Wellness (Stress)

Stress is part of everyday life and can (and does) vary substantially from person to person and from day to day.

Here's a VERY helpful article on Stress found at the National Institute of Mental Health.

As that article indicates, not ALL stress is unhealthy. However, high school and college are times where many students experience unhealthy levels of stress, often for the first time.

Oddly enough, (except for a small unit in our health classes, maybe?) we aren't really ever taught how to deal with stress.

If you're like me, you just assume that you deal with it, it's not a big deal. Afterall, some folks deal with stress fine, some folks don't....whatever.

Uhhhh....well.... No!

The following are established, common ways that mental health professionals often suggest that people use to learn to deal with stress. It may be obvious but please keep in mind that these are skills to learn.

Some might work, some might not, but the goal of each is to help your brain learn new techniques for dealing with stress. None of these are a cure-all or a panacea, they are simply tools.

Just as in physical training, they take practice and repetition.

Scientific American (as usual) has a very interesting article on dangers of stress here

DEALING WITH STRESS

Before you read on, please read THIS about relaxation techniques found at the NIMH.

♦ Mindfullness Meditation is kind of the range these days, but it is hardly new. After all, the Buddhist tradition dates back two thousand years and meditation has been an important aspect of that faith and many others for many, many years.

It is not, however, a cure all... it is simply a tool and it works well for some folks, not as well for others.

Many of us deal with stress, especially significant stress, by trying to think our way through it. For some of us, that 'thinking' process can lead to what psychologists call 'rumination'.

That is to say that we process stress by stressing about the stress.... over and over and over (rumination is also used to describe how cows and goats eat... they chew and chew and chew and chew.... they ruminate, with is why they are called ruminants). The more intense the stress, the more we tend to ruminate.

Mindfullness meditation is an exercise where we simply work to be aware of what's going on outside of our mind.... The goal is to be AWARE of sights, sounds, smells and other such sensations around us.

By doing that, we interrupt the rumination, the cyclic worrying of our brain as it tries to deal with a stressful topic.

It's important to note here that we are NOT ignoring the stress or burying it inside our brain somewhere else. We are simply choosing to concentrate on something else for a short (10 minutes or so) period of time to help interrupt the ruminating cycles.

The VERY COOL part of mindfulness (at least I think so), is the physical changes that can take place inside our brain as we meditate.

I'll share an amazing article from Scientific American that shows how UCLA scientists use MRI devices to measure the size of (I think?) the hippocampus which is part of our brain associated with emotional regulation/control. Those UCLA scientists found that that part of the brain was measurably larger in folks who meditated 10 minutes per day.

♦ VISUALIZATION:

Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you are daydreaming your brain drifts off to a pleasant memory or thoughts of a comforting place?

Visualization is a method for dealing with stress that works much the same way. By finding a quiet place to sit or lie down, we can close our eyes and begin constructing our own 'pleasant place'.

Many athletes use visualization to both prepare for a competition (by visualizing their performance over and over and over before they actually compete) and as a way to relax between competitions.

I remember reading about a young archery competitor who was world class at a very young age. Unfortunately she sometimes greatly under-performed due to stress over her competition.

Her sports psychologist suggested visualization.

In that situation, the athlete started out by visualizing a room where she felt very comfortable. The interesting thing was that that particularly room didn't actually exist. She created it from scratch by herself, in her mind, in her visualization.

She practiced 'going to her room' most days of the week for 15 minutes or so. Each time she went to the room she 'added' another object, or texture, or sight, or sound or something new to add to the sensation of being in the room.

Once again, the important aspect here is not ignore stressful thoughts, not push them away, but more to set them aside for a short time.

I do this myself from time to time. So far I've created a small room in a small house on a bijou in Louisiana (I've never been there so I've made it all up from scratch).

I've also 'created' an upstairs room in a small house overlooking the San Juan Islands. The interesting part (for me) is that I also created a path to get to that house that goes through a forest very much like I used to hike through when I was a kid in Hawaii.

EXERCISE:

A potent way to deal with stress is to exercise.

There is a fairly massive amount of research that shows that sustained physical exertion releases chemicals in our brain that act to reduce, and sometimes (temporarily) to eliminate stressful thoughts and feelings.

We need to be careful here in that some people who are experiencing a great deal of stress try to deal with that by doing very intense physical exercise.... obviously care needs to be taken in setting up any sort of exercise program.

Personally, I have had more than one friend who has physically injured him/herself by overdoing their exercise regimen to deal with stress, depression or other mental health concerns. Needless to say, a certain amount of balance is called for.

You may find it interesting to know that mega-star Bruce Springsteen suffers from extreme and sometimes debilitating depression (He speaks quite openly about it in his autobiography which I found to be rather inspiring). One way he deals with that is by exercise, sometimes quite lengthy exercise, which is impressive considering he is almost 70.

The hardest part of exercising isn't actually working out. The hardest part (by far) is getting off the coach, getting out of bed.

I was a coach at an adult swimming program at the Seattle Club for almost 20 years. I told my morning swimmers that if they got out of bed, they were 99% of the way to getting their workout done!

GUIDED VISUALIZATION:

Many of us find it helpful to listen to someone 'guiding' us through our meditation/visualizations. This can be particularly helpful when you are just getting started, or if you find it easier to relax by listening.

Here is a link to a series of guided meditations found on the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) website at UCLA

A page devoted to guided meditations is found here and is presented by folks at the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing

LISTENING TO MUSIC:
READING A BOOK:
TALKING TO SOMEONE WHO CAN ACTUALLY HELP YOU:
WHAT DOESN'T WORK

PLAYING VIDEO GAMES

.... can be a wonderful way to sort of 'check out' for a while.

Have you ever noticed when you are *totally* absorbed in a video game that you aren't really thinking so much as just reacting?

That's because (And I'll need verification on this) the part of your brain that deals with the 'fight or flight' response (sometimes called the reptilian part of our brain) is fully engaged, at the expense of your rational, thinking, engaged, mindful part of your brain which are subsided.

On first thought, that might sound like a great way to relax...

Here's a VERY interesting article in Psychology Today that talks about the physical and chemical changes that take place during prolonged video game playing (HINT: It ain't relaxing)

WATCHING TV

DRUGS (not prescribed by your doctor) & ALCOHOL

IGNORING STRESS