Hans Selye, the pioneering medical researcher, defined stress as the body’s response to any demand (or stressor) such as starvation, heat, cold, infection, trauma, etc. Practically speaking however, stress in the 21st Century generally refers to psychosocial stress: the troubled marriage, the abusive employer, financial insecurity, declining health, the state of the world, etc.
No matter what the cause, psychosocial stress has a number of negative impacts on our physiology. It can raise blood pressure, contribute to heart disease, disturb sleep, depress immune function, distort intestinal flora and lead to inflammation that contributes to a host of medical problems. There are even studies which assigned a numerical value to different stressors, and a person’s total score was highly predictive of their 5 year cancer risk.
The good news is that stress reduction has been shown to improve health outcomes. Stress reduction and relaxation techniques have been shown to improve fertility, reduce chronic pain, improve activity of immune cells and actually make visible changes in brain imaging studies.
So how does one reduce stress?
Although psychosocial stress has an impact on many aspects of our physiology, it is generally perceived by our brains in the form of thoughts: repetitive, obsessive, intrusive, compelling thoughts. We worry about the future, have regrets about the past, obsess over bad relationships, and dwell on our flaws and imperfections.
Obviously, the most logical way to fix this problem is to change our life. If we’re working too hard, work less. Change our relationships with couple counseling or end toxic relationships. Low self esteem can be addressed with psychotherapy. Nobody’s perfect. Don’t worry – be happy.
There, that was easy, wasn’t it?
Seriously, one should try to reduce the sources of stress in one’s life, but we all know that many of these situations are hard to eliminate and we need other tools for stress reduction. There are a variety of methods to do this.
Since our thoughts are what initiates the stress response, most stress reduction techniques are efforts to reduce these thoughts. For example, yoga is a way of getting out of our ‘heads’ and into our bodies. Exercise has a similar stress reducing effect and generates endorphins which are ‘feel good’ chemicals. Zen meditation is designed to replace our troublesome thoughts with a repetitive phrase or word or focus on one’s breath. Mindfulness meditation trains us to step back and observe our thoughts, then let them drift away. There are even audio recordings of rain showers, rolling surf and seagulls, etc. All these approaches are intended to displace the obsessive, anxious thoughts, and induce what Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard coined The Relaxation Response. This is a state where our heart and pulse slow down, our muscles relax and our EEG brain waves change to reflect the relaxed state.
Here’s a fairly standard meditation technique that requires no specific training and can induce the relaxation response:
1. Choose a quiet spot where there will be no distraction or interruption (turn off the phone)
2. Sit in a chair or on a pillow on the floor, rest your hands in your lap and sit up straight.
3. Close your eyes
4. Take a series of deep breathes, expanding your abdomen on the inhalations, relax your muscles with each breath.
5. With every breath you can focus on a word or a phrase such as ‘one’ or ‘peace’, or a phrase from a prayer. You can simply count from one to ten over and over.
6. Your mind will wander repeatedly. That’s okay. Observe your thoughts and let them go, returning to your phrase or counting.
7. Try to continue for 15-20 minutes, but if all you have is 5 minutes, then do that. Sit quietly for a minute or so before getting up.
This is just one of many techniques. One should choose an approach that’s most convenient or enjoyable, but most importantly one should not ignore stress. That’s no way to live.