Everyone seems to be stressed out these days. Of course, there are many valid reasons for this. Each of us experiences potential sources of stress every day. Perhaps it’s the weather or traffic that’s making us tense. Or maybe it’s a health concern, either one’s own or that of someone close to us. We might feel overloaded at work or be faced with looming deadlines that seem impossible to meet. There might be people in our lives that are difficult to deal with. Loving your job, or those difficult people, doesn’t make you immune to the stress they might cause you. Sometimes just facing the reality that there are situations or changes occurring that are beyond our control is enough to make life stressful. And if all of that is not enough, there is the climate, the planet, politics, war, intolerance, fear, etc. etc. Yikes! It’s a wonder that we all aren’t curled up and babbling in a fetal position.
Some stress is beneficial. In discussing stress management, the Mayo Clinic reminds us that the “brain comes hard-wired with an alarm system for your protection. When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones to fuel your capacity for a response.” Once the threat is gone, though, we’re supposed to return to a “normal relaxed state”. However, our 24/7 lives don’t always permit this. We can be our own worst enemies, not allowing ourselves downtime when we most need it. Sometimes we don’t even realize how much stress has gripped us. It becomes increasingly difficult to know when or even how to dial it down. When stress becomes chronic it can have serious negative effects on one’s health. According to a recent Harvard Health newsletter chronic stress “contributes to everything from high blood pressure and heart disease to anxiety, digestive disorders, and slow wound healing.”
The good new is that “managing stress helps control many chronic conditions or reduce your risk for developing them.” And here’s even more good news: exercise in general, and mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates in particular, are among the top recommendations for reducing stress. Among the reasons for this is that both of these disciplines encourage coordinating breath with movement. Breathing techniques have long been known to encourage a relaxation response which can actually produce “changes in genes that influence health”. This can encourage reductions in blood pressure, blood sugar levels, digestion problems and even inflammation which has been shown to be associated with numerous health conditions.
Yoga and Pilates also encourage tuning into your body to learn how it behaves. We spend so much time listening to the endless noise in our heads that we can forget that we even have a body. Worse yet, our bodies can themselves become a source of frustration when they don’t look or feel the way we would like them to. This also creates stress. Discovering how your body works as it moves is actually fascinating if you let yourself look at it that way. You will also begin to recognize when you are holding tension in your muscles. The first step toward relaxing both mind and body is recognizing tension. Many of us don’t even realize how tense we are until we start to feel what it’s like to let that tension go. Holding tension in the body makes stressful situations that much more difficult to deal with. Learning to release tension takes practice. Regularly practicing mind-body disciplines like yoga and Pilates is a good place to start.
There are many different ways to manage stress. No single intervention can be the total answer for everyone. Each of us needs to find what works for them. And different situations may required different responses. All of this takes practice. But instead of finding this discouraging, it might help to see it as an interesting challenge. The benefit of any practice is that it allows you to keep trying. If one attempt doesn’t seem to work you can try again or try something else. Remember the goal: better mental and physical health. Keeping that in mind can make even the most difficult practice worthwhile.