My heart was pounding. My hands were cold and clammy. My breathing was rapid and shallow, I had butterflies going bananas in my stomach and my mind was jumping all over the place.
WHAT had I let myself in for? I must be mad! I can’t possibly do this. What if I make an utter prat of myself?!
What was going on?!?!
…I was preparing to go on live BBC local radio to talk about … tips on relaxing! And I was a bag of nerves…. Ha! The irony wasn’t lost on me…
So, what was really going on?
Well, my body’s stress response had been stimulated – that “fight or flight” reaction where stress hormones surge around the body getting us ready to run or fight because we think we’re under attack.
The digestion system slows, reasoning and thinking becomes impaired as blood flows to the muscles and we’re in a heightened state of attention, getting ready to flee the scene or fight it out.
It’s a response which so many of us experience each and every day.
Living with stress
The body’s stress response can be fired up by lots of different things.
In my case it was nervous excitement. It was the first time I’d done anything like this and I was filled with thoughts and questions and wondering how it would go and I was really excited! But underneath this there was a deep, subconscious, fear that I would harm myself … by making myself look stupid. I was under attack by my own self doubt! Isn’t the mind a thing of wonder?!
But for you it could be the prospect of a job interview, giving a presentation, dealing with a spider, an email from your boss late at night, worries about your children, pressure of imminent deadlines, the ill-health of a loved one, dealing daily with difficult colleagues, the commute to work, financial pressures… the list goes on and on.
Or it could be positive stress (i.e. a response to something which is potentially beneficial or enjoyable but you feel a bit nervous) like going on the radio(!) or going to an event on your own and meeting new people.
The body’s response
Whatever the cause of the stress – whether the mind deems it negative or positive – the body has the same response.
The surges of stress chemicals (Adrenaline, Cortisol, and Norepinephrine) which allow us to act quickly, to think on our feet, to get stuff done and to meet deadlines also make us jittery and full of anxiety and produce physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking and shallow breathing.
And long-term, the constant presence of cortisol in our body can lead to headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, digestive problems, problems sleeping, anxiety, restlessness, agitation, anger, lack of libido and depression.
Short-term ways of dealing with the stress response
So when your heart is pounding and the stress response is triggered, what can you do?
Well, here are my four simple but effective tips for dealing with the stress response in the actual moment when you’ve got those sweaty palms and the jitters.
Release your shoulders & jaw
When we’re stressed it’s common for us to tense up our shoulders and grit our teeth – so you end up with your shoulders around your ears, a clenched jaw … and probably a head ache!
Solution: Breathe in and consciously raise your shoulders up to your ears – go on, as far as they’ll rise!Then sigh the breath out and let them drop.
Repeat a few times – and hopefully you’ll start to feel the tension melting away.
When we’re tense and stressed we breathe shallowly. We’re nowhere near using our full lung capacity. So we’re not getting the fresh oxygen our body needs to function well and we’re not breathing out the toxins our body gets rid of through our breath.
And breathing shallowly reinforces a sense of tension in your body. If you breathe fully it’s nearly impossible to stay rigid and tense.
Solution: Breathe deeply – in and out through your nose if you can as this slows the breath.
Breathe in to a count of four and out to a count of four. Equalise your breath.
Feel a sense of relief and release flow through you.
Do you notice that when you’re stressed your mind goes into overdrive? Worrying, planning, judging….
You need to give your mind something else to focus on.
Solution: Give your mind these two words: “Let … Go…”
It’s simple – but effective. Focus on letting go of the worry, letting go of the tension…
And tell yourself this…
It’s just how it is.
Give your mind permission to shut up!
No matter what crappy or scary or worrying situation is going on – it’s just how it is.
Solution: there’s no point resisting it, this is the situation you’re in now.
Resistance = frustration & anger = stress.
Try to calm yourself and then you can deal with the situation with a sense of reason and equanimity rather than panic and fear.
Give it a go
So go on, give these a go next time you’re feeling stressed out. A few simple little tricks like these, practised regularly, can start to make a big difference to your longer term sense of wellness.
And for your long-term health you need to be able to release tension through regular exercise as well as giving yourself time to relax and switch off (and I mean switch off … the TV, computer and smartphone too!).
And, of course, yoga provides all of that and more as a regular practice helps you to become more mindful and access a quiet place of calm and resilience within you – helping you to cope better with stressful situations as they arise.