There’s a time to work and achieve your targets – and there’s a time to rest and regroup. If those two are balanced, you can lead a life of fulfilment. But if they’re not, it may become a burden. How do you recognise the signs of too much, too full and keep stress at bay?
A rich, happy, meaningful life – who doesn’t want that? So we work, we love, we learn and play and talk and exercise and… suddenly we notice how short our fuses are, how we literally gasp for breath, have stomach aches or sleepless nights. These are the warning signs of stress.
A little tension once in a while is fine, but if it keeps rising it will affect your body and mind. Why is it that you often lapse into stressful situations despite your best efforts to avoid them? One of the pitfalls is trying to achieve something in the short term, ‘just quickly’, without realising what it does to your reserves and your well-being in the long term. Another pitfall, equally sneaky, is not getting your priorities straight. For example when you tell yourself you just have to keep going and you’ll find a moment to relax later on. You use your willpower to keep running and you ignore the red warning signals. It’s not a good idea because whatever it is you want, it will be easier to achieve when your body and mind are fresh and cared for, instead of exhausted and irritated. Your well-being should always be your top priority.
What is stress exactly? One of the answers to that question comes from the American psychologist Albert Elles. He devised the so-called ABC model: something happens (A = Activating event). You have an opinion on that (B = Beliefs) and that has consequences (C). Those consequences come in the shape of feelings, and one of them can be stress. According to the ABC model, whether or not something gives you stress depends largely on how you look at it. Stress involves the autonomous nervous system, which is part of the overall nervous system. It has two components: the sympathetic part and the parasympathetic part. The first one activates the fight or flight impulse, which happens when something triggers stress in you. The parasympathetic nervous system deals with ‘rest and digest’. So the sympathetic nervous system gets you ready for action. When you feel threatened – real or perceived, that makes no difference – your nervous system produces stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones make sure you can respond to the threat. You can feel that effect most clearly in a racing pulse, faster breath, and tense muscles.
The focus is on survival now, so only the most basic bodily functions are still active while the rest is neglected. Your immune system and is temporarily out of order, your organs and tissues go unmaintained for a while. Even your digestive system is on the back burner because all the arrows point to getting rid of the ‘threat’. It’s a smart move on the part of Mother Nature because most threats only last for a few moments. Feeling a bit of stress now and then is not a disaster, the human body can easily deal with that. But chronic stress is a different story. The human body needs to be in rest-and-digest mode pretty regularly. It gives your body and mind time to recover, to digest food and drink, to calm down your head. As long as you get sufficient rest-and-digest time, you can take quite a bit of stress.
The good news is, activating the parasympathetic nervous system is usually not hard. Sometimes it’s almost like a trick: simply breathing more slowly already signals to your body that the code red is over and you can relax. Yoga, meditation, and soothing sounds, smells and colours have the same effect. You can also make your body and mind stronger and more able to deal with stress. Science offers an impressive amount of knowledge and tips, for example in psychology. You can draw on all kinds of schools of wisdom that discovered the art of dealing with stress thousands of years before us. Also, we’re beginning to understand that nature has a mysterious capacity to help us heal and regain our balance. So plenty of possibilities, but you have to use them. Making sure to get enough relaxation – or get it back – is actually a real art. To learn it, all you have to do is determine a few personal cornerstones: find out what causes you stress; listen to the signals of your body and mind; and discover what you can do for yourself – big things or small things – if you need to.
In order to get you started, we compiled this file with lots of lessons in de-stressing.
Oats stimulate serotonin, a hormone released by the body for a feeling of well-being and calmness. Bring 2 dl milk (or soy milk or almond milk) to the boil. Add 100 g oats. Boil gently for 5 minutes. Season with cinnamon, berries, small pieces of apple, nuts, and/or raisins.
Married? New job? Moved to a sunny country? Congratulations! But be aware that every life-changing event comes with tension, so that goes for happy events too. If your life is full of big, beautiful experiences, watch out for signals that it’s all getting a bit too much and you need some downtime.
Back in the Stone Age people didn’t have it easy with all those tigers and bears. But once the danger was averted, it would take a pretty long time before the next stressful event came along. Today we’re usually safe from wild animals, but our stress button gets hit a lot more frequently. Difficult colleagues, hours spent in traffic, modern-age triggers caused by light, noise and all kinds of electronic gadgets… it all contributes to chronic stress. If the pressure is on all the time, it’s even more important to create regular moments of rest and relaxation.
A simple phrase can help keep you from doing too much, or at the wrong moment. It works like a filter, especially when you’re faced with several tasks at once.
If that happens, go through this sentence word by word:
Do I have to do this now? First you check the words have to. Is it a must? Is it obligatory or necessary?
Then I. Are you really the only one who can do this? Is there no one else? This means: is this the thing that deserves your attention, or is there something more important for you to do? Now is almost self-evident. Does it have to be now, or can you do it later? Could later even be better, perhaps? That takes you to do…. or don’t!
The Be Focused app helps you focus on a job and take regular breaks: five minutes every half hour. The Breathing app visualises and coaches your breathing. The Forest app encourages you to stay away from your phone. As long as you don’t touch it, a pretty little tree grows on your screen … otherwise it dies.
Tense? Nervous? Go into the garden, a park or out in nature and take off your shoes and socks. The electromagnetic field of the earth can reach your feet that way. You’ll absorb the free electrons, which will balance your nervous system and boost your immune system.
Breathe in deeply through your nose. When you breathe out, through your mouth, make a relaxed ‘aaahhh’ sound. Your tongue hangs on your lower lip while you do this. Repeat three times.
Do you have a little more time? Lie on your back. One hand is on your belly, the other on your chest. Breathe in slowly, in such a way that you feel only your belly rise. Feel the air flow. Breathe out deeply, as if you’re pulling your bellybutton down to your spine. After a few minutes, roll onto your right side and get up slowly.
Shinrin Yoku is a Japanese custom that involves bathing in a forest. A growing number of study results supports the idea that this is healing for body and spirit. Forest bathing means submerging yourself in the scents, colours and shapes of the woods as you walk through them. It’s not about covering two miles in twenty minutes; the walk itself is your goal, slow and easy.
Chattering friends should stay home because the idea is to walk in calmness and awareness. In as little as 20 minutes your blood pressure and heart rate come down, and there’s less cortisol in your blood – the stress hormone.
Planning your day becomes easier when you divide the activities for that day into types. Imagine filling a large glass bowl with materials (jobs). You start with the biggest ones.
* Ping-pong balls represent the really important jobs, at work or in your private life. For example making a deadline for a challenging task at work.
* Marbles are necessary jobs even though they’re not very important to you, like housekeeping or grocery shopping.
* Sand stands for all the things you’re supposed to do, according to yourself or others, but in fact they’re not really necessary or important. For example: baking a cake for your birthday because ‘everyone’ does that, although it’s quicker and easier to order one from the bakery.
* Water is things that are not important at all but filter into your day all the same. Like responding to everything you see on social media.
Funnily enough, lots of people start by doing the water and sand jobs, leaving them less time or no time at all for the ping-pong balls and the marbles. The trick is to work from the top down and only do the water and sand jobs if you have time and energy left.
Healthy plants in your house or office, and light that looks like daylight: you’ll always benefit from that. But if you want the thorough approach, you can try the Skogluft method that Jørn Viumdal developed. You create a compact wall full of plants and make sure it’s lit by light that resembles daylight. It looks like a massive living painting. Plants and light make you less susceptible to stress, they relieve tension, and they keep you fitter and calmer. Skogluft plant walls can be found in quite a few homes already, and also in offices like Google’s, in hospitals, and in schools.
Gratitude lowers the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in your body by almost 25%, as they discovered at the University of California. Here’s a nice habit before you go to sleep: think about all the day’s events that made you feel grateful, and write down at least four of them.
Lie down and relax. In your mind, scan every part of your body, from your head down to your feet. How does it feel there? Warm, cold, tingling, quiet? If you feel tension anywhere, can you let it go? You can also tense up some muscles and relax them again.
Text: Astrid Maria Boshuisen
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