"Most illness is just stress from not living in harmony."- Bruce H. Lipton
“Stress” is one of those words we hear thrown around on a daily basis. On one end of the stress spectrum, we have daily annoyances that cause our blood pressure to rise slightly like a traffic jam, the latest news headlines, or a particularly busy and cumbersome day at the office. On the other end of the spectrum sits the unexpected stress life sometimes offers up including the loss of a loved one, being fired from a decades-long position, or a frightening medical diagnosis. Regardless of which kind of “stress” you’re under, I think it’s safe to say that no one likes to stay stressed too long!
Today I want to shine a spotlight on stress in general and then share some ways of how you can manage it without the help of alcohol or drugs. Why? Because April is Stress Awareness Month, which is an annual health promotion that helps increase public awareness surrounding the causes of and the anecdotes for stress.
So... I figured April was the perfect month to bring your attention to the negative impact stress has on your health, reveal the correlation between stress and alcohol, and show you how to manage stress without “self-medicating.”
What is stress and how is it harmful?
Stress can stem from many different situations from daily traffic to physical injury or exposure to an abusive relationship. On a physical level, stress challenges the body's normal function balance, also known as homeostasis. The body tries to maintain a certain level of functioning, so it adapts to stress by mobilizing various physiological and behavioral changes through the endocrine (i.e., the release of hormones) and nervous (increased neuronal activity and neurotransmitter release in specific areas like the amygdala) systems to maintain homeostasis.
To be clear, not all stress is bad. In many ways, stress can be good for us. It helps us stay alert and motivated, which is great for stress-inducing situations like sitting for an exam or having a job interview (although in both, too much stress can be debilitating). However, stress is mostly a physical response where the body switches to "flight or fight" mode. We release various hormones and chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to help the body prepare to act. This causes the blood to be diverted to the muscles and can shut down other bodily functions such as digestion. It’s also known as the caveman rush because historically, this is the response that propelled us to either flee danger (flight) or step up and fight.
These days, the flight or fight mode still serves us well as it helps us make snap decisions with little thought, such as jumping out of the way of a car that hasn’t seen a pedestrian crossing.
The problem occurs when our body begins to respond to stress by putting us into fight/flight mode in situations where it shouldn’t. This can affect our concentration and focus, our energy levels, and our mood and health. When we feel stress over long periods of time, called chronic stress, it can be detrimental to our health. Longstanding high cortisol levels can lead to increased blood pressure and other health conditions.
Anyone ever experience chronic stress like this?
Of course! It's one of the sad realities of many modern lives with never-ending streams of information, requirements, and demands.
In these cases, stress can be more harmful to the body than smoking!
Because the effects of stress are not immediate, but cumulative, continuously high levels of stress can lead to many different serious health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. Bruce Lipton talks about the fact that when the body is in stress mode (fight or flight) it shuts down the cells' ability to grow and divide, as the body’s energy resources are hindered in an attempt to provide it protection. While we can cope with brief periods of stress, chronic stress drains the body’s energy and interferes with the underlying processes that keep dysfunction and disease at bay.
This is why it is important to address stress and employ the various tools you can use to manage it. And that's the basis of Stress Awareness Month.
Not sure if you are stressed? Take this test.
Stress and Alcohol
You may not realize it but you're likely reaching for a drink when you feel stressed, after a long day, when going through an emotional time or when entering a stressful networking situation. Stress is known to contribute to alcohol dependence. If you have one of these professions you might tend to abuse more due to increased levels of stress: construction, arts and entertainment, mining, hospitality, or trades.
Some people think their work, family, or lifestyle is causing them stress, and that if only they could create some change in those aspects of life then they would be fine. Unfortunately, this is at best only part of the overall picture.
Because it is often the belief, or perception, that something out there is causing the stress response internally (on a side note — if there’s a bear chasing you, please give in to the stress and run as fast as possible!). Although changing the external circumstances certainly may help, invariably, no matter what you do, it is a change within your belief system and perception of yourself that will make the biggest difference. It is more our perception of the circumstances as being overwhelming; and our perception of our ability to cope, as when you feel stretched beyond what you perceive yourself to be capable of.
There are a few factors at play there — the circumstance or event that is taking place, our perception of the amount of effort it might take to address that challenge, our perception of the capacity we have to deal with stress and effort and the combined estimate of the likely end-result of our efforts.
Although we may not have control over our environment or the stressors we face, we do have control over how we react to them.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor E. Frankl
Here are 10 things you can do to manage stress (besides reaching for the bottle)
Meditation - Meditation involves deliberately focusing your attention inwards either with or without specific guidance or the use of a mantra. It can give you a sense of calm and can help you gain a new perspective on a stressful situation.
Breathwork - Focusing on your breath and utilizing deep breathing techniques can help ease the elevated physiological changes you experience when stressed. When your body is calm, then you are more focused and able to think clearly. Different techniques can be used in different situations, but even the simplest 5-breath focus effort can yield incredible results.
Mindfulness - This ties into the two techniques above, but I particularly like the 5...4...3...2...1 mindfulness technique which grounds you in the here and now by activating all of your senses. Here’s how: focus on 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. Try it! This is just one version of mindfulness, which is thought of as paying attention to something, for a given period of time while removing as much judgment or expectation from the equation.
Positive affirmations - Repeat a mantra or positive affirmation outside of meditation practice such as “I am safe” or “I am worthy” to help shift your perception and belief patterns by reinforcing your strengths. For stress relief, try saying “My mind is at ease and I am capable of doing whatever is needed,” and “With every breath, I am more relaxed and flowing through my day with ease.”
Physical activity - You don’t have to train for a marathon, but moving your body and light exercise is great for stress. It eases muscle tension and induces positive feelings. Try to go for a walk, run or stretch daily. Different forms of exercise provide different responses for different people, although Yoga has been shown to increase GABA activity and therefore help in calming anxiety. And the effects of exercise are cumulative, meaning they build up over time! I personally couldn't imagine life without this stress relief form.
Music - Many people have their go-to songs for stress relief and zoning out. But this song is scientifically proven to lessen anxiety levels in just eight minutes. You may also find it relaxing to listen to melodic sounds such as the rainforest, birdcalls, and falling rain. Music is recommended to be implemented for a minimum of 20 minutes per day, no matter what your musical interest. This is one of my go-to's!
Gratitude journal - Taking a few minutes a day to think about the things in your life you are grateful for can change your perspective on life for the better. I personally use the 5-Minute Journal every morning to help me prepare for the day, especially because it helps bias my thinking towards gratitude (instead of resentments and anxiety).
Altruism - See what you can do to help someone else. Research has shown that altruism improves mood and takes the focus off our own struggles. Participants in our IGNTD Hero program often report that, when they increase their contribution towards others, their own mood improves!
Sleep - When we have a good night’s sleep our capacity to cope with stress is far better than when we’ve slept poorly. Incorporate good sleep hygiene habits into your evening routine for example noise reduction, going to bed and waking at the same time daily, avoiding caffeine, nicotine, alcohol at night, and daytime napping.
Support from others - If you feel overwhelmed by stress and you’re self-medicating with alcohol and it’s affecting your everyday life, then reach out for help and get support to make healthier life choices. We live in a world that still judges those who need help to deal with their mental well-being, which is sad given just how much help we're OK receiving in other areas (like sports training, academics, etc.).
Would you add any others to the list? Share in the comments below!
Are you or someone you know reaching for the bottle during times of duress? Join the IGNTD recovery tribe and find ways to manage stress without turning to alcohol.