Do you find yourself going through life on auto-pilot mode, mechanically checking off your to-do list only to start all over again the next day? Or are you constantly stressed out, frantically trying to manage everyday struggles, worrying about the future and ruminating over the past while life passes you by? If your answer is ‘yes’, you are not alone. Join the millions that feel the same way. We, as a culture, have grown to accept stress as a part of everyday living. Some of us may be good at recognizing stress and the havoc it wreaks on our mind and body if it is not properly managed but, from what research shows, the majority of us seem to be oblivious to its negative impact. In order to combat and mitigate these negative impacts we need to first stop living in an auto-pilot mode – a mode in which we live mechanically, paying little or no attention to what is happening around and within us. We let old patterns of thinking and behavior take control while we sit in the back seat helplessly, often reacting to situations based on a perception that is habitual. Breaking from this mode involves us getting behind the wheels, enjoying the view as we drive, being aware of our responses to things we encounter along the way and understanding that we always have a choice on how we respond. This six-part series on stress and mindfulness is an attempt to help you get started on this process. We will try to understand stress; the impact stress has on our mind and body; mindfulness exercises that can help manage and reduce stress; ways to enhance our potential to be happy and to fully live in every moment of this beautiful journey we call life.
Part One: Stress and the body
Imagine for a few moments that you are lying down in bed after having spent a relaxing day at the beach or spa. Or you simply had one of those lazy, uneventful, and restful days. Your body and mind are relaxed and you are just about to slip into that peaceful state of slumber, when all of a sudden you hear your kitchen window breaking. Within a fraction of a second, your pupils dilate, your muscles tense, your mouth goes dry, your hands start to sweat, and your body starts to shake. Before you are even aware of it, your body is no longer in the relaxed state it was just a few seconds ago. This is because the body goes through tremendous turmoil when it experiences a stressful situation. Stress causes secretion of certain hormones (cortisol, adrenaline etc) and inhibition of others; our heart rate increases, blood pressure and breathing rate go up. Our body goes through all these changes within a few seconds of encountering a stressful situation, in an effort to provide nutrients, glucose and oxygen at a greater speed to those muscles that need it most. Long term bodily functions such as digestion, immunity, reproduction, and growth are inhibited. Since these functions require a lot of energy, the body slows them down in an effort to use this energy to mobilize the muscles and tissues needed to fight or flee the stressful situation. This stress response of the body helps us stay alive when our survival is threatened and it acts as a protective response of the body to keep us safe in an emergency. But when our body starts to respond to life’s everyday hurdles (being late to work, sitting in traffic, having an argument with a loved one, being worried about a future catastrophe) as if they were an emergency, stress can become chronic and that is bad news for our physical and psychological well-being. If the immune system is continuously suppressed for long periods of time we are likely to fall sick more often and our ability to fight off infectious diseases is negatively impacted. If our blood pressure is always high we are at risk for cardiovascular diseases. Our reproductive and sexual capacities are negatively impacted by chronic stress as well. More and more recent research shows that chronic stress is becoming an unpleasant fact of life and a huge health crisis in the US.
We now have a basic idea on how stress impacts our physical functioning. Stay tuned for next week’s blog on stress and its impact on the mind and our psychological well-being.