In the U.S., tax season is upon us, with the deadline fast approaching. Imagine you are filing taxes and discover that you owe the government thousands more than you anticipated. Your heart starts to race and your hands begin to sweat as you think about your hard-earned money being drained from your savings account.
Now imagine that you’re enjoying a spring hike in the mountains and you stop to rest along a creek to enjoy the calming sounds of the rushing water, all of the sudden you look up and see a large, hungry grizzly bear. Before you even notice your heart racing, you are off running at top speed in an effort to preserve your life.
These are two drastically different scenarios—one financial and the other very physical. Although the situations are difference, your body responds to them very similarly. Your body sees both situations as threats to your very survival and reacts accordingly—increased breathing rate, increased blood pressure and muscle contraction, and secretion of adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. You might be surprised to know that when the fight-or-flight response begins, many processes in the body stop—the excretory system turns off, the digestive system stops metabolizing food the way it normally would, and the immune system slows down. Your body does everything it can to conserve energy so that you can focus on the “fight or flight”.
Human beings have always experienced stress. However, the unique stresses of our modern world can be overwhelming, from traffic, to project deadlines, to not living up to the perfect images you see on social media, to the dreadful things you hear on the news each day. It might not seem as obvious as running for your life, but your body still responds to these stresses as if they threatened your existence.
So why should you care?
How concerned you should be depends on how high your stress levels actually are. High levels of stress, when just “dealt with” rather than “intentionally managed”, can contribute to awful physical conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
If you’re trying to lose weight, high stress levels are your enemy. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is released by the adrenal glands when you are under stress. Cortisol will signal to your body to conserve energy in order to prioritize your “fight or flight.” This means that the body is more likely to hang on to fat. We don’t want the body to conserve energy—we want it to feel free to use as much as possible.
A friend once recommended a book called The World is NOT a Stressful Place, by Michael Olpin, PhD. This book is full of incredible strategies to help you manage your stress—I feel relaxed just reading the book, so imagine how relaxed I’ve felt while actually implementing the strategies. Here are a few of the recommended techniques:
GUIDED IMAGERY. Olpin talks about the power of guided imagery, using your imagination to create a soothing, stress-free experience, in order to quiet the stress response. It works because the subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between an imagined event and a real one. Because the mind perceives zero threats during this imagined experience, the stress response has no reason to turn on.
Olpin outlines the following steps for using guided imagery:
1. Sit or lie down in a place where you won’t be interrupted.
2. Turn down the lights and make sure that the room temperature is comfortable.
3. You may want to use relaxing music to facilitate the process.
4. Spend 2-3 minutes relaxing. Close your eyes and take deep, restful breaths.
5. Begin to use your imagination and envision yourself in nature. You may imagine yourself at the beach, in a forest, in the mountains, by a still lake, or by a running river.
6. Use as many of your senses as possible. You might imagine a calming breeze or the feeling of waves lapping at your feet. You might imagine the clean smell of pine trees or the sound of running water.
7. You might remain in this imagined place for a few minutes, or you might choose to stay longer.
8. Olpin says for the best experience, it’s important to be playful and not take the process too seriously.
For more information, see The World is NOT a Stressful Place, pages 122-124.
BREATHING EXERCISES. This information has been life-changing for me: When we are stressed, our breath becomes quick and shallow and uses muscles in the chest and shoulders. However, normal, relaxed breathing uses the diaphragm almost exclusively, and air travels to the deepest parts of the lungs. Olpin says, “When we focus on deep, slow breathing, the result is that we interrupt the stress response and return to a more natural, healthier state of being.”
After reading this information, I started to focus more on my breath, making sure I was using my diaphragm to breathe deeply into my lungs. This means that my stomach moves in and out when I breathe, just like when you watch a baby breathing. I noticed that when I was stressed, my breathing was very different and I felt tension in my shoulders. When I focused on breathing deeply into the diaphragm and my stomach moving in and out, I felt calmer and less tense.
Here are Olpin’s instructions for restful breathing:
1. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. You may want to place your hands on your stomach.
2. After a minute or two, begin to change your breathing pattern. Allow your breath to go down as deep as possible into your lungs. Your stomach will naturally move outward.
3. To help with your focus, you can use this counting method: Start counting backward from 20 (or any number you choose). When you inhale, think the number “20.” When you exhale, think, “Relax.” Inhale while thinking “19.” Exhale while thinking, “Relax.” Continue until you reach zero.
Olpin says that this breathing technique can help those who have trouble falling asleep. For more information on restful breathing, see The World is NOT a Stressful Place, pages 131-133.
MUSIC. In The World is NOT a Stressful Place, Michael Olpin gives a list of authors and composers whose music has a calming effect. These authors/composers include Brahms, Handel, Mozart, Pachelbel, Vivaldi, David Lanz, and many more. (For a more complete list, see The World is NOT a Stressful Place, page 171.) You might want to consider replacing listening to the news during your commute with Mozart or David Lanz to help reduce your body’s stress response.
These are three techniques you can use to help cope with tax season, work, traffic, and all other stresses that accompany modern day living. No matter what our situation, we can all do a little bit better with managing the stress we have. Will you pick one of these techniques and test it out this week? Schedule a few minutes in your calendar to work on it. I promise you won’t regret it! Not only will you feel better, but your body and your health will thank you for it.
This article was written by Coach Shantel.