Relax, there's no sabre toothed tiger!

Stress is a very normal response to an emergency event. You've heard of “fight or flight” - that's what stress does. It kicks in to give you that burst of energy to stand and fight, or run away from whatever the danger is. Very useful when one stumbles upon a large sabre toothed tiger.

Back when I was studying massage therapy, we learnt about stress and it's mechanisms. My tutor talked about how our caveman ancestors found stress very important when facing a sabre toothed tiger. And with events in Christchurch over the past two years, I thought it would be a good time to explain this to you.

So, the stress response our caveman ancestors experienced got them ready to face that sabre toothed tiger and were able to run away from it, or stand and fight it. It's what every person in Christchurch experienced countless times, whenever we were shaken from our sleep, at our desks, in our cars. The stress response to the earthquakes and aftershocks was almost instantaneous - we were suddenly wide awake, heart pounding, eyes wide open, muscles all tensed up as we stumbled from our beds or desks, trying to make our way to the safety of a doorway.

However, after either killing the sabre toothed tiger or running away from it, our caveman's body would return to normal – he'd relax, calm with the knowledge he was safe until next time, and until next time there wasn't much to stress him out.

In today's world we have so many more things to stress us out – job security, traffic, mortgage, kids, sleep, relationships, the weather, health...the list goes on. So what happens, is our bodies end up in a perpetual state of stress – there's so many things affecting us, it's like the sabre toothed tiger is always there. And with the thousands of aftershocks we've had to endure, that's made it even worse! The stress has become chronic and for many of you, it’s been with you for so long, you may not even recognise it anymore.

Here's some of the things that stress affects:

  • sleep patterns – the stress hormones your body produces are designed to help you stay alert, so sleeping becomes very difficult and you become more and more fatigued. And aftershocks at bedtime didn't help either!
  • digestion – there's no need to digest food or go to the toilet when we're running from that tiger, but can also lead to longer-term constipation or diarrhoea, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome and other conditions
  • blood pressure – increasing the blood flow to your muscles helps you run or fight, and it can also give you headaches, make you more tired or dizzy. If your blood pressure stays up it increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, or kidney failure
  • immunity – part of the stress response is to shut down the immune system – you don't need to fight infection while you're running from the tiger, or the earthquake. Of course, ongoing stress also means your immune system never returns to normal – you get sick easier and take longer to recover from illness
  • weight – because your digestive system is affected, this can in turn affect your weight – either by increasing or decreasing it. It can also be due to the change in eating habits – you may be craving sugary foods, or you may lose your appetite. Your body may also store more fat, to give you an energy boost when you need to run away from the tiger...and if that tiger never comes, you keep that extra fat – just in case!
  • muscle tension – your muscles are primed for running from that tiger or staying and fighting – and even when there's no immediate threat, stress will leave your muscles tensed up, just in case. But this will create pain, which will in turn create more stress – arrgh!
  • emotions – stress will have you on edge, more prone to outbursts of anger, sadness, fear or helplessness (or all of them) and it will affect those around you and closest to you.
  • decision making – when faced with a sabre toothed tiger, the stress response ensures you react physically as soon as you can, rather than reacting in the most appropriate way, which takes more planning and focus. So under stress your concentration is lower, it’s harder to learn new information and your judgment is impaired.

So, what can you do about stress?

First of all – RECOGNISE IT!

Second – do something about it. There's no one answer. Because stress can affect you in so many ways, so the way to deal with can vary too. But the key is to do something. Try things and see what makes you feel better. The worst thing you can do is hope it goes away by itself. It might not. Help yourself and help others too, by encouraging them to take action. Here's a few ideas:

  • talk to people
  • do deep breathing exercises
  • go for a run
  • yoga or meditation
  • eat lots of fresh fruit and veges
  • listen to some relaxing music
  • get a massage (OK, I'm biased, but it works!)
  • take a walk on the beach
  • see a professional counsellor
  • burning essential oils such as lavender, bergamot, chamomile and neroli
  • play with a cat or a dog - pets are proven to be therapeutic
  • have a good laugh - joke with friends, watch a comedy DVD
  • cry when you need to - don't bottle it up
  • go somewhere and shout out loud - but try not to scare the neighbours
  • hug someone - hugs are nurturing - they really do help

So, now is the time for you to take control and turn that sabre toothed tiger into a pussy cat. Recognise your stress and do something about it. Now!

Tags: stress   chronic   relaxation  

Posted: Tuesday 4 September 2012

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