The symptoms above are your body’s natural stress response in action. Your mind perceives a threat and tells your body that it’s ‘fight or flight’ time – that it needs to gear up for an intense physical reaction in order to fight the threat or run away from it as fast as possible.
Adrenaline is released and your body diverts its energy to ‘essential’ functions like breathing and using your muscle strength. This diversion means that energy is taken away from ‘non-essential’ functions such as your digestive system and immune system. This reaction was very useful for our prehistoric ancestors when they had to fight for their dinner or run away from immediate danger. When the danger passed, their bodies relaxed and recovered.
Today, however, is very different. The threats we face are less likely to be about physical danger, and more likely to be about our own internal expectations or keeping up with the demands of work or family life. We live in a 24/7 society, where these kinds of stresses are potentially non-stop – from work deadlines to money worries and social pressures. These stresses do not require an intense physical reaction. However, the brain activates the same stress response regardless of whether the threat is physical, external or internal. The brain cannot distinguish between a threat we perceive in our mind – such as fear of failing an exam or performing badly in an interview – or physical threat such as a bus hurtling past us.
Constant or ongoing stress with no relief can be damaging to our health and wellbeing. The ‘non-essential’ bodily systems, such as digestion or your immune system, can remain suppressed. This can make you more susceptible to stomach discomfort, reduced appetite and becoming ill. This is why taking time to unwind and de-stress is so important.
Reducing stress through mindfulness
When stressed, do you find yourself rushing around, losing focus, misplacing or forgetting things? It is easy to feel overwhelmed when you have a lot on your mind. It can be challenging to know where best to place your attention and what to prioritise.
Mindfulness is about being present and attentive to this very moment. It means acknowledging and accepting your thoughts, feelings and experiences with a kind and curious attitude, regardless of whether they are positive, negative or even neutral. This offers a stark contrast to the modern tendency towards running on autopilot, and so can take some time to get used to. However, mindfulness can help you to reassess your situation and feel less stressed about it. It can play an important part in helping to manage and reduce stress, both mentally and physically.
There is an established form of therapy, called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which has been around since the 1970s with this specific aim. MBSR is often formally taught in face-to-face classes, but the principles and exercises can also be learnt online or through books. MBSR generally includes exercising your mind to focus your attention, physical exercises aimed at cultivating awareness of your body, and practising being fully aware during everyday activities. Through these activities, the aim is that you become more able to cope with everyday stresses.
A comprehensive review of scientific studies into MBSR recently found that it is a ”moderately well-documented method for helping adults improve their health and cope better with the challenges and stress that life brings”.
Mindfulness doesn’t have to be about doing classes or courses. The great thing about mindfulness is that it can fit naturally into your everyday life, without becoming just another item on your crowded to-do list. Just about every moment in your day is an opportunity to be mindful. It might mean:
- listening properly to a real-life conversation and paying full attention to what the other person is saying
- making a tea or coffee and really savouring the aroma and noticing the colour while it brews
- being present and aware while walking to the bus stop, eating your lunch or even cleaning your teeth
If you already have a hobby that you enjoy, this can be a rich and satisfying opportunity to put mindfulness into action. This is especially true if your hobby is an activity that allows you to slow down.
Whatever you enjoy doing, this time is precious. Give yourself over to it and remove distractions. Here are some ideas.
- Running. Most of us who go running tend to do so with headphones in. Try unplugging and running without music. Listen to the sounds around you, your own breathing and the pounding of your feet.
- Gardening. This gives us a wonderful chance to connect with nature. Try to consciously focus your attention on what you are doing. Smell the earth and flowers, take in the colours, textures and sounds around you, and give yourself over to the rhythm of digging or pruning or the pleasure of just pottering.
- Indoor hobbies. You may enjoy indoor activities such as knitting, crafts, cooking or woodworking. Try this mindfully, without the TV or radio on in the background. Observe your materials – how do they feel in your hands? What textures and shapes do you notice? What kind of sounds are you making? What smells do you notice? Whatever you’re working on, watch how your plan is gradually taking shape and give your handiwork the attention it deserves.
Other ways to manage stress
Mindfulness and relaxation techniques are one of several ways to cope with stress. Eating well and being physically active are also likely to make a big difference. We have more information about stress that you may find helpful.