Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Understanding Stress and How to Manage or Reduce it in our Lives

Modern medicine more and more has come to acknowledge the role that stress plays in our health and well being. In fact if one has a stroke or heart attack, G-d forbid, one of the vital components of the rehabilitation process is learning stress management and to develop a healthy, balanced lifestyle.

Once again, we recognize that Maimonides, one of our great Rabbi’s and a doctor, teaches that we should work to prevent illness or dis-ease rather than wait for a problem and then attempt to resolve it. With this in mind, let us take a look at stress and how it affects our life with a view to how we can manage our stress and prevent illness as best as possible.

The first step to managing any stress that you have in your life, is to understand what stress is. The medical dictionary described stress as “any physical, emotional, social, economic or other factor that requires a response to change.”

Selye in 1978 defined stress as: “the body’s response – physiological and psychological – to any demands placed on it, whether that demand is pleasant or not.”

Robert Burns in his book Coping with Stress states that: “stress is any demand that requires some kind of physical or emotional readjustment. A stressor is an event that produces a stress reaction and can be pleasant or unpleasant, exciting or disheartening. Any experience can be stressful. And what is stressful for one individual may not be stressful for another.”

Looking at these definitions we see that stress contains both positive and negative aspects and may affect one positively or negatively. Events that are exciting and positive, generally one would think do not require any intervention or to look at in any way. To a certain extent this is true, however Maimonides teaches that we need everything in moderation and warns against becoming overly joyous or excited just as much as one should control ones anger or other negative responses to situations. Without going into too much detail here, an obvious reason to be careful when one is particularly joyous or excited is so as not to have an accident, G-d forbid.

In looking at the definitions of stress, it is evident that what is perceived as a stressor is a trigger or spring board for change or a response. Although our body usually considers this situation as potentially dangerous, one can in fact work with the situation in order to use it for progress and growth.

When we teach stress management, a common illustration as to how the body responds when it thinks the situation is stressful is to consider you were going for a walk in nature and suddenly encountered a hungry lion. In this situation you have two choices, either to run away as fast as possible or to stand still and wait for the danger to pass. In both situations your senses have to be functioning at their optimum and your muscles need to be ready to react as quickly, smoothly and skilfully as possible to assist you to get out of danger. As a result the body puts out certain hormones which assist those muscles needed to react quickly to be ready to work effectively and those that are not necessary e.g. the muscles of digesting food in the stomach to be still at that time. If one is in a given situation that one has to react to quickly as an event that occurs only occasionally, then one is able to handle that given occurrence.

However when your body is constantly regarding events in your every day life as stressful in a negative way, then the repetitive physiological changes that take place can be harmful to your body. Hence such illness as skin disease, stomach ulcers, heart attacks, most forms of cancer, allergies and more are considered as stemming from stress.

Now that we understand a little of what stress is and how it affects our body, let us look at how to work with it to be able to respond to whatever occurs in our life in a manner that is productive, effective and conducive to health and progress rather than dis-ease. The next step is to look at our daily habits and make sure that they support a healthy lifestyle. Included in this is how much sleep you get and whether the sleep is restful and rejuvenating or if you wake feeling more tired than when you went to sleep. That your diet is balanced and healthy, making sure to eat home cooked food rather than fast foods and that your diet contains each of the major food groups including plenty of roughage and water to ensure effective elimination of waste.

As part of how much water you drink, keep in mind that our body is comprised primarily of water and that we require on average 8 glasses of clean, pure water daily. If you are healing from an illness or undergoing a stressful situation, your body may require more water.

Make sure you are getting regular exercise that includes an increase in heart-rate for 20 minutes at a time 2-3 times a week. This helps your body to manufacture certain hormones which help with feeling more relaxed and positive. It also helps the heart and circulatory system to work well not to mention training your muscles. Those who are fit are able to handle life’s events in a more balanced manner and are less likely to feel the negative physiological effects of stress.

While looking to your health, it is important to develop healthy habits to cope with stress and not to turn to such substances as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or excessive exercise or excessive sexual relations. Instead it is good to learn various relaxations techniques. For one that can be practising deep breathing, for another listening to classical music or engaging in some kind of creative activity; some enjoy walking in nature and others might enjoy cooking, baking or even household tasks. Of course all the types of sport like Yoga, Martial arts, pilates are very good for toning the body and increasing good, deep breathing. What is relaxing for one is not necessarily relaxing for another and it is important to find what works for you. What is important though is to make sure that whichever activity you chose to do as a form of relaxation is carried out in a healthy manner and that you do make sure you breath deeply. Shallow breathing in and of itself is a strain to the body as it limits the amount of oxygen that gets to the muscles and around to all the organs.

Our next step in tackling stress is to identify what factors are posing a stress to you. Is it your family, your home, where you live, your neighbours, too much work, too little work. Whatever is happening in your life, write about it describing all the various factors. For example let us consider that the stress is that you have such a high work load that you work 12 hours a day, have to travel for 2 hours to and from work and hardly see your family. Clearly this will pose a problem to your body as you are not getting a balance in your life. Once you have described all the factors take a look at whether this is temporary or a permanent problem. Perhaps at your work everyone is working to a common, exciting goal that will end within a few days and after that there will be much progress for all. If that is the case then one needs to look at the positive outcome that will follow and use that as a motivator to get through the temporary increase in work hours. At the same time you can ask family and friends to help perhaps with shopping, housework or cooking so that the pressure of responsibilities at home are lessened and you can focus on this short term project.

If on the other hand you have been landed with an extra work load that is beyond what you can manage then you need to talk to a supervisor. Discuss what your job description is, what parts of the work is good for you and which aspects are too much. Included in this identify which tasks you can delegated to another or can you perhaps look at some ergonomics to structure the environment so as to help you fulfil your role at work.

We have learnt thus far a little about what stress is and how it can affect ones body. We have taken a look at how to work on developing a healthy lifestyle and a few concepts of how to begin to work with a given situation in order to reduce stress, delegate, alter your environment or re-focus how you perceive your situation in order to manage it more effectively.

The topic of stress is too large to cover completely in one article. I hope that this has provided some useful thoughts and ideas for you, the reader. If stress is something that poses a major problem in your life or your ability to enjoy life and realise your potential, please contact Shoshanah to set up a series of sessions looking at stress management.

You are welcome to either email shoshanah.s@gmail.com or click on the "Live Person" button (situated at the top right of this blog) to set up a series of sessions live with Shoshanah.

I look forward to hearing from you and working together to develop a life of meaning and purpose that is free of stress, anxiety and negativity.

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