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Stress Awareness

by Erin Graham

Taking charge of your stress means taking a holistic view of your health.

Jane, a 45-year-old holistic-health worker from Rhode Island, was having trouble dealing with stress—stress about deadlines, stress about her workload, stress about being newly single after the end of a long-term relationship. She also carried a heavier worry about the innumerable things she felt she couldn’t control. “My sense of not knowing—of not having answers to some of my questions about my future—was especially stressful, because I wasn’t sure how to address something that intangible,” Jane says. “I had trouble sleeping and I had a general tightness, and a constant sense of constriction.”

Erica, a 30-year-old nutritionist from New York City, also had physical symptoms of stress. She was in such turmoil from her divorce and career concerns that she’d stopped eating and had become severely malnourished. “I was in constant fight-or-flight response mode and my body just shut down,” she says. “I lost weight, lost muscle, my hair fell out, and I got severe acne.”

They’re hardly alone. The American Psychological Association published a study in 2009 indicating that 52 percent of women admitted that stress kept them up at night, or that they’d eaten unhealthful foods or skipped meals due to stress. Furthermore, Paul J. Rosch, MD, of the American Institute of Stress, contends that women feel the physical and emotional effects of stress more than men.

Susan B. Lord, MD, who teaches Kripalu’s popular Healthy Living immersion program Transforming Stress, sees dozens of men and women who come to her program with concerns about their levels of stress. Some people, like Jane, are looking for ways to free themselves from anxieties, while others, like Erica, are seeking solutions to stress that causes emotional anguish as well as serious physical health concerns.

Susan attributes the high rate of stress and stress-related illness to a combination of factors that make modern life especially fragmented and harried. She boils them down into two categories. The first is a problem of excess: We eat too much poor-quality food and we multitask to fulfill all the demands made of us. The pace of life is often too fast, and we’re inundated with images of violence and consumerism. “We work full time or overtime, and still expect to have good relationships and to be able to raise our children well,” Susan says. “If our vision of who we want to be is impossible to accomplish, we’re setting ourselves up for feeling inadequate, disappointed, and frustrated—which is itself stressful.”

On the flip side is the problem of having too little of what nourishes us: not enough wholesome food, enjoyment from moving our bodies, fulfilling work, or tools and resources to deal with stress in a healthy way. Susan also sees a dearth of time spent in nature and in opportunities to be creative and to connect with one another.

While it may come as no surprise that modern ways of living—and thinking—can overwhelm and strain us to our limits, many of us might be surprised to learn just how much stress effects our health. Research showing the havoc that chronic stress plays on our bodies is becoming clearer every day, from digestive troubles to depression to the way stress-activated hormones interact with the immune system. “Too much stress negatively impacts every organ system in our body,” says Susan. “It robs us of our resilience, so we’re more likely to succumb to any number of illnesses.” Too much stress, she explains, causes us to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode, which is our body’s way of protecting itself. This serves us well in the short run (when there really is an emergency to respond to), but long term, it sets the stage for chronic disease, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s, weight gain or loss, and depression.

And there’s our happiness to consider. A recent study conducted by Harvard professor Robert Epstein found that 25 percent of our happiness is linked to how well we manage stress. Is the very idea of being stressed making you more stressed? Susan offers some direction. Managing stress can be challenging: It requires paying attention and learning new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. “Stress is an inevitable part of life,” says Susan. “We will all suffer pain and loss at times. But the way we respond to hard times dictates the degree to which we suffer.”

According to Susan, most of us are asking ourselves to perform at a very high level all the time. In order to do this, we need to take good care of ourselves: eat well, get plenty of sleep and exercise, and feel supported by colleagues, family, and friends. “If we don’t meet the basic needs of mind, body, and spirit, we are ill-equipped to stay healthy,” she says.

Self-care means practicing small changes every day. Susan recommends integrating mind-body techniques such as yoga, meditation, imagery, journaling, and deep breathing into your day. But the first step is addressing our reluctance to make these changes.

“Until you can identify and deal with issues that are on your mind, it’s hard to make intelligent, healthy lifestyle choices,” she says. “It’s crucial to understand the situations that stress you out.” Instead of relying on willpower to make healthy decisions, the heart of Susan’s approach is the notion that self-awareness and mindful living gradually bring balance, energy, and commitment to living a fulfilled life. Over time, awareness leads us to prefer a balanced diet over junk food or practicing yoga over watching TV. Life becomes more peaceful and meaningful—which, in turn, affects our ability to deal with stress. “The more mindful we are, the more thoughtful and nurturing our choices will be,” she says.

Susan points to new neuroscience research and how it’s validating that meditation, mindful living, and yogic practices can change the physical brain. “These ancient practices work with our inherent, genetic ability to create lifestyle changes,” she says. “Trying to force ourselves to change without these tools usually ends up with lots of self-recrimination and little sustainable change.”

As many of us know, breaking the stress patterns can be tough, and it’s hard to go it alone. “Fight-or-flight, induced by too much stress, is a very strong force,” says Susan. We tend to hold on to familiar—almost comforting—patterns of worrying and ruminating. “Our brains need to be retrained,” she says. “Learning to apply the steps of mindful living is much more effective in discovering the causes of stress and how to shift that energy.”

For Erica, adopting this approach had both immediate and long-ranging results. After attending Susan’s program, she began taking vitamin supplements, doing more yoga, getting exercise, making trips to a sauna and steam room, journaling, and making time to read lots of books. And her appetite has at last returned. “I’m back on track,” she says. “I’ve learned that when you slow down and apply awareness to everything in your life, you notice how a lot of things are in tune, that there’s so much to take in and so much you can offer. Mindfulness helps me step back and get perspective on what I need, so I don’t look to others to get what I need.” Erica has come so far that she now thinks of her divorce as a blessing in disguise. “It changed the way I live my life,” she says. “It gave me a chance to look deep inside, and now I know what makes me happy and what fuels me.”

Similarly, Jane has honed techniques she learned from the program, like dialoguing with her “obstacles,” and doing walking meditation. “Being at Kripalu helped me by creating a space for me to experience deep relaxation and creative solutions to seemingly habitual problems, like always feeling I don’t have enough time,” she says. “I’ve learned that how I am, during the present moment, is what creates my future. When resistance or fear arises, I welcome it and notice that it disappears as the spaciousness I crave returns. I learned that I have all the answers I need, and they’re readily available for me to draw on.”

According to Susan, when people live life with more acceptance and a relaxed, open attitude, when they have the tools for dealing with hardships, they end up doing more than just handling their stress better. “My goal is for people to experience all the powerful energy that has been trapped by their stressors,” she says. “This energy, coupled with intention and a clear vision, is transformational. I hope to offer people moments of authentic clarity where they know that they can live a life of joy, vitality, and meaning.”

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