I personally believe that a certain amount of stress is good as it keeps me motivated to do my best when doing something. However, too much stress in combination with a wrong attitude and understanding in its regards can be devastating and can literally transform a life experience into misery.
So what is this stress that can have such a negative impact on someone’s life?
Back in the 1950s Dr Hans Selye whilst studying animal responses he defined stress as “the nonspecific response of the organism to any pressure or demand”
In other words, stress is our response to stressors (pressures and demands). Work can be a stressor, relationships can be stressors and ruminating on negative thoughts can be a stressor too. So stressors are all around us and within us too. Failing to adapt to stressful situations, as we are going to see, will have a negative impact on our immune system which consequently will lead to more vulnerability to diseases.
So how stress can lead to the deterioration of our health and to illnesses?
A typical stress reaction takes place in 3 stages. The initial stage is known as the fight or flight reaction. The body gets ready for immediate action by diverting all energy to the muscles and organs needed for survival. As a consequence of this circumstance, some of the other systems in our body just shut down. For example the digestive, the reproductive and the urinary system will become impaired. A reaction of this kind would be appropriate when confronted by a life or death situation only. However, it seems that people have become accustomed to this type of reaction even for more minor occurrences. The second stage is called slower resistance reaction. During this stage, the body naturally starts producing cortisol and other hormones to help the body itself to repair damaged cells after having been through a stressful situation. In other words, the body starts to recover and attempts to regain the ideal balance again. However, if the body doesn’t get to a place of complete recuperation and rest, it continues the production of cortisol and of the other hormones. This will lead us to enter the 3rd stage which is called exhaustion. It is called exhaustion because a prolonged exposure to cortisol and to the other hormones will ignite a deteriorating process in our body which will eventually lead to debilitation and burnout. What happens, in other words, is that the continuous production of stress hormones will eventually start destroying our healthy muscles, our healthy bones and our healthy cells. In addition to this, the immune system will lessen its protection on the body and the digestive and the endocrine system which, basically influences almost every cell, organ, and function of our bodies, will also negatively be affected.
What we can start thinking of is how to change the way we react to stressors. It goes without saying that how we perceive and deal with a stressor will determine the level of stress created. We want to start working on how to stress-proof ourselves.
“You have the power to affect the balance point between your internal resources for copying with stress and the stressors that are an unavoidable part of modern living”
Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book “Full Catastrophe Living”
We have in place a few resources which help us to cope with stressful events. These can be friends and family who might function as our relief valves or we can concentrate on other resources such as our beliefs or the improvement of mental skills. These last ones involve the practise of meditation and mindfulness. The 8 week course Meditation and Mindfulness for Wellbeing, among other benefits for wellbeing, is a great way to explore how to develop this inner resources which will eventually help to deal and cope better with stress.
How Meditation and Mindfulness can help to overcome stress?
First of all, meditation can become an oasis of peace where one can retreat to recover from a period of stress. In this oasis, one can regenerate and regain the energies which have been lost during a difficult and stressful time. Secondly, meditation and mindfulness will change the way one perceives stress, stressors and oneself within a stressful situation. This latter point is the key element as one will make a radical shift from reactivity to response. One will become a much more gentle and less impulsive person just by starting acting from the space which, little by little, the practise of meditation and mindfulness has created within.
“The healthy alternative to being caught in this self-destructive pattern is to stop reacting to stress and to start responding to it”
A response can only come from a space of clarity and that space of clarity can come from the practise of meditation and mindfulness.