What is stress?


It's your body and mind's preparation to deal with the threat of pain. The pain could be physical, mental or emotional. You could see it, feel it, or intuit it. Regardless, when you sense it coming, your body and brain are hard-wired to lessen its impact. You've heard of "fight or flight"? Those are the options, and whether you know it or not, your body and mind are rapidly working out the details of both, and trying to decide which one you're going with. The funny thing is that our instinctive preparation for pain, over the long haul, can actually become a cause of pain. Constant anxiety and physical tension compromise the immune system, making us more prone to disease and weakness. There's a limited number of things we can do to reduce actual causes of stress. It's a part of being alive. But the possibilities for how to improve our responses to stress are many, and most of them interesting. If handled the right way, stress can become a way for our bodies and minds to grow stronger and more resilient. Below are some proven options for managing stress.



Acupuncture works mostly with the body's response to stress, retraining the neurological pathways that physical and emotional stressors aren't really such a big deal. Traditional Chinese medicine explains the body's health as a flow of energy along specific physical channels. When energy is blocked at any point along the channel, there is pain and discomfort. If left untreated, the blocked energy builds up and manifests as disease. Acupuncture at the blocked points restores the flow of energy, letting the body heal itself by regaining its normal rhythm. From the standpoint of Western medicine, acupuncture is shown to activate the brain's opioids--feel-good chemicals that make pain less painful and provide an overall sense of well-being. Essentially, acupuncture trains the body to self-regulate its response to stress--to stop overreacting to stress with excess cortisol (the "tough-it-out" hormone), and to rise to the occasion with boosted cortisol and norepinephrine during times of exhaustion. With consistent treatments, acupuncture teaches the body to deal instinctively and efficiently with stress.



Meditation works very similarly to acupuncture, except that it has more to do with training the conscious responses of the brain, instead of the unconscious and physical responses. At its essence, meditation is focusing the conscious mind into stillness and concentration, regardless of environment. It's an adaptive behavior that takes practice, and pays off a little more every day. The mind's natural response to stress is to rush ahead of itself, trying to anticipate the worst possible outcome and prepare for it. Meditation trains the mind to focus on one thing, to exist fully and exclusively in the present moment. This is a skill that proves immensely valuable in times of real emergency. It enables a person to choose a solution and focus on carrying it out. People go about meditation in any number of ways. Some practice chanting a mantra, distracting the mind from the thousand other harmful thoughts. Some read a sentence from a religious writing over and over, imprinting its truth on their mind as being important than their anxiety. Some focus on a sound or on taking deep breaths, letting anxious thoughts flit out of the mind as soon as they appear. Each time you practice meditation, you reinforce the idea that "everything is going to be all right." Eventually, your mind catches on, and responds with peaceful self-assurance, no matter what the situation.



We all know the general rule of thumb--aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, 3-5 times per week. It works out to about three TV shows' worth of time a week--not a big commitment. So why do we find it so hard to do? The biggest mistake we make about exercise is thinking of it as a duty. Any form of movement that gets your heart pumping is exercising. Do you like window-shopping? Do you like ice skating? Do you like dancing to sexy music? Then you have a form of exercise that you like. Even if the real heart-pounder you enjoy involves sitting still in the move theater, there's a way to make it happen. Load your iPod with stand-up comedy recordings or audio books, and set aside a half hour each day to listen while you take a walk through your neighborhood. Or put on some inspiring music and go exploring your city. Approached this way, exercise is addictive. The association between a pleasurable activity and the endorphins naturally released by physical exertion is too powerful to be denied. You'll soon find yourself spending "too much" time on exercise--just wait and see.

"studies have shown that the risk of breast cancer is reduced by 30% in women who who exercise for about an hour 4 times a week."
Christiane Northrup