Your ears pick up the ominous sound of a heavy body crashing through the undergrowth. Your heart races. Like lightning, your mind makes calculations. Spear? Useless. Tree? Three metres away. You run faster and climb more nimbly than you ever believed possible. You win. Crocodile loses. Then you wake up.
The world of your early ancestors is far behind you and there isn’t a crocodile in sight. Even so you are experiencing very real physical symptoms. Your heart is beating fast, and that sinking feeling in your stomach is telling you the blood has rushed into the muscles you need to run and climb. You are now wide-awake and fully alert. The frightening dream has prompted the age-old response to fear and stress — the ‘fight or flight’ response.
We now know crocodiles can climb trees (yes, it’s true). So waking up at that point was a really good move.
Seriously though, these days we face relatively few physical threats; they are far more likely to be mental or emotional. The old survival mechanism still operates, though, and because we don’t have to respond by running or fighting the body stays ‘on alert’ and in a state of tension.
How does the body react to stress?
When you are faced with stressful situations the brain sends messages to the adrenal glands, which release stress hormones.
Some immediate effects are:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Tense muscles and difficulty relaxing
- A fast heart rate and rapid breathing
- A sluggish digestive system
If this perceived stress continues, the physical effects are prolonged and over time there can be further, more serious damage, to your body.
How to relieve stress
Physical movement is a great way to relieve stress. Choose an activity that you enjoy – walking briskly, running, swimming, cycling or playing a game of tennis. Physical exercise increases blood flow and stimulates the body to produce endorphins, which combat sleeplessness, help lift your mood and relieve anxiety and physical tension.
Focus on breathing your way to stress relief. Find a quiet and tranquil spot where you can be free from distractions. Be mindful of how you breathe, first gently filling your lungs with air and then gradually expelling it through your nose. Slower breathing will slow and calm your mind and relax your whole body.
Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi can help. They incorporate controlled movement and conscious breathing and are known to reduce physical and mental stresses.
A matter of perception
Sometimes stress breeds stress. If we are anxious and tense, we are more likely to perceive situations as more stressful than if we experience them while in a more relaxed state. We could begin a difficult conversation already geared for ‘fight or flight’ or attempt a challenging task already feeling anxious and tense.
You can break this negative cycle by regularly doing activities that relieve stress, by sharing apprehensions and worries with someone you trust and by seeking the advice of a trained professional.