I don’t think it is necessary to overstate the effect that our stressful culture may have on our lives. However, it may be helpful to offer a little background information. According to the National Institute of Health (2008) forty million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders. Stress and anxiety negatively impact physical health and has been associated with a plethora of medical conditions such as, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and reproductive disorders (Stahl and Goldstein, 2010). In recent years our technology has changed; while this has offered us many positive ways to be informed and stay connected, it has also led us to be available 24 hours a day. Stress and anxiety often occur from feeling “attached” to work and school day and night.
Seventy-five percent of my clients enter therapy with anxiety related symptoms. It is my strong belief that that while anxiety will never disappear completely (it is a part of our biology), it can be decreased to a functional level in people’s lives. Our brains are constantly monitoring whether situations are safe or not. When the brain detects a potential threat it triggers a response to fight, flee, or freeze; this causes physiological changes in our bodies such as shallow breathing, increased heart rate, and the release of pain numbing endorphins (Stahl and Goldstein, 2010). This system seemed to work well when we were surviving off of the land and fighting for our lives against predators. However, many humans these days are more likely to find themselves giving a presentation, going on a date, or dealing with traffic than fighting off a Woolly Mammoth. For example, our brain may decide in the line at the grocery store that we are in physical danger, which can result in heightened anxiety or even a full blown panic attack. Once you have experienced an exaggerated stress response to an everyday situation, you know you do not want it to occur again!
The question is what can we do lessen our anxiety to a manageable amount. Below I have listed five simple strategies to lessen anxiety and strong responses to stress that you may do each day. Many of my clients have had the experience of going from extreme stress and panic attacks to living a life with a manageable amount of anxiety.
1. Develop a Meditation Practice
Consistency is more important than length of time spent on meditation practice. According to Janet Solyntjes, mindfulness based meditation senior-teacher at the Shambala Meditation Center in Boulder, Colorado, if you dedicate fifteen minutes a day consistently to practice, you will notice the health benefits almost immediately. Research by Davidson and Kabat-Zinn (2003) discovered that those who have developed a consistent meditation practice obtained decreased levels of stress, a stronger immune system, and feeling “content” more often.
If you are interested in starting meditation practice, but do not know where to begin, you may check out http://students.sfu.ca/health/healthpromotion/yourhealth-videoandaudio.html and click on the free meditation practices offered by my colleagues Dr. Erika Horwitz and Cathy Trudeau of Simon Fraser University. Both the “mindfulness” and “progressive muscle relaxation” downloads are a great place to begin and take only 10 minutes each!
2. Physical Exercise
Maintaining a physical exercise practice not only benefits the look and feel of your body, it is also important to maintain low levels of stress. The Mayo Clinic reports exercise prompts the brain to produce endorphins, which are natural mood-enhancers, and that focusing on your body’s movements helps take your focal point away from your frustrations. Find an activity you truly enjoy, so that exercise won’t seem like just one more thing on your to-do list!
3. Hold your Neurovascular Points
When you are feeling the stress, worry, and anxiety enter your body and mind you can hold your “neurovascular” points for three minutes. It is just that easy! The neurovascular points are acupressure points that when held reprogram your autonomic nervous system to keep the blood in your forebrain, which will allow you to think clearly and cope better in stressful situations (Eden, 1998). Next time you feel stressed, try it out and determine if it works for you. My husband and I have illustrated how this activity works below.
a) Lightly place your index and middle fingers on your forehead and place them on the frontal eminences (the two “bumps” about an inch and a half above your eyebrows).
b) At the same time, place your thumbs on your temples next to your eyes and breathe deeply.
c) As the blood returns to your forebrain over the next few minutes, you will find yourself beginning to think clearly!
4. Start a Gratitude List
What we focus on increases. Spend a few minutes each day writing down several things that bring you feelings of gratitude. You may become aware that even the smallest events in life can generate a large amount of gratitude and good feelings. The more content we feel, the less distress gets in the way!
5. Spend Time with your Community
Humans are social animals and we need to engage with one another. If you look at your calendar and notice that during the next week all of your appointments revolve around work or school obligations, then make a plan to see a friend, join a dance class, or watch a sporting event with others. When we isolate, we tend to feel more distress then when we are connected with those that we love.
***Note: If you find yourself debilitated by your distress, worry, or anxiety it is a good idea to consult with a mental health professional. For pertinent information to help you find a qualified therapist in your area please visit http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mental-health/MH00008/METHOD=print.
Eden, D. 1998. Energy Medicine. New York, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Stahl, B. & Goldstein, E. 2010. A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Mayo Clinic. 2010. Exercise and stress: Get moving to combat stress. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/exercise-and-stress/SR00036. Accessed March 7, 2011.
National Institute for Health. 2008. The numbers count: Mental Disorders in America. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america/index.shtml#Intro. Accessed March 7, 2011.
Solyntjes, J. 2007. Personal Interview. Shambala Center for Meditation.