Archana Law writes about fighting the downward spiral of pressure

Life is a balancing act of continuous ‘go and do’ until the body gradually rebels with musculoskeletal pain, an elevated heart rate and splitting headaches. The mind grows weary and agitated, and breathing becomes shallow and constricted. Many are convinced that ‘this is the way it is’ and do little to change the dysfunctional manner in which we respond to stress!

We’ve turned stress into an enemy over the years. But there’s something revolutionary you may not have tried yet: making stress your friend.

DEFINING STRESS The term ‘stress’ is derived from the Latin ‘stringere’ (to draw tight), and is an excellent frame of reference for what happens to us mentally and physically when we’re in its grasp. The late medical scientist Hans Selye is credited with introducing the concept of stress into medical and popular discussion.

TYPES OF STRESS ‘Eustress’ (a term coined by Selye to mean beneficial stress like excitement and challenge), activity without negative consequences on the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and distress (which is an undesirable state of chronic fatigue, worry, frustration and inability to cope) have destructive consequences on the nervous system especially with extended or repeated exposure.

STRESS MEASURE The barometer for our stress is the sympathetic ANS (SNS) with a fight-or-flight response that’s believed to have evolved from our need to escape large predators. The heart beats quicker, pupils dilate, and blood is drawn away from the stomach and extremities, while stimulating hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. Extreme activation creates harmful symptoms like hypertension, anxiety and ulcers. The parasympathetic SNS brings the body back to its restful state by reducing stress hormones and the heart rate, and redirecting blood to the stomach and extremities.

STRESS TRIGGERS External stress triggers are specific events, circumstances or relationships that include work, social and family life, illness and physical conditions, and myriad tasks and responsibilities we undertake. Internal stress triggers are specific thoughts and feelings that mimic the same (stress) responses in the nervous system. Merely thinking about traffic can easily replicate the bodily symptoms of actually being in traffic.

So here are some tools to help you keep stress at bay.

A QUIET START As an antidote to the frenetic and over-caffeinated early morning rush out of the door, this tool encourages you to set aside a few minutes at the start of the day to consciously frame a dynamically positive, peaceful and creative mindset to meet the challenges ahead.

Rise 10 or 15 minutes ahead of your schedule, sit somewhere quietly and undisturbed with your eyes closed. Then tilt your head toward your heart and follow your breathing. Feel each breath opening your heart and mind wider in appreciation of the gift of another day of life – and the things and people with which you are blessed. Project your intention to have a great day that’s filled with achievements, and committed to facing the ups and downs calmly.

CLEAR BUTTON This tool busts stressful, anxious, angry or depressing thoughts and emotions that can ruin your attitude throughout the day. Imagine a button on the centre of your palm and press it down while you count to three, thinking of each number as a colour. Breathe in, count one and on exhaling think of the colour red; then breathe in, count two and think blue as you exhale; and finally, breathe in and count  to three, exhaling while thinking green.

On the next breath, allow your mind to go completely blank for 10 seconds. Next, refocus on the problem at hand, recommitting yourself to being calm, creative and optimistic, as you face this and other stresses that arise during the day.

This process facilitates shifting amygdala control (the brain’s fear centre of problems) to higher-order brain function in the prefrontal cortex to find solutions.

BE DONE WITH IT American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson advised his stressed daughter to let go of the day’s problems, not take them home and begin tomorrow without encumbrances. Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could, so forget and forgive the blunders and losses. Tomorrow is a new day that’s too precious with hope to waste.

SERENITY PRAYER If problems seem beyond your control, say this prayer: ‘Give me the serenity to accept what I can’t change, the courage to change what I can and the wisdom to know one from the other.’

Nobody in their right mind seeks stress! We can tap into the mental zone that literally silences an overly active stress response system, paving the way for higher brain networks to perform optimally. This results in less stress and helps build a mindset that transcends stress, propelling us towards excellence.