Stress Management and Relaxation for Better Health
by Audrey Demmitt, R.N.
The American Heart Association has found positive psychological characteristics like optimism, mindfulness, and gratitude are associated with more favorable cardiovascular health, while greater psychosocial stress, pessimism, and depression are associated with poorer health. Health practitioners have long recognized this connection between the mind and body, and there is a growing body of evidence that supports mind-body medicine. Interventions to improve mental health and coping skills can have a powerful impact on overall health and well-being. So, how can we take better care of our mental health, learn new coping skills, and manage stress?
Life is stressful and perhaps more so for people living with blindness or low vision. Stress is normal and can result from major negative life events like the death of a loved one or even happy life events like getting married. Certainly, the demands of daily life can also produce stress. It becomes a problem when the amount of stress we experience overwhelms our ability to cope with it.
The stress response is triggered by the brain, causing a cascade of physiologic changes that prepare our body to fight, flee, or freeze in times of danger or perceived threat. When in this hyper-arousal state, our breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate increase. Sustained stress can cause other physical reactions like:
- Panic attacks
- Sleep problems
- Muscle aches and headaches
- Chest pains and high blood pressure
- Digestive problems
In fact, high levels of stress also affect our thinking, emotions, behavior, and relationships. When stressed, we may feel:
- irritable, angry, or impatient
- nervous, anxious, or afraid
- like our thoughts are racing
Examples of ways stress affects our behavior include:
- Grinding teeth, clenching jaw
- Overeating or eating less
- Difficulty with decision-making
- Poor concentration and memory problems
- Increasing smoking, drinking alcohol, or using recreational drugs more than usual
- Loss of motivation to exercise
- Withdrawal from family and friends
What’s more, our brain remembers past stressors and will activate the stress response when triggered by a memory, the environment, our thoughts, or interactions with others. Our mind gets trained to activate the stress response even when it may not be necessary, and it becomes difficult to turn the stress response off.
When stress activation is chronic or sustained over a long time, it produces inflammation, causing wear and tear on the body. This is the pathway to many physical and emotional illnesses. The good news is we can learn to manage stress and counter its damaging impact.
Stress Management 101
There are many proven strategies for stress management, but the foundation is maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Eating a nutritious diet, getting regular physical activity, getting good quality sleep, and staying socially connected are all effective ways to manage stress. Here are other activities that can help you handle stress:
- Talk with a trusted friend about your stress.
- Go for a walk in the sunshine.
- Learn a new hobby or activity.
- Spend time with family and friends and laugh.
- Do pleasurable activities you love each day.
- Ask for help when needed.
- Don’t over-schedule yourself.
- Schedule time to relax and rest.
Activating the Relaxation Response
One proven approach to reducing stress is to learn ways to activate the relaxation response when needed. This physiologic response acts as a “reset” to calm the mind and body. We can train ourselves to activate it as a routine self-care practice. Popular relaxation techniques include:
- Breath awareness
- Progressive relaxation exercises
- Body scanning
- Guided imagery
- Mindfulness practices
- Cultivating gratitude and a positive attitude
Many healthcare practitioners are encouraging their patients to learn these techniques to deal with the problem of stress. Mindfulness and meditation may sound a little “out there” to some people, but they are effective ways to teach you to relax and live in the present moment. You become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations and then learn to ‘let them go” and be less reactive. There are a variety of traditions and religions that have specific ways of teaching mindfulness and meditation. Some practice it as a path to enlightenment and to alleviate suffering. But you do not have to deep dive into these practices to gain the benefits of stress reduction and insight into your own life experiences, unless you want to, of course.
Beginning a Meditation Practice
If you are thinking about trying mindfulness and meditation as a self-care practice, you will find many books, apps, and YouTube videos to help you get started. You may want to begin by evaluating the stressors in your life and becoming aware of the way you experience stress in your body. Think about your goal and why you want to try meditation. Find the resources that resonate with you and just begin. Though there is no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness and meditation, learning some basic techniques will be helpful. Remember, it is a “practice” and the return on your efforts will increase the more you do it. It is suggested to sample the relaxation techniques and find which work best for you. You may want to start with 10 minutes a day and work up to longer sessions. Practicing just a few minutes each day will help you build skills to calm yourself and cope with stressors. Soon, you will establish a daily routine of stress reduction and enjoy its health benefits. This journey is full of rewards and surprises!
Sam Harris, neuroscientist, author, and creator of the Waking Up app, says these practices help you become a better and happier human. This app offers a 30-day free introductory course to help you begin the journey. He teaches the fundamentals, theory, and science of meditation in the curated library of recorded conversations with experts and offers daily guided meditations. While this app is not free, it is a great resource to start a thorough exploration of meditation. His app is free from religious doctrine and suited to beginners and serious seekers alike.
Mindfulness Daily is a free on-line course offered by Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield, two of the most respected and trusted teachers of mindfulness. This 40-day course is designed to help you learn the basics and establish a daily practice. The course includes a daily 10 –15-minute audio recording with a short lesson followed by a practice exercise and includes a transcript. It is a self-paced program and easy to access. It comes highly recommended and is great for beginners.
You can find many apps that offer unlimited mindfulness and meditation-guided practices. Insight Timer is free and accessible for people who are blind or low vision. It offers an introductory course and an eclectic collection of meditation themes, music, and sleep meditations. Explore other apps like Headspace, Calm, Breathe: Relax and Focus (available in Apple App Store and Google Play Store), Balance: Meditation and Sleep, Meditation and Relaxation: Guide.
There are YouTube videos that present breathing, body scans, guided imagery, meditations, yoga and other relaxation techniques.