Surfing the waves of life

By Louise Evans

When I write an article for publication, what usually happens is that I pick a topic, research around that topic and use my own knowledge, training and the research material to come up with a final piece. This month was no exception.  However, researching stress was a daunting task as when I tapped the word “stress” into Google it came up with 576,000,000 hits.  Even Ga Ga only comes up with 356,000,000!  That’s not bad going seeing as the word wasn’t much used before the 1920’s.  And it seems to be that whoever you speak with and wherever you look stress is playing a big part in our daily lives, affecting our mental and physical health and impacting on our enjoyment of life.

In physics the term is used to describe “an applied force or system of forces that tends to strain or deform a body.”  This term sums emotional stress up pretty well too, I think.  The “forces” of emotional stress come from anywhere, work, illness, family, environment perhaps even an event such as Christmas. Where ever the pressure comes from the result, as the physics term describes it, tends to put strain on the body. 

Personally, this has been a tough year with family illness, bereavement and work load and when I was “in the thick of it” so to speak it was difficult to take time out to calm down and try to relax, sometimes there could be nothing further from my mind.  The fact is that there is a reason why we have this reaction and that is to keep us alert and keep us going at a time when it’s needed.  But, the stress reaction is a short term fix, the real problem occurs when we are constantly in this state and it becomes almost normality. This is when chronic conditions can occur.

The effects of this disruptive condition can affect our physical and mental health causing increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, irritability, depression and heart complaints. In clinic, I see the effects of chronic stress manifest in many different ways from tension headaches to conditions such as chronic pain syndrome and fibromyalgia.  The posture can also become affected causing low back pain and neck and shoulder discomfort, muscular tension to name just a few but that list could go on and on.  I’m quite sure, judging from the vast number of Google results that the majority of us are aware of the effects.  But do we know how to ease the feeling of pressure? 

I came across a quote some time back which when I think about stress seems to help.  “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf”.  The water’s waves are churned up by winds, which come and go and vary in direction and intensity, just as do the winds of stress and change in our lives, stirring up the waves in our mind.  Sometimes we can’t stop the pressures that we endure but we can learn how to work with them.

Without listing lots of different techniques of stress reduction, I would like to share with you a couple that I know work really well, from personal and clinical experience.

  • Firstly exercise. If you are able to get outdoors and exercise this has a wonderful effect on the body and mind.  Releasing endorphins (the brains feel-good neurotransmitters), physical activity can get you in the right state of mind to be able to identify the causes of your stressand find a solution.  To deal with stress effectively, you need to feel robust and you need to feel strong mentally. Exercise can help achieve this.

It won’t make your stress disappear, but it will reduce some of the emotional intensity that you’re feeling, clearing your thoughts and enabling you to deal with your problems more calmly.  And if you can be outdoors all the better as studies have shown getting outside into green space reduces stress levels even further.

  • Secondly mindful meditation.   Recent research has shown that mindfulness meditation can lead to structural brain changes including increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Mindfulness and breathing exercises can also be effective in relieving pain and I now commonly use them as part of a treatment programme for chronic pain conditions.  
  • The relaxed breathing technique

This technique is very useful for reducing muscle tension and gaining control over the pain. There is no limit to how often you can use this technique. It does take some time to practice and become skilled at this exercise so at least once per day to start with.

  • Lie or sit comfortably in a warm and relaxed environment
  •  Close your eyes if you wish or you can gaze ahead
  •  Place your hands on your lower ribcage and take a breath in and out, allowing your ribcage to rise and fall with each movement. The breath should be gradual and controlled.
  •  As you breathe out allow the shoulders and neck to relax back and down
  •  Continue with this for roughly 10 – 20 minutes.

As I said previously there are many techniques that you can learn to help you “ride the waves” I have only mentioned a couple here.  But for reference here are some fantastic websites which offer a great deal more information than I can offer in this article; www.actionforhappiness.org  www.thecalmzone.net and www.mind.org.uk

I wish you a calm and peaceful holiday

Much Love

Louise

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