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Water off a duck’s back – Learning to cope with stress

Daily maintenance processing emotional and bodily stress is highly necessary. This is especially so if you lead a high stress life. The relationship between mind and body in the western biomedical healing tradition was first acknowledged and described during World War 1 by Walter Cannon, followed by others who went on to define this relationship further. What we have today is an understanding that despite an individuals unique psychological and emotional reactions to a stressor, our biochemical responses are identical – adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol – stress hormones released by the adrenal glands that sit on top of our kidneys.

These hormones set off a cascade of reactions within our body that, in the short term, allow us to better cope with or overcome the challenges of life, be it a marauding lion or an inconsiderate road user. Ideally we pass through the “life or death” situation, find closure, and release the built-up tension to return to calm, similar to tremoring springbuck after escaping the hungry lioness. But if we continuously hop from one stressful situation into another, irrespective of their gravity, we allow little time for release and recovery, and never return to healthy balance.

Moving your body and spending time in nature are two multi-beneficial ways to help rid your body of the effects of stress.

Science is now better able to explain how accumulated mental and emotional stress, also called allostatic load, causes damage to our cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, hormonal and immune systems, among others. The stress hormones affect our sleep-wake cycle, change our energy production pathways, overwork our detox organs and fuel the fires of inflammation that rapidly or slowly burn away at our physiological reserve until, one day “out of the blue”, we experience a fall from vitality.

But is it the taxi driver or our reaction to him that is the origin of the sin? Here is where both Eastern and Western healing traditions speak with a united voice – more important than the amount of stress we experience, is our response to it. In fact, in our efforts to try and evade stress we invariably create further stress!

So, if we should focus not on eliminating but on reducing unnecessary stressors from life, yet we cannot allow stress to continue to run rampant through our body, how then do we manage it? I argue in the same way one manages a pent-up pressure cooker – by opening the valve.

Our valves are our coping mechanisms – skills, disciplines, tools and habits we cultivate and engage with that allow us to “tremor off” the accumulated stressors of the day and return back to our space of balance. Try these for starters:

  1. Get active. Moving your body and spending time in nature are two multi-beneficial ways to help rid your body of the effects of stress.
  2. Be more knowledgeable. Learn as much about the stressors in your life, be it your health, your rights or your belief systems, and be empowered to take action to change your life. Knowledge reduces the fear of the unknown and the misunderstood – with knowledge comes empowerment.
  3. Develop a spiritual practice. Spirituality, or connecting with a stronger sense of self and a healthy social support network are also great coping mechanisms.
  4. Add in time for self-reflection. Tools such as meditation, journalling and expressing creatively are useful to get the inner world to come out, be seen and be dealt with in a healthy empowering way.

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