You notice that your credit card bill is due and you won’t have enough money to cover it and your shoulders begin a slow ascension towards your ears. A little later you see the check engine light is on for the third time in the last month and you start to feel a gnawing sensation in your abdomen, a bitter taste in the back of your throat. You look at your work schedule for the week and realize there isn’t enough time to accomplish everything your boss wants you to do, and you begin to feel light-headed, and a throbbing begins inside your ears.
Does any of this sound familiar?
The stress response is an ability our bodies adapted over time in order to keep us alive during dangerous circumstances. Unfortunately the evolution of the world has outpaced the evolution of our bodies, and as a result we react to emotional problems as if they were physical problems. We lift our shoulders in order to protect our necks, which is great if a bear is attacking you in the woods, but if it’s a bill collector our shoulders offer very little in the way of protection for our checkbook. We divert blood flow from the mucus membranes of our digestive tract to our heart and muscles in order to either battle with danger or run away from it (fight or flight). But if the danger is a leaky radiator, all we’re doing is giving ourselves acid reflux and ulcers. And all that extra blood pumping furiously throughout your body is fantastic in a life-or-death situation. But if it’s only the thought of extra work and not enough time, that constant accelerated heartbeat and quickened pulse could do something as grotesque as give you a heart attack or a stroke.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when talking about stress.
The question then becomes: What can we do about it? If this physical response to emotional stress is hardwired into our bodies, is there anything we can do to control it? Or are we just destined to suffer the consequences of the world’s terrible outside influences?
There are actually many solutions to this modern dilemma. But since much of our stress doesn’t come from actual danger but from our own perception of danger, the answer is simple. If it’s our internal perception affecting our external bodies, then why can’t the reverse be true? Why can’t changing our external bodies alter our internal workings?
Let’s start with breathing. The diaphragm, your primary muscle of inspiration, works a few different ways. It’ll work on its own thanks to the efforts of your brainstem, but it’s also skeletal muscle, which means it can be voluntarily controlled. In other words, if you’re breathing heavy and you feel a full-on panic about to set in, spend a few minutes focusing your breaths. A popular method is the 4-7-8 technique. Inhale for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, and forcefully exhale for eight seconds through your mouth. Your body sees that you’re breathing calmly and then shuts down other stress responses.
Smiling. Did you know it if you force yourself to smile it will fool your brain into thinking you’re happy? This doesn’t mean you have to walk around all day smiling like a crazy person. However, if you take a few minutes and put a pencil between your teeth, it puts your face into a smile-like countenance, and your brain fools itself from there. (Watch this TED Talk for more information on this topic.)
And of course there’s massage. Get a massage. Massage loosens up your musculature and improves circulation, but perhaps more importantly in these circumstances massage increases the release of the feel-good neurotransmitters in your brain and body. Oxytocin, known as the “cuddle neurotransmitter,” is released whenever there is positive touch. Most often associated with encouraging women to bond with their babies after birth, it is however present in the brains of both sexes, and is released whenever there is physical contact with another person in a positive way. Serotonin is another one, and not only does it improve your mood when released but it also improves your digestion, as it is present in both the brain and the gut. And the really great thing is, this works for both the massage client and the massage therapist. As you give a massage you can actually feel your stress levels dropping as these same neurotransmitters are released in your brains.
So the next time the world seems to be a bit too much for you, just take a few deep breaths, smile, give or get a massage, and, to quote Carol King:
You've got to get up every morning
With a smile in your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better
You're gonna find, yes you will
That you're beautiful, as you feel