Everybody gets stressed and knows the feeling intimately at times, but very few people think about what stress actually is.
Stress Is Mostly Just a Perception
That Can Be Changed
Stress is a thought. That’s it. No more, no less. If that’s true, then we have complete control over stress, because it’s not something that happens to us but something that happens in us.
The dictionary definition of stress is, “bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.” In other words, it is your thoughts out of balance.
The medical definition of stress is, “the perception of a real or imagined threat to your body or your ego.” It could be a tiger chasing you or your belief that your spouse is mad at you even if he or she is not. Whether it is real or imagined, when you perceive something as stressful, it creates a response in the body.
A cascade of adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones floods your system, raising your heart rate, increasing your blood pressure, making your blood more likely to clot, damaging your brain’s memory center, increasing belly fat storage, and generally wreaking havoc on your entire system.
The operative word about stress is that it is a perception, also known as a thought or point of view. There are objective stressors, to be sure – war, death of loved ones, financial troubles, starvation, dental work, etc. But how these outside events affect us determines our body’s stress response.
When I was very sick with chronic fatigue, barely able to work, a single father with two kids, thinking I had to go on disability, I worried constantly. I couldn’t sleep and everything seemed stressful. Then, a wise man told me I had to stop worrying. I argued with him at first, providing a comprehensive list of all the real factors that were stressful to me. He just kept repeating that worrying was toxic; he said, what really mattered was how I viewed the situation, and he kept telling me that ultimately I just needed to stop worrying.
And slowly, very slowly, I trained myself to observe my thoughts and perceptions. When a stressful thought came into my head, I stopped, took a deep breath, and just let it go. It works like training a muscle that gets stronger the more you use it; but as you let go, it relaxes.
Of course, in the end, life always takes over and things happen. And as everyone else, I get sucked back into negative thinking, which creates more stress. My sleep gets interrupted, my muscles get tight, my mood gets cranky. But then I take a deep breath and remember that stress is all in my head.
We get so attached to our way of thinking, to our beliefs and attitudes about the way things should or shouldn’t be, that it makes us sick. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respond to injustices or experience intense feelings of joy, happiness, sadness, loss, or pain. But it helps trying to be fully present when these events take place, then experience the next moment, then the next, and the next – and just be our whole self with love and attention. That’s the only thing we can really do.
Most people, when they look at my life, think I’m crazy and wonder why I’m not more stressed –running a medical practice, writing books, articles and blog posts, teaching all over the world, working on health policy, volunteering in crises zones, churches, and orphanages, being a father, son, brother, partner, friend, boss, and more. But it’s actually quite simple. I don’t worry about these things so much any more. I simply wake up and do the next thing as best I can.
And when things do get out of control, which happens regularly, I simply make a gentle U-turn. It’s like a GPS for my soul. Your GPS doesn’t yell at you and call you stupid or judge you for taking a wrong turn. In the sweetest voice imaginable, your GPS reminds you to take the next possible U-turn.
Each of us has to find out how to make U-turns from time to time. There are some wonderful ways I have discovered that work very well for me.
Here’s how I make my U-turns (and I try to pick one or more each day):
The quickest way to burn off stress hormones without much further ado is to move and sweat. Run, dance, jump, ride, swim, stretch, or do something else vigorous and lively. Yoga is also fabulous, as it combines movement and breathing.
Most of us hold our breath often or breathe swallow, anxious breaths. Deep, slow, full breaths have a profound affect on resetting the stress response, because the relaxation nerve (or vagus nerve) goes through your diaphragm and is activated with every deep breath. Take five deep breaths now, and observe how differently you feel.
A hot bath is an extremely effective weapon against stress. Add 2 cups of Epsom salt (which contains magnesium, the relaxation mineral), a half-cup of baking soda, and 10 drops of lavender oil (which lowers cortisol) to a very hot bath. Then, add one stressed human and soak for 20 minutes. Guaranteed to induce relaxation.
Lack of sleep increases stress hormones. Make an effort to get your eight hours no matter what. Take a nap if you missed your sleep. Prioritize sleep.
Practice the art of noticing stress, noticing how your thinking makes you stressed. Practice taking deep breaths and letting go of worry.
You can also try my UltraCalm CD, featuring guided meditation and relaxation techniques.
Enjoy, and happy U-turns!
Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below, but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health.
Mark Hyman, MD is a physician and widely acclaimed book author. He is chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine and serves on the board of directors of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine. He is the founder and medical director of The Ultra Wellness Center in Lenox, Mass.
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