In my last column I discussed how the Fight-or-Flight response was your body’s primitive way to mobilize energy and muscle tension to confront life-threatening stressors. Since most of your modern stressors are not life threatening and you can’t fight or run away from them, your body shifts into a chronic, more complex stress response called Resistance.
During Resistance your body is still tense and mobilizing energy, it just is doing it at a level that is more difficult to notice until it is too late. This is why the effects of low-level, chronic stress (muscle pain, back spasms, migraine headaches, etc.), can creep up on you and seem to appear suddenly.
The best way to ensure that this doesn’t happen is to routinely put your body into a relaxed state that cancels out the stress response. Relaxation strategies such as Diaphragmatic Breathing, Breath Meditation, Visualization, and Autogenic Training lead with your mind to help you relax.
Let me explain…
Leading with your mind involves sitting or lying down for at least 20 minutes and focusing on slowing down your runaway mind to relax your body. I call these techniques passive relaxation strategies because they don’t involve movement and physical activity other than breathing.
Sometimes these mind-based techniques work and you can shut down the fight-or-flight response by leading with your mind. Other times they do not. If you are like me, sometimes when you are really stressed out and all wound up you find it hard to sit or lie still for 20 minutes and just focus on my breathing. You need to move and use more physically-active strategies to break your stress response.
This is where Release techniques work. Release, as a line of defense against stress, leads with the body, not the mind. All Release techniques use physical activity to get rid of the muscle tension and nervous energy associated with the stress response. All forms of physical activity release the effects of stress in three ways; (1) they fully contract and relax your tense muscles, (2) they use the energy mobilized during the stress response in a productive way, and (3) they shift your attention away from your problems and onto something that you enjoy.
Before I describe some different types of Release activities, I want to share with you a story from my college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World. This story is a warning about how you can actually turn a stress-reducing physical activity such as running into a stressor by being too competitive and letting your ego take over. This is a true story I wrote over 25 years ago about me and my old running buddy Ken.
Ken and I
Ken is a fairly competitive guy.
A frustrated high school athlete, Ken at 40 is still competing against everyone, all the time. He’s so competitive, he would rather sacrifice a triple word space in a game of Scrabble than relinquish that tile to anyone.
I used to run with Ken.
To me, running was a fun way to keep in shape. Being outside in all kinds of weather, listening to the sounds, and watching the horizon roll by as we ran along the path was terrific.
Then things changed. Running became a competition. We began to enter local middle-distance races. I thought we were both in it for the t-shirts. Boy was I mistaken. Ken became a maniac. Each run had to have a purpose. We ran for either time or distance, always trying to do “better” than the last time.
I began to focus less on the scenery and more on winning. It was beginning to become work.
I stopped running with Ken after a while. Actually, I stopped running for a while, period. It was no longer fun and had become a source of stress rather than a stress reliever. I feel bad about it now; it’s as if I lost two friends, Ken and my running.
Has anything like this ever happened to you?
Is something you truly enjoy beginning to turn into a source of stress?
What did you do or can you do to prevent that from happening?
(Source: Blonna, R. 2012, Coping with Stress in a Changing World, 5th Ed. NYC, N.Y: McGraw Hill.)
I learned an important lesson from my running experience with my friend. I learned how easy it is to have something that is fun and special turn into something stressful. I no longer run with anyone. I save my running for solitary sessions on the beach at sunrise. I can set my own pace and not have to think about anything. I find that this time alone with the sounds of the waves, wind, and birds really frees my mind and relaxes my body.
In my next column I’ll continue this discussion of Releasing stress using physical activity.
Until then, remember to Stress Less and Live More.