Managing Stress Starts With Knowing Your Body
Will I get my bonus this year? Are my kids doing well in school? Can I afford additional tuition classes? Will I have enough money to pay off my loans? Nagging questions that weave in and out of our mind daily are unsurprisingly one of the main reasons that stresses an individual out. Having stressors constantly whirling through our minds can take a toll on our health and can eventually lead to anxiety (Murhead, 2008, p. 196). In Singapore, about 1 in 7 people have experienced a mental disorder, with anxiety disorders taking an upward trend in recent years (Institute of Mental Health, 20184).
While some might say that stress or anxiety is part and parcel of life, too much stress can affect our physical and mental health. Rather than have these stressors pile up and overwhelm us, it’s important to nip it at the bud and take on these issues as they come. We all have our own ways of coping with stress, but it’s also important to understand how different parts of our body react to stressful situations, so that we can take care of our personal wellbeing.
Beginning from the very top, let’s take a look at ways you can identify and alleviate stress from your body.
It Starts at The Head
The first thing you need to do is to identify your triggers so that you can work towards better managing stress. When faced with daunting situations, your mind automatically sends signals to your body. Pinpoint the situations that make you feel anxious, bored, angry, sullen, humiliated or ashamed (Spielberger, Sarason, Kulcsar, & Van Heck, 2014, pp. 128-1299). These are the key emotions you probably feel when you are in a stressful situation.
In a notebook, pen down the details of the situation, how it made you feel and what you did in response. By jogging your memory and writing things down, it can help you better tackle similar situations in the future. Aside from noting down stressful situations, you can try taking mini brain breaks throughout the day. This can be anything from watching a 1-min cat video, taking a short walk or even making a nice, hot cup of green tea.
Listen To Your Heart
Whatever affects the brain, affects the heart. Stress can lead to depression, which is known to be linked to heart disease (Harvard Health Publishing, 20103). One such disease is called the broken heart syndrome which is usually caused by “severe emotional or physical stress” (Harvard Health Publishing, 20103). This syndrome looks a lot and feels quite similar to a heart attack. Listen to your heart, watch out for symptoms like “chest pains, shortness of breath, arm pain and sweating” (Mount Elizabeth, 20165).
If you feel any of these symptoms, try your hand at relaxation techniques like breathing exercises. Slow and shallow breaths are known to reduce panic symptoms (Southern Methodist University, 20108). If it keeps occurring, see a doctor. It’s also good to laugh more and find a little humour in a situation. Tell a joke, pull a funny face at the kid sitting next to you on the bus or watch your favourite comedy on Netflix. Humour has the power to boost “the immune system, improve circulation, lower heart rate and increase oxygen in blood” (Burdett, 2014, p. 621). They say laughter is the best medicine, and now we know why!
What Are You Feeding Yourself?
When you’re stressed, you might feel ‘hangry’, but that could just be the stress talking. Your body produces more cortisol, also known as the “hunger hormone” when you’re stressed or upset (Galan, 20182). To know whether you’re really hungry, think about how you’re feeling at that moment. Hunger triggered by stress makes one feel the need to satisfy the pang instantly and often, with a specific craving (Galan, 20182). Hence, it’s not a rumble in your stomach that makes you hungry, it’s more of the thoughts you have about food that makes you feel a little peckish – that’s the hunger caused by stress.
Keep a basic food log, or download one of the many meal tracker apps to help you distinguish the times you eat out of stress vs actual hunger. Find healthier options of your favourite food so that there is less guilt when your cravings hit. Sometimes, your body can also confuse thirst with hunger – reach out for a bottle of water instead of a bar of chocolate just to be sure and see how you feel after. You’d be surprised at how your hunger simply dissolves at times.
Feel Your Muscles
Do you feel your muscles tightening at work? Namely your back, neck and shoulders? Sauter & Moon (2005), indicate that stressful working conditions like “work overload, work pressure, and lack of control” can cause heightened muscle tension (pp. 27-317). Most of the time, workplace stress is caused by these 5 factors, “the task design, the characteristics of the company, technology, work environment and the individual” (Sauter & Moon, 2005, p. 327). These factors are often out of our control or hard to control. Hence, it’s important to tap out of work before your entire body is strained.
Exercise is also known to reduce stress hormones and release endorphins. Hit the gym to manage your emotions and loosen your muscles. Afternoon walks around your office building for lunch or to pick up a cup of coffee are also highly recommended.
It’s important to acknowledge that stress affects your body in the most immediate and direct manner. From your mental health to your heart health, overall nutrition and physical wellness, stress is like a virus that attacks your body. Only when you are made aware of how your body reacts to stress can you then tackle and manage it. So, take time to understand your body and the changes it goes through as you take on the day.
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