• Dr. Patty Hlava

Coping with Mental & Physical Stress: Part One

Since the beginning of 2020, we have seen:

  • A global pandemic

  • Bushfires ravage Australia

  • Devastating plane and helicopter crashes

  • The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Abrey

  • Global protests

This in addition to politcal choas, witnessing the suffering of others, plagues of locusts, and even murder hornets. 

It’s easy to become overwhelmed in a world when everything is changing moment to moment.

It’s easy to feel lost and powerless in the face of great social change.

Our nervous systems are being overloaded with a lot of information. The rules are changing every day, and little feels predictable. This is the essence of stress. 

How Does Stress Affect Us?  

We’re all experiencing some degree of stress on any given day. This could be running late for an appointment, a disagreement with someone you care about, financial pressure, illness, or facing a lengthy to-do list. Add to these daily stressors a global pandemic and the awakening of a global social justice movement, and we’re finding ourselves experiencing a new degree of stress on all levels of being: physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. 

What is stress, exactly? From a psychological perspective, stress is the feeling of emotional pressure or tension. Stress, in small amounts can be helpful and serve as a motivator; however, when stress is persistent and continual, it can result in depression, anxiety, panic, and host of physical symptoms. 

Emotions and physical symptoms are messengers. They are how the body communicates with us letting us know that something is out of alignment, or falling out of balance. Some of the common messengers associated with stress are:

  • Change in appetite (craving sweets is common)

  • Change in sleep 

  • Back pain

  • Headaches

  • Muscle tension and body stiffness

  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Irritability

These make sense, when we think about what’s happening when we experience stress. Stress is, inherently, tension. It’s a feeling of pressure coming in and bearing down on us; it’s holding on tightly to wanting something to be different than it is. When we hold this kind of tension for a moment and let it go, we can restore equilibrium in our body fairly quickly. When we’re holding that kind of tension for days, weeks, months, years, or lifetimes--it’s going to have an effect. Chronic tension in our body results in a contraction of our muscles, all the way down into our organs. We don’t digest our food as well when our digestive muscles are chronically tensed. This chronic tension and digestive distress can initiate a domino effect in our physiology:

  • Poor digestion results in poor absorption of nutrients

  • Poor absorption of nutrients results in unstable energy

  • Unstable energy results in poor sleep

  • Poor sleep results in poor focus & concentration

  • Poor focus & concentration contributes to more muscle tension

  • Muscle tensions contributes to backaches, headaches, and body stiffness

  • Poor sleep and physical discomfort contribute to irritability

  • All of the above contribute feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, and depression

This does not include the effects of chronic stress on blood sugar levels and the heart, which is also held in tension, elevating blood pressure, and the myriad other effects of chronic stress in the body. Chronic stress is a serious thing. 

The Key to Respond to Stress is Hidden in How You Feel 

Sometimes it's difficult to know when we need to take action to reduce the experience of stress in the body. We can become acclimated to it and assume that the state of tension that we carry is just how we feel. We tune out and away from the body. 

Knowing the signals your body gives you is key to managing stress.

When stress is high it's vital our well-being to take cues from the body. 

How do you take cues from your body?

Sometimes it's difficult to know when we need to take action to reduce the experience of stress in the body. When stress is high it can be helpful to start with these essential questions:

  1. How rested do I feel when I wake up in the morning?

  2. Am I overeating or skipping meals?

  3. How nourished do I feel after my meals?  

  4. How often am I seeking distraction (checking my phone, scrolling social media, mindless snacking, etc.)

  5. How connected do I feel with my relationships? 

Reflecting on these questions can be tricky, especially when we’re not used to bringing that much awareness to these subtle experiences. 

Here is a simple practice that can help:

  • Pause and check in with your breath. 

  • How are you breathing?

  • Is your breath shallow? Slow? Rapid?

  • Scan your body and check in with your musculature.

  • What is your posture? Slumped? Tense?

  • What’s happening with your tongue? Is it pressed against the roof of your mouth? Is it relaxed?

  • How is your jaw? Is it clenched?

  • Then, invite the simple guidance of Ayurveda: invite the opposite to restore balance. 

  • If your breath is shallow, invite some deep belly breaths.

  • If your jaw is clenched, give it a little love and soften it. 

  • If your posture is tense, invite in some good stretches.

When in doubt—go to your body. Notice what’s happening and invite in some balance. From there, you can explore with greater clarity what messages the emotions are sending you, and respond from a place that feels less reactive and more aligned. 

Part Two of this blog will explore coping with the difficult emotions that we experience alongside stress. 

Until then, be gentle with yourself. 

Learn more about how to deepen your self-care practices here.

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