An Introduction to Stress Management

Stress is something that can affect us all. In this blog, Nigel Lowson explains what causes stress, the role of the autonomic nervous system and how to self-manage stress through effective techniques to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and trigger your body’s ‘relaxation response’.

What is Stress?

Stress is a word that’s thrown around an awful lot but what exactly is it? There are a lot of definitions but the one I like is this one, although I’m not sure where I read it:

“Stress occurs when the pressures of a situation are greater than the capacity of our resources to cope.”

Stress is something that can hit us all. Sometimes it is a bit heavier and more persistent than others. Some of us are more prone to experiencing stress or feeling more stressed than others and our ability to be stressed by a situation changes through time, even if the situation doesn’t. Our relationship to stress is entirely our own.

What Makes Us Stressed?

Two factors combine to move us towards being stressed:

  1. The situation(s) we face - this, or these, can come from outside of us or come from within us. External situations can appear from many sources such as events in the world at large or at work, from our family or from our friends. These may be things that have happened or are going to happen or that we think might happen. Internal situations can also come from a large number of sources such as illness or mental strain or our feelings about things such as our ageing, body image and much more.

And because we can rarely do anything about these situations it makes things seem even worse to us. However, this doesn’t stop us from wanting things to be different - perhaps we want things to be as they ought or should be. And this always adds fuel to the fire.

  1. The resources we have - rarely can we alter the situations and events that occur, but the good news is that we can influence hugely our response because this depends upon what resources we have. We can add to our resource bank so that we can control more the only thing we can - our response to events. This is what will make us feel less stressed.



What’s the Role of the Autonomic Nervous System?

This part of our nervous system controls the nerves of our internal organs and glands. It causes them to function - to secrete enzymes and so on. We have absolutely no conscious control here – it controls involuntary muscles.

The autonomic nervous system has two sides:

  • sympathetic nervous system (SNS)
  • parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)

In essence, both systems supply the same organs but trigger opposite effects because their activating chemicals, or neurotransmitters, are different.

Imagine you have two buttons inside you. You automatically press the first one when you, or your loved ones, are:

  • in danger
  • in pain
  • experiencing low blood sugar
  • excited or
  • stressed

This button is pressed even when you think something bad is about to happen to you, even if it’s wrong or exaggerated! It’s also pushed when you feel negative emotions! So, a lot of people are seeing this pushed a lot of the time! Once this button is activated, the SNS (the sympathetic nervous system) kicks into action.

The job of the SNS is to protect you by turning on the fight or flight response. This prepares your body for emergencies almost instantly by pumping more blood to the muscles (to the arms if you are angry, to the legs if you are scared) and releases chemicals, especially cortisol and adrenaline, which cause all sorts of changes in your body and mind. It acts like an accelerator in a car by increasing your energy which raises your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and so on. You feel threatened and your body quickly gets ready to fight or to flee.

The effect of this button is worse if you:

  • feel you have no, or little, control over the situation
  • lack hope that there is a way out of it
  • feel you have no emotional support from others

The effect is worse because as cortisol levels increase in the body there is a knock-on effect which makes you feel more apathetic, distracted and less able to enjoy anything. In short, you feel lousy!

We need the SNS. Our bodies are built to activate the SNS in emergencies, for example, when being chased by a wild animal! But we live in a 24/7 world which is intense, exciting, stressful, aggressive at times, and very busy. So, we think there are emergencies a lot of the time which means the SNS is over-activated with a level that is too high for our comfort and health for much of the time. If we scored the level out of 10 for many people, it would be about 7 or more most of the time when it should be at 1 or 2 which then spikes up to 9 or 10 when we sense danger.

This is not good for your physical or mental wellbeing as it makes you pick up and dwell on negative thoughts, feelings and experiences more easily. All this makes you tense, not sleep well and generally feel down.



What Can You Do to Help Yourself?

Fortunately, lots! Some people seek a chemical solution, others look for ways to reduce the stresses in their lives, for example by changing jobs, partners etc. These might not be available or the right options for you, but there is always that second button. Remember? 

Hitting this second button turns on the PNS activating the ‘relaxation response’, which works to counteract and regulate the SNS. It works to conserve energy and acts like a brake in the car. It’s rightly called the relaxation response or the rest and digest response and the good news is you can activate it yourself. When you do so your mind quietens and the body relaxes. Then you feel calmer, heal quicker, enjoy life more, relate to others more easily, are tolerant and life is fuller.

6 Simple Breathing Techniques to Activate Your ‘Relaxation Response’ and Help Reduce Your Stress Level

  1. Be still, let your breathing settle. Then take a slow, deep in-breath through the nose expanding your chest, abdomen and stomach in turn and then on the out-breath collapse fully in reverse order - pull the stomach to the spine. Do 5 or 6 such breaths. Try to develop a wave motion.
  2. Balance your breathing by breathing in for a slow count of four and breathing out for an equally slow count of four.
  3. Counting slowly to 4 in your head on an in-breath, hold the breath for a count of 4, breath out with control for a count of four and then hold for a count of four. Repeat three times.
  4. Inhale fully by really allowing your ribcage to expand as much as you can, hold it for a moment or two and then slowly let the air out relaxing your whole body as you do this. Do this for 5 breaths or more.
  5. Breathe slowly for only 4 - 6 times in a minute for two minutes.
  6. Breathe in for an internal slow count to 6, hold it for a count to 8 and exhale for a count to 10. Do this for 1 or 2 minutes.
Posted Date

31st March 2021

Nigel Lowson
Wellbeing Teacher and Author

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