By Mimi O'Connor
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. When we accept this fact, we can then use it as a catalyst for adapting to change. We can begin to view stress not as the enemy, but as a red flag, a health alert calling for additional awareness, support and self-care.
Our bodies are efficient communicators, continually sending us messages that tell us the status of our health. When we are experiencing imbalance, indicators of stress light up on the physical, emotional and mental dashboard of the body. For example, muscle tension in the shoulders reminds us that we have been bent over the keyboard or have been driving far too long without a proper break. Sleep trouble and increased fatigue signal the need for a deeper look at what may be causing it. Frequent stomach upset or headaches urge an inventory of what precedes their occurrences. Chest pain begs us for an immediate and thorough assessment. (See warning signs of a heart attack.)
Our feelings also act as a built-in alarm system. They point us to both what is working well and what is not. When we feel emotionally upset, becoming thick-skinned isn't always the answer. Suppressing or denying emotions does not promote healing. Feelings of anger insist that we immediately assess the level of perceived threat so that we might set more effective, healthier, respectful boundaries for ourselves. Feelings of perceived neglect and escalating resentment can be calling us to speak up for our needs in our closest relationships. All feelings contain valuable data that can assist us in evaluating and understanding our concerns and how they are impacting our health.
Stressful situations are anxiety provoking. When we do not interrupt and decrease our stress response daily, we may find ourselves in a chronic state of worrying about everyone and everything. Unchecked anxiety exacts a toll on us, manifesting as an inability to relax, increased irritability, hair trigger anger, insomnia and more. Our outlook on life becomes distorted. How we relate to others becomes strained and distant. As social and emotional isolation increases, our health and sense of well-being plummets.
The good news is that detaching from fearful thoughts and disturbing emotions through the practice of meditation is a skill that everyone can learn. When we hear ourselves saying, "I can't meditate," we are putting words to the fear that we may never be able to quiet and re-center our overactive, restless minds. In fact, researchers from Emory University School of Medicine found that "engagement in meditation reduced stress-influenced immune and behavioral responses."
At Boston University, researchers combined the results of 39 clinical studies, looking for the effect of meditation on anxiety and depression. They found validated, anxiety-reducing benefits across diverse populations, including "cancer, generalized anxiety disorder, depression and other psychiatric and medical conditions."
Stress is also greatly reduced when we increase our social and emotional connections. Put simply: Together, we're better. Loneliness and depression are at an all-time high in our society today. In his book, Love & Survival, Dr. Ornish writes:
There is more scientific evidence now than ever before demonstrating how simple changes in diet and lifestyle cause significant improvements in health and well-being. As important as these are, I have found that perhaps the most powerful intervention-and the most meaningful for me and for most of the people with whom I work, including staff and patients-is the healing power of love and intimacy, and the emotional and spiritual transformation that often result from these.
In another study researchers from Stanford University asked, "Can feelings of social connection and positivity toward others be increased? Is it possible to self-generate these feelings?" To test their inquiries, they used a brief loving-kindness meditation exercise. They found that, "even just a few minutes of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward individuals on both explicit and implicit levels. These results suggest that this easily implemented technique may help to increase positive social emotions and decrease social isolation."
In our urgency to decrease stress, we too often resort to ineffective, even damaging behaviors in order to cope. We overwork, overspend, overeat, overdrink and isolate, to name a few. These choices create an additional downward spiral in our health and happiness as they exacerbate, complicate and create more stress, not less.
Instead, we can turn toward our stress, heeding the warning signals and responding to them with attention and care. In effect, we learn how to befriend our body, mind and spirit.
Why wait to initiate this de-stressing, self-supporting process of compassion and healing?
Stress can be a powerful teacher. It is instructive and can be used constructively. Awareness is the first step of healing. Author and educator, Edwin Louis Cole wisely said, "You don't drown by falling in the water. You drown by staying there." Stress calls us to tune in and pay close attention to our sensitive thresholds. We can view stress as yet another opportunity to respond with healing choices that promote supportive connection within and without.
What de-stressing techniques work best for you?
This article originally appeared in Ornish Living.