Repeated short term stress or stress that goes on for a long time can be exhausting. The physical and psychological changes during periods of stress use up a lot of our body’s resources and energy. If the stress is prolonged or repeated, many of the changes in our body can have longer term effects: headaches, aches and pains in the body or chest, stomach and digestion problems, high blood pressure, poor concentration, difficulty sleeping, and so on.
Chronic and long term stress have also been implicated in some serious health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and strokes as well as a lowered immune system and increased susceptibility to illness.
How stress affects us
- How we feel
- On edge or wound up
- Impatient, irritable or aggressive
- Sad or worried
- Lonely or isolated
- Confused, trapped or helpless
- How we act
- Irritable and angry
- Eating too much or too little
- Smoking or drinking alcohol more than usual
- Restless, like you can’t sit still
- Difficulty sleeping
- In the body
- Headaches and body pains
- Indigestion or heartburn
- Feeling sick
- How we think
- Racing thoughts, like you can’t switch off
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty making decisions
- Feeling distracted
All the physical effects of stress begin with the breath. Fast and shallow breathing gets the oxygen we need to our muscles to be able to fight or run away. If we control our breathing (breathing slowly and deeply from the bottom of our lungs) the heart slows down and the body returns to its resting state.
You can use controlled breathing any time you notice your breathing is a little shallow or fast or whenever you notice sensations of stress, anxiety, fear or even anger. Controlled breathing can help you just take a moment out before reacting and is excellent to use quickly just before you enter into a difficult situation. In the controlled breathing technique, we deliberately alter our breathing.
(Progressive Muscular) Relaxation
This is another easy method for learning how to relax the body. The idea is to learn the difference between how your muscles feel when they are tense and how they feel when they are relaxed.
Relaxation, Mindfulness and Controlled Breathing are all ways to relax your body. They work by calming your body and your mind and reversing the physiological changes which happen in our bodies at times of stress. It is physically impossible to be stressed and relaxed at the same time. Practising these techniques helps us to build up some resilience to stress and makes it easier to use the techniques when we need them.