When we think about the kind of situations that have a significant impact on health and well-being, we typically think about the major stressors: moving, illness, divorce, unemployment, and loss of a loved one. However, for most people, it is not these big, life-changing stressors that are wreaking havoc on our health – it's the day-to-day hassles.
Modern life is hectic. If it's not a never-ending inbox, it's a traffic jam. If it's not financial strain, it's an overly jam-packed schedule. Many of us live in a constant bouncing from one responsibility to another – work, kids, family, spouse, finances – without any breathing room. While major life events may cause a greater degree of stress, it's the lower levels of sustained, chronic stress we experience in our everyday lives that take a greater toll on our overall well-being.
In addition to the emotional and psychological feelings associated with stress, chronic stress can cause a wide variety of physical symptoms, including headaches, pain, weight fluctuations, sleep disruption, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Left untreated, these ailments can have long-term repercussions and may result in early mortality.
It can be tempting to try to treat your chronic stress symptoms with palliative solutions like food, alcohol, or caffeine. But these solutions simply mask the stress – they don't treat its underlying cause, and will in all likelihood simply exacerbate the problem.
The most effective solution for minimizing stress would be to eliminate the stressors from our lives. And to some extent, you can. But unfortunately, due to the demands of modern life, there's a limit to how many stressors you can realistically remove from your life. The more practical strategy for minimizing the symptoms of chronic stress is to learn how to effectively manage stress.
The Biological Basis of Relaxation
It's important to understand the difference between pleasure and relaxation. It's remarkably easy to confuse the two. You may think of activities such as watching your favorite TV show or reading a book as relaxing when in reality those things are merely pleasurable to you. A truly relaxing activity is one that activates your body’s parasympathetic nervous system to bring your autonomic nervous system (ANS) back into balance.
The ANS controls your body's stress response and has two branches: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system activates when your body perceives that it's in a stressful or dangerous situation. It's responsible for the "fight or flight" response. When your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, you may feel your heart racing, your breath quickening, and your muscles tensing.
The parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effect, calming your body back down after a stressful situation by decreasing your heart and respiration rates. In order to achieve a state of relaxation, you need to activate your sympathetic nervous system.
How to Manage Stress Through Relaxation
Now that you understand the difference between pleasure and relaxation, let's discuss some activities that will help you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, enter a state of relaxation, and bring down your stress levels.
There are a variety of techniques that can be used to achieve a state of relaxation. You may be familiar with some of them: meditation, mindfulness, guided visualization, and diaphragmatic breathing. While they are each different, these techniques have three things in common:
Focusing your mind on a repetitive word/phrase, breath, action, or image
Adopting a passive attitude by letting go of intrusive thoughts
Maintaining a routine daily practice
You should try several relaxation techniques until you find one that works for you. Some people need complete peace and quiet to reach a meditative, relaxed state, while others find it easier to achieve a relaxed mental state when engaged in moderate physical activity. If you're someone who responds well to physical activity, try an ergonomic form of exercise such as riding a stationary bike, like the V9 All-in-One Desk Bike. Making time every day for 20 or 30 minutes of mindful exercise will help you live a more relaxed, less stressed life.