Collective thinking in modern society is that stress is bad for our health. For years, it has made sense to me that the stomach churning, heart pumping adrenalin response might be involved in causing all sorts of niggling ailments such as poor digestion and adult acne, even heart disease as well as mind troubling anxiety or depression. So then of course managing stress becomes about relaxation and ‘switching off’, hence as life gets even busier, many of us are drawn towards meditation, and yoga. The very last things we have time to do when we’re working at full tilt. So then we get stressed about being stressed.
This was certainly playing out in my life. With a busy job and constant deadlines, I got to the point where I was ‘running on empty’. I was tired all the time, had lost my glow and vitality and realised something had to give, so I took up yoga. It worked for me. Over the years (although relaxing, it definitely wasn’t a quick fix), my body became stronger, more resilient. These days, I know that a class or even a short meditation session can restore my energy and focus and I feel healthier in many ways at 50 than I did in my 30s.
Looking back I realise it took a huge shift in my thinking to devote that time to myself, and it’s still a hard decision on a daily basis. There are always other priorities, but the breakthrough came when I took the ‘little and often’ approach. Rather than getting to the point at the end of the day when time was running out to get to an after-work yoga class – to the point where I was so stressed about getting there – I decided to get up a little earlier and fit my own practice in before the day began. I learned that it didn’t have to be a 90 minute session. Sometimes it would be 10 or 15 minutes to do quick breathing, stretching exercise or simply to sit still in meditation. It was the consistent habit of it which had an impact long term on my health, making me feel as if I had more space and focus. Nothing had changed in the amount of things I had to get done, but I had the coping mechanisms.
Still though, when the pressure is really on, it’s easy to slip out of the routine. Recently, with exams and extra deadlines to deal with I found myself drinking more coffee than usual, I was eating on the run rather than taking time to cook proper meals, and yoga pretty much went off the schedule completely. Although I knew this was a temporary thing, I could feel how my daily habits were actually fuelling the stress. I was already wired from the natural fight or flight response in my body, then heightening it with quick fix energy hits of sugar and caffeine. I wasn’t sleeping as well, and it became a vicious cycle, which I could feel was affecting my general wellbeing.
The big difference was that I was aware of what was going on. I knew I was pushing myself, but that it would be for a short period only to get through this extra work load. The exams got done, features written and I had a retreat booked which meant I could rest, restore and get back to balance. Now, my attitude has changed towards stress. I know we need it to get things done. After all, it’s the natural slow release of cortisol in the wee small hours which then goes on to signal our body clock to wake up in the morning.
Reading up on the science of it all, evidence shows the body is designed to have short term stress – it is a positive thing. We can all feel those bursts of energy the stress hormones give us – that fire in the belly to get things done. Yet there is much more to it. Studies have shown that the hormone oxytocin is released as much as adrenaline as part of the stress response. Oxytocin is the ‘cuddle’ hormone because it’s generally released when we hug someone. It is a neuro-response hormone which works on the brain’s social instincts, promoting relationships, making us more empathetic, compassionate. When we’re under pressure, it urges us to get support rather than trying to manage on our own.
Oxytocin also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body which helps us physically recover from the extra strain, particularly on the heart. Who knew? We actually have an in-built mechanism to manage our own stress. I for one feel more positive about stress. We can trust our bodies own natural instinct to get us through. It’s just that we have to remember not to override it by pushing too hard for too long, knowing when to step back and give ourselves time to rest and restore.