survey (2012) revealed 30% of NHS staff reported they’d experienced job-related stress in 2011 – a rise from 29% in 2010 – while among ambulance staff, the figure hit 34%.
Breath is Life
One of my bug-bears from quarter of a century as a midwife, was ‘directed (I call it ‘cheerleading’) pushing’ in the second stage of labour. You’ll have seen it on the TV many times.
The midwife or doctor gets the woman (who’s usually lying on her back or in a semi-sitting position) to bring up her legs, put her chin on her chest, breath in deeply and then push with all her might until her face is beetroot red and she is exhausted.
More likely than not, during each expulsive contraction, she’ll be coerced into repeating this process as many times as possible. It’s called the ‘Valsalva Maneuver‘.
The knock-on effects of this have been widely documented and shown to cause maternal and fetal distress – and in my case midwife distress whenever I had the misfortune to witness it (memories of the birth of my first child spring to mind – maybe I have a form of post traumatic stress disorder?) It also increases the risk of the tissues around the birth canal tearing.
I read a book shortly after I qualified in November 1988, called ‘episiotomy and the second stage of labour‘, by Sheila Kitzinger, that transformed my practice. She promoted a much calmer approach, whereby the birthing woman allowed her body to lead her, to avoid forcing the baby to descend until it was in the right place, and for the breath to be used to welcome life rather than to force it out and increase the stress.
An inspiring way to reduce everyday stress
Our normal reaction to a stressful event is to hold our breath.
Notice this happening next time something happens you deem as stressful. Then our breath quickens, and in reaction so does our heart-rate. If we need to run away from that tiger (!), or more likely the car beeping it’s horn because we’re texting while we’re walking across the road – then great. Good response!
If you can, walk away from the situation causing the challenge.
Not quickly, but consciously, deeply and slowly.
Dr Libby, author of ‘The Rushing Woman’s Syndrome‘, shares in great detail the potential adverse effects on our bodies of adrenaline, and promotes breathing in whilst saying inwardly “I calm my body“, breathing out “I smile“.
Go further than this and breathe in through your nose for a count of seven, hold the breath for a count of one, breathe out through your mouth for a count of seven, and hold it for a count of one. When you breathe in, use all of your lungs. Begin with your abdomen, not your chest, and feel it expanding. If it’s appropriate (depending on where you are at the time), place your hand on your stomach to feel it rise, the chest will be the last to fill and empty. Repeat this breathing a number of times until you feel your self relaxing.
There’s two definitions of ‘Inspire’.
One is to ‘fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something, especially to do something creative’; the other is ‘to breathe in (air); inhale’.
“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.” ~Etty Hillesum
Oh, and something that inspired me when researching this post is that studies have shown dark chocolate reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and other fight-flight hormones, and cocoa is rich in antioxidants! Hurrah! I can continue with my 75% cocoa or above chocolate fix each day.
“Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you.” ~John De Paola
Find a fact sheet on ways to deal with stress from National Institute for Mental Health here.
What ways have you discovered to help you manage stressful situations?