Stress, especially constant stress, is the most underrated source of disease conditions, particularly chronic disease. It is underrated because it is so difficult to measure and demonstrate. And it is difficult to measure and demonstrate because it occurs so differently per individual and per situation.
What we do know, however, is that we all are subjected to stress. Stress is a natural response to situations that occur every day. As such, stress is unavoidable – but not always a bad thing.
As a natural response in the body, like the immune response, the stress response was designed to and can actually support higher performance in times of need. The negative impact on our health is felt when we are constantly bombarded with demands, subject to others’ expectations and distracted and worried by others’ perceptions and opinions.
In the halls of higher education, academic performance stress can be acute and constant. It can be self-imposed or caused by expectations, perceptions and opinions of those who may play a key role in whether or not we “make the grade.”
Ethnic minorities and other underrepresented groups tend to suffer from an additional and unique set of daily stressors that are felt simply because of their particular background. In fact, the American Psychological Association correlates the following four leading chronic stressors with health disparities suffered by individuals of diverse backgrounds: perceived and actual discrimination, environmental stress, day-to-day social and economic stress and acculturative stress, the feelings of tension and anxiety that accompany efforts to adapt to the orientation and values of the dominant culture.
Add all of this up and, for diverse individuals in particular, it is a virtual certainty that chronic stress will negatively impact health outcomes.
Chronic stress wreaks havoc on our bodies, becomes distress and causes burnout and breakdown – unless we become aware and intentionally take action.
Two major categories of stress management that most strategies and programs offer are stress recovery and stress prevention. Their shared basis is the undeniable connection between the mind and body, demonstrated in the stress response known as “fight or flight.” The physical stress response is triggered as the result of two mental perceptions: that the demands on us are high, dangerous, difficult or painful and that our ability to cope with those demands is insufficient.
These mental perceptions can be true, or not. But the effect on the body is the same – a stress response characterized by physical changes such as improved vision and hearing, increased heart and breathing rates, a fired-up metabolism and increased blood flow to the muscles.
The stress-recovery category focuses on post-stress activities and ways we can support our bodies in recovering from the physical effects of stress. Stress prevention focuses on pre-stress activities and ways we can support our minds in not perceiving stress if it is not needed or helpful.
There are many options for activities in each category. For stress recovery, a healthy body both responds to and recovers from stress better than an unhealthy one, so anything you can do to create a healthy body – eat right, exercise, stretch, sleep enough, laugh – can help. Stress prevention includes a much deeper set of introspective activities to analyze personal demands and stressors, measure perception versus reality, develop emotional intelligence and coping skills and creatively determine solutions for real stressors.
Let’s look a little closer at some helpful stress-recovery activities.
As a mind-body activity, meditation is intimidating to some people, conjuring images of perfection in stillness, a mind entirely clear of any thoughts or some unattainable transcendent state of consciousness. Some people think they just don’t have the time. But meditation takes many forms. It is a technique that, like any other, requires practice to reap the greatest benefits.
Based on my personal experience with meditation, I would like to stress (excuse the pun) that everyone can practice the most basic form of meditation and that benefits can be achieved in very little time.
The most basic form of meditation is deep breathing. Deep breathing is at the heart of triggering the “relaxation response” – a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard-trained physician, to describe the opposite response from and recovery response to the stress response. (He’s also founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.)
The ability to trigger the relaxation response in our bodies is an important part of our recovery from the stress response, and, ultimately, prevention of distress and disease. Deep breathing can effectively help your body recover from the increased breathing rate and shallow breathing that the stress response induces. In fact, as little as five deep breaths can provide immediate results.
Here is a simple five-step guide to deep breathing. It is especially effective at bedtime to help you sleep, but you can do it as often as you like:
Over time, with practice, you will be able to extend the number of beats you inhale and exhale. Also, use of affirming phrases can help you reset your focus if you become distracted.
Another option I use is a body scan on each inhale, mentally evaluating my body for areas of tension. On each exhale, I visualize and focus on releasing tension from those areas.
The benefits I have experienced from meditation are both physical and mental, from improved improvements in body awareness, relaxation and sleep to greater optimism, improved mood and ability to focus, calmer mindset and increased creativity and problem-solving. For those in educational work environments, the mental benefits alone make meditation an investment not only in our health, but also our careers.
Do you do deep breathing exercises? Are you open to trying them as a strategy for coping with stress? Do you do any other form of meditation? If so, what are the biggest benefits you have experienced or hope to gain? If you haven’t tried deep breathing exercises or another form of meditation, why not? Share your thoughts.
Tanya Leake is a certified health coach, wellness presenter and group fitness and dance instructor based in Atlanta. Her column appears in Diverse every other week.