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Stress and the New Year

It is February, we are now a few weeks on from our well-intended New Year’s resolutions - but how many of them are here to stay? We tend to start the year by setting out a vision of our life past the first day of January that is healthier, more productive, more mindful and generally more wholesome: making more of life than before, doing more, working harder, getting closer to achieving our goals. We pledge to get fit, eat better, give up bad habits and improve our lives one way or another.

Our intentions are good, but usually our resolutions are formed from a perspective that focuses on the negative aspects of ourselves. We start the year by systematically criticising elements of our lives, resolving to make them work better for us. From the start, this brings a sense of unease and resistance into the equation.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to do better, but we are so used to this combative approach to improvement (“I’ll go to the gym five times a week”; “I’m going to lose weight”, “I’m going to have a dry January” etc.) that we end up going to war with ourselves. And, as it has been said many times during my Strala training, when you go to battle with yourself, you will only ever stand to lose.

Our resolve to do things in a certain new way will likely end up being an added pressure to our already very busy lives and more likely than not, we will let it slide, feeling bad about not ‘sticking with it.’ This kind of forceful approach is not going to do a whole lot of good, especially if we aim to get healthier.

We have such busy lives, with so many stresses, we can’t be blamed for having an aggressive way of trying to establish better self-care. But trying to negate the effects of stress by creating a new source of stress isn’t effective.

Stress permeates our lives. It is an unavoidable part of how we live, and we cope with huge amounts of it every day. We all know what stress feels like. In a way, we all need a bit of stress – an optimum level of stress, or eustress, will make us motivated and engaged. Without this, we may become lethargic and inactive. However, excessive amounts of stress, distress, can lead to fatigue, exhaustion, and eventually, burnout. Although luckily, not all of us will have succumbed to chronic stress, the majority of us will experience stress overload from time to time. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of symptoms and signs of acute stress, most of which are easy to recognise – if we manage to remove ourselves from our all-consuming stress for long enough to notice!

Our bodies are good at telling us when there’s trouble: our eating habits and sleeping patterns change, we tense up, or lack clarity of thought; we may become tearful, angry or easily irritated. We may get headaches, stomach aches, digestive problems and all too often backaches are a sure warning sign of too much stress. We only breathe superficially under stress and we may also experience irregular heartbeats.

Stress is our bodies’ response to our environment. If we perceive danger, our body initiates the ‘fight or flight’ response in the sympathetic nervous system. The parts of our bodies that aren’t essential to fight or flight, will be functioning in emergency mode. When we live with acute stress, we are perpetually stuck in this mode; often we are not able to differentiate between imagined and real stresses. Tension is compounded to the point where every little thing becomes a huge source of stress.

The good news is that there are ways to reverse the effects of stress on our bodies. The same way the stress response kicks in, the relaxation response can also be triggered. There are ways in which we can consciously reverse the stress response: on a physical level, regular exercise can help alleviate pent up energy. Getting some perspective on our situation can also help – creating space to explore our emotions, rather than suppress them, can shift our view and give us more choice. Most importantly, we can initiate the relaxation response through yoga, meditation, massage and other therapies.

Through yoga, we learn to connect with our bodies, by building our awareness and fine-tuning our senses to noticing how we are. Guided relaxation and meditation help to focus and clear our minds and relax our bodies. The physical aspect of yoga, practicing the postures, takes our attention away from our thinking minds and into our bodies. Yoga helps us create a physical and mental safe space where we are encouraged to go deep within ourselves, and reconnect. It also helps us set positive, nurturing intentions and develop an appreciation of our abilities. We learn that it is safe for us to let go of everything else and spend time just being kind to ourselves.

But without a doubt, our most powerful tool to enable to relaxation response is our breath. The breath that is available to us all, that we use every moment of every day – it has the power to change everything.

By connecting to our natural breath, tuning into how our breathing affects our bodies’ processes, we tap into ways to consciously alter our state of being. Using our breath, we have the power to lower our heart rate, restore the body’s natural chemical balances, and bring about a sense of relaxation, calmness and clarity.

When we relax our breath, we relax our entire body. We achieve this by softening, slowing down and yielding.

When we take this knowledge and apply it in other areas of our lives, we learn to get more done with less effort, and with less stress. When we work together with our true selves, we are more likely to get to where we want to be. By being in harmony with ourselves, we establish a positive, kind connection between the body and mind.

When we set our intentions in a positive way (maybe by saying “I want to look after myself more by having better physical health” or “I want to eat nourishing foods so my body can be at its best”, rather than using negative statements), they are more likely to fit into our lives more harmoniously, and ultimately, become our reality.

This year, when setting out to make a positive change, instead of adding more stress into our lives, let’s try a softer and more natural approach: being kind to ourselves.

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