We know stress can cause all sorts of health problems. But it’s not so much the stress that’s the cause; it’s our reaction to it.
The stress is often beyond our control, whereas we can control our thoughts and reactions. Techniques like mini-meditations, affirmations and visualization can help you fight stress to allow you to deal with challenges in a more relaxed and intelligent manner.
First off, what is the stress response?
The stress response is a very important evolutionary process that acted as our alarm to danger.
It’s the flight or fight response, a cascade of hormones that affects digestion, brain function, heart function, muscle tone, etc. The opposite of that reaction is the relaxation response (coined by Dr. Herbert Benson), which calms the stress response and releases feel good hormones.
Related: The Power of Positive Thinking
Whereas the stress response was very beneficial to warn us against immediate danger and get us moving to react, our current stresses are not as dynamic. It’s not a saber tooth tiger around the corner; it’s the economy, the IRS, our spouse, job insecurities, our kids, our boss, daily stresses that don’t seem to subside.
When we don’t get a break from our reaction to that stress it starts to manifest as problems in our bodies. Studies have shown that increasing the relaxation response not only slows heart rate and decreases blood pressure but also slows the genetic expression of aging.
That’s right. Relax more…age slower.
Even though we think we know when we are stressed, sometimes we ignore the signs and power through them. Symptoms of stress can be everything from headaches and indigestion to teeth grinding, overindulgence in alcohol, sleeplessness, muscle tension and road rage.
Any of those sound familiar? Then you are probably stressed. So let’s see how you can add some of the relaxation response invokers to your day and fight stress.
3 Surprising Ways to Relax
Let’s start with meditation. When we think of meditation, we picture someone sitting perfectly still on a pillow, eyes closed, hands in the lap, perhaps some chanting and om-ing. But there is a simple form of meditation called a mini.
These mini-meditations take just a few minutes to do. And you can do them almost anywhere. There have been several times that I’ve taken a minute or two before an important lecture, standing in line at the post office or even when I’m driving, to take advantage of this simple technique.
There are only two rules: concentrate on something repetitive and when thoughts come through, just dismiss them without judgment and return to your repetition.
Here’s what I do. I close my eyes unless I’m in the car. And I concentrate on my breath. If thoughts intrude I just dismiss them without judgment and go back to my breath. Sometimes just using this simple breathing technique can be enough, but here is my favorite script for a mini: As you breathe in, think “I am” and on the exhale think “at peace.”
This is my favorite one and sometimes I substitute other affirmations like “I am…pure health, I am pure joy, I am pure love, and I am at peace.”
Aside from the simple mini-meditations, what else can we do to fight stress? Something that goes great with minis are affirmations.
It’s estimated that we think 60,000 thoughts a day and that 50,000 are negative. Geesh, we wonder where our stress comes from!
The mind is an amazing computer, but it can’t tell the difference between what is actually happening and what we are thinking about. So, if we get ourselves into a negative thought tailspin, we are invoking the stress response with our own thoughts. We have enough stress coming from the outside, why do we want to do that to ourselves.
I suggest changing those negative thoughts to positive ones and giving ourselves a stress break. For example, you are surrounded by co-workers who are sick and you start to feel tired yourself. Rather than reiterating that you are getting sick by saying things like, “I’m getting sick”, “I’m sure I’m catching what you have”, “Don’t get near me you’ll get me sick” or even “I’m not getting sick”. Try saying things like, “I am healthy and well”, “My immune system is strong and protective”.
Phrases like that invoke the relaxation response and actually enhance the immune system.
Related: 4 Easy Steps to Happiness
Using visualization of white light flooding the susceptible area or carrying off the infection has also shown to be effective in activating the immune system and speeding healing.
So, we know stress can be the cause of a lot of health problem, and we’ve learned why we have the stress response and what it does to our bodies. We also know ways to counteract that and fight stress with the relaxation response. Tools like mini meditations, simple visualizations and affirmations are just a few ways to help. I hope these techniques help you navigate life with ease and grace. May your stressors be few and manageable and your dreams be realized!
Take our quiz here to find out how stressed you are.
Kathy Gruver, PhD is the author of The Alternative Medicine Cabinet and Body Mind Therapies for the Bodyworker. She is the host of the TV series, The Alternative Medicine Cabinet and lectures on health nationwide.
Featured photo by MattJP
Originally published 1/29/13 and updated 11/14.