Designing your stress reduction plan

August 05, 2023

The Basics: Why stress reduction is important

Chronic stress is a major underlying condition that contributes to many chronic diseases. It’s a common risk factor for 75-90 percent of chronic diseases, including illnesses that result in morbidity and mortality. Stress affects our health because of the way it overdrives our sympathetic nervous systems. There are direct nerve connections between our brains and every organ in our bodies. The brain secretes hormones when we’re stressed that travel through the blood and affect all our organs and every cell in our bodies.

Because of these stress hormones and overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, we can significantly increase our risk for chronic diseases like cancer, dementia, obesity, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis, just to name just a few.

The mechanism of action for these chronic conditions - resulting from stress - include chronic inflammation, immune system dysfunction, depression, stress hormones, shortening of telomeres, gene expression, effects on the microbiome, increase in oxidative stress, negative effects of cellular metabolism, apoptosis, angiogenesis, and stasis.

Types of stress: Acute vs chronic. Physical vs emotional.

There is good stress - short-term controlled, resulting from planned activity. Hormesis is a good thing. You can get things done. Acute stress (short term from planned activities), can have a beneficial effect caused by exposure to low doses of an agent known to be toxic at higher doses. Call it EUSTRESS. It is a biphasic response.

It’s stress resulting from unplanned, subconscious, repetitive patterns, which is harmful. That is chronic stress. A typical cycle goes through these 9 steps.

Another thing to consider… is it perceived stress or actual stress? One can be biological or physical vs. emotional or psychological. It’s our reaction to stress that is more important. So, if you feel stressed, you are stressed.

Fortunately, how you respond to stress can be changed. If you have a ‘short fuse’ sometimes, you can work on making it longer! We can empower ourselves with healthier, more productive ways of responding to the stress in our lives. At any age, adherence to stress management techniques strongly correlated to the degree of reversal of heart disease, as an example. Remember, an ounce of prevention can be a pound of cure! We make time for what matters to us.

Your attention span and the effects stress has on you are related. Reduce distractions - both inner and outer factors. Be conscious of your brain's tendency to look for irrelevant focus. Selecting a consistent time of day and location to work on your stress management, will increase your chances of success. Find time to meditate, to replace excessive use of social media and other ‘screen time’.

Harvard researchers have found that meditation alone can change the expression of genes that regulate inflammation, programmed cell death, and oxidative stress in only a few weeks.

Neuroplasticity is real. It changes brain structure and function by generating new cells and pathways. Lifestyle changes can actually increase the size of the hippocampus, a place in brain for memory. One can rewire the brain, nurturing and reinforcing positive emotions.

Calculating your stress level:

  • Your situation: whether an internal event or external event.
  • Your interpretation: This is the personal meaning you give to the situation.
  • Your body response: sensations you feel in the body.
  • Your emotions: These are our attempts to put a label on the combined experience of our interpretation of the situation and our bodily function.
  • Your behavioral response: Your experience of an urge and behavior in a certain way.

Stress and Anxiety Reduction measures:

  • Gentle stretching
  • Breathing techniques
  • Meditation
  • Guided imagery
  • Deep relaxation

Creating your stress reduction plan:

  • Keeping thought record: situation, emotion, thoughts, evidence for, evidence against, balanced thoughts, action plan.
  • Countering negative thoughts about your emotions; become a good observer of your emotional experience.
  • Changing your behavior: Ease the agitation, strategies of gaining comfort.
  • Strategies to manage boredom: enroll in an interesting class, develop new hobby, join a club, volunteer, new friendship, learn a new skill, consider a job change, local art gallery membership, read a book.
  • Strategies to reward yourself: Buy yourself a new outfit, make a date with a friend, spa appointment, or plan a vacation.

Putting the plan into action:

Overcoming barriers:

  • I am too busy
  • I am too tired
  • It doesn’t work
  • I don’t enjoy it
  • I have an injury
  • I have to calm down before I start
  • I fear ‘feeling’
  • I get bored

Setting up the practice:

  • Choose a regular time
  • Choose a place in your home
  • Make sure that space is comfortable
  • Practice on a floor or chair
  • Have a blanket, chair, and pillow
  • Aim for an hour minimum
  • Set your timer