How to reduce stress

In this article we talk with Cath Edwards the Stress Less Coach about stress. We have asked her three really important questions. What is stress? How it impacts us? And, what are the things we can do to reduce stress?

What is stress?

In a nutshell, stress is the way you respond to a demand of some sort, be it an external demand or a thought process. Everyone has to have stress, you can’t live without it. You would die if you didn’t respond to your environment and ways to keep yourself safe as well.

These days there’s a lot of pressure on people in various jobs. For instance, if there’s a deadline coming up and there’s not enough time, then the stress response starts to build. It’s a very strong physiological response that is attached to emotions, thinking and wellness. Two people may react to the same situation very differently; one may be calm and collected; the other may be plagued by self-doubt and endless questions.

If you have a target chasing you, your body will respond. And, stress is going to be accompanied by a flood of hormones rushing into your body.

  • Acute stress happens very quickly, for instance, when you’re caught in a situation like having to jump out of the way of a bus.
  • Chronic stress is the kind of everyday stress like driving cars, catching buses, children, family relationships and illness.
  • Trauma-induced stress, can be prolonged stress caused by extreme circumstances in life such as accidents or war.

Sometimes, stress creeps up on us and we fail to realise that our bodies, minds and emotions are very stressed. What I encourage people to do is not to get to that point where there’s so much stress you need to pull out of the race.

If everyone has to have stress it implies that not all stress is bad. How do you differentiate between good stress and bad stress and what level should it be at?

Stress is pretty critical to human survival, but it’s how you receive it that matters. For instance, a lady recently told me, “I get really angry and I fly off the handle at nothing and it affects my relationship with my family, and everyone gets upset with me. I shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing, but I can’t help it when I’m feeling stressed.”
When your behaviour indicates that you’re doing something intolerable, you have to do something about it.

With acute stress, your body is going to be flush with hormones for a short period of time; it will then settle and you will get on with your day.

It’s the everyday stress that unwittingly debilitates you. The day-to-day stuff can actually be tolerated and you may think you’re doing well. Some people even say, “My life’s really good despite the stress; I perform better due to stress.”

The thing is, to perform better, there are chemicals running riot in your body and some of them are really poisonous to your system. It’s really important to give your body and mind a break from that. If not, you won’t be able to cope and your body and brain will give up. You can get physically sick, emotionally sick, spiritually sick and behaviourally sick. You can get all of the above, or one of them.

Some people show a great deal of frustration when they’re stressed – it could be at work or when you’re stuck in traffic. But you must realise that your response is only going to change the way you feel, it is not going to change the situation. You’re still going to take that extra amount of time, but it’s how you feel, all the way on your ride there, that dictates your stress levels.

Much of the work I do in groups is getting people to see that for what it is. We’re all going to have problems in relationships, we could be stuck in traffic, waiting for late trains or buses, we probably don’t like the way someone looks at us. It’s all about the way we perceive it and react to it.

With chronic and acute stress, how does the clash of hormones and chemicals affect our bodies and how should we ideally deal with it?

The quicker you can get your body to an equilibrium, or what I call coherence, the better off you will be. You’ve got to be a disrupter of your own stress. Say you’ve had a blow up at work or a blow-up in the car with someone. You’ve got to recognise it when it’s happening and disrupt it. If you allow it to keep going, then a cascade of hormones are just going to keep pouring in and one of the big ones is cortisol, and it is poison, to say the least.

In the short term, cortisol and adrenaline can be helpful. If it continues long-term, you’re going to get adrenaline fatigue and maybe some unexplained illnesses. Some people complain of unexplained pain in their gut, headaches, neck aches and back aches when there is no obvious physiological issue going on. In many cases, it could be the result of ongoing stress.

Cortisol is a very powerful chemical in your body. This chemical does some really unusual things to your pancreas and your liver and it will introduce different hormones into your body that will make your body imbalanced.

Here’s a personal example. When my brother died of a brain tumour, I experienced great trauma and stress which I did recognise, but couldn’t do much about it at the time. But after sometime, my body said, “You are now sick mate. You have a pancreatic condition.”

I knew I had cortisol in such high-levels that my body just gave up, though the doctors kept pointing to the symptom, which was a pancreatic condition. I don’t blame them because they are trained in a medical model that does not allow them enough time to deal with the issue of stress and how it affects your body if not handled correctly. But, being an expert in the stress arena, I knew exactly what was going on.

What can we do to overcome or reduce stress?

The first thing is to acknowledge you’ve got stress because if you’re not aware of it, you can’t do anything about it. It’s like mental illness in all its shapes and forms. Stress can affect a range of things that your body and mind can do in response to many life situations. If your stress is way too high, you’ll realise you’re not responding to it, you’re reacting to it. The overall way to deal with stress is to respond not react. Response, in many ways, is a calculated guided activity; reaction would be something similar to exhibiting road rage.

What are the common physical signs that can be attributed to stress?

Neck aches, headaches and irritable bowel syndrome are closely linked to stress. You can also get pains in your joints and muscles. If you’re holding tension in your body, you’re unwittingly pumping all these chemicals in, and that results in extreme joint and muscle fatigue. This is primarily because the adrenaline is working so hard, it’s wearing you out.

Distorted thinking, constant self-criticism can result in irrational responses to situations. Then there’s the small stuff, like if you can’t seem to find your passion and your purpose, you feel stressed.

Another stress-induced behaviour, often in men, is anger. There are people who hold things in and people who put things out and there’s a fine balance between the two. You should consider who you’re putting out to, if you’re angry.
If you’re at the railway station, you should try screaming real loud when the train is passing to vent some anger. If you’re in the car, sing really loud – singing and humming are great ways to relieve stress.

With a stress response, there’s tension and chemicals in your body, your thoughts are changing, your emotions are changing, your breathing will increase and you’ll feel a lot hotter because your temperature changes. There’s a peak in the response and there’s a lull, but if you’re doing it all day, there’s no break from it, and that eventually leads to medical problems.

Once you acknowledge you have stress, what can you do to overcome it?

The basic thing for anyone is to learn how to grieve. Everyone talks about it but hardly anyone does it. Even people I teach to do it properly, they need to be taught over and over again to do it right.

Try to find quiet times, or even in the peak of the stress, try and remove yourself from the circumstance and breathe. Conscious breathing will immediately turn off the stress response. And when I say breathe, I don’t mean panting like you’re delivering a baby, I mean quietening the breath. As the breath calms down, the stress response will go into the relaxation response.

It’s like you’re flicking the switch. It’s very hard to stay stressed when your breathing becomes slow. Shut out everything else and breathe on the count of three. Breathe in, hold for one, breathe out for three. When you get more confident with that, breathe in for five, hold for two, breathe out for five.

Exercise, of course is always a stress-buster, but be careful not to over-exercise!

What sort of exercises are good to relieve stress?

Do things that make you feel good! If it’s walking or running, do that. If it’s lifting weights, do that. It can be yoga, swimming, tennis, golf – anything!

However, the catch is, if you’re feeling stressed at the beginning of the day, you need to do something in the morning itself, not at the end of the day. Also, cortisol levels are naturally higher when you wake up in the morning – all the more reason why timely disruption of stress is required.

Breathing is useful because you can disrupt the stress response in the body anytime, anywhere. A brisk morning walk can also be really effective.

Even brief mindfulness exercises help in disrupting the stress response. It’s just about finding the time and place to do a small meditation or you can even do a walking meditation.

What is a walking meditation?

This is when you go for a walk and tune out to everything that’s happened at work or at home. Think about the moment: I’m walking – what does the pavement feel like, what do my muscles feel like, what am I saying, hearing, touching, what am I feeling, what is my heart doing, what are the track shoes doing on my feet, have I tied them too tight. That’s a walking meditation and it is very easy to do. You’re just distracting from all the daily stuff.

A shower and meditation is also good; you could complement it with breathing. You get in there, you think about the water, the heat, the smell, lather up your body and while you’re doing that you take in nice slow deep breaths, hold in and let out. It’s a great way to reset for the day.

Where do you suggest people go for more information on stress and dealing with stress?

Of course, Dr. Google has a lot of helpful and a lot of unhelpful information as well. You can also go to my website www.thestresslesscoach.com.au for related information about stress and breathing exercises. Then, of course, there are a lot of informative books you can turn to for more clarity on the matter.

You can download meditation apps, though there’s been a lot of controversy over that because people are not able to do it properly and feel like they’re not succeeding.

If stress is at a significant level, get assistance for it. I can do stress calls over the phone and your levels come down fairly quickly.

Clinical hypnotherapy is also a good option for stress and anxiety. It’s great to create a change in the way you react to things in the world.