Understand the Stress Response and Learn the Tips that Help You Break with the Stress Cycle
Stress is a fact of modern life, and especially true in Hong Kong's fast-paced environment.
A recent research by Regus surveying over 16,000 professionals across more than 80 countries reveals that work stress is on the rise globally. 55% of professionals in Hong Kong admitted that their stress levels have risen in the past year.
The stress response is a biologically normal and useful function in our body. When there is an acute threat, your body responds instantly by raising the heart rate, releasing adrenaline for increased focus, pumping blood to arms and legs and away from non-essential functions like digestion, and increasing oxygen intake—making you ready to fight or flee.
Once the threat is gone, the body gradually returns to balance. After few hours, the hormones are back to normal, your digestion can resume in peace, and you feel normal again. That is, if within that time, nothing new re-triggers this stress response.
In our fast-paced life, we may no longer have life threatening experiences daily, but our bodies respond much in the same way to ongoing work pressure.
E-mails, Blackberries, the Internet, we are finding it increasingly difficult to separate work from personal lives and have time for our bodies to return to the balanced state.
IMI's director Carole Bradshaw has years of living and practicing yoga, meditation and being a relatively "mindful" person, but she too fell into the pattern of the fast-paced Hong Kong.
"As the co-owner of a rapidly expanding company, a mother of a 4-year-old and a regular international traveler, despite 'knowing better', I became drawn to being stressed," confesses Carole.
"My smart phone became my essential tool. To my own amazement, I found I was 'one of those people' who would text as I was walking on the streets. My ferry rides became the time for keeping up with emails."
Prolonged work stress can often lead to erratic eating habits and not enough exercise. Emotional exhaustion can also lead to anger, nervousness and even depression.
"I would eat on the run and work late," says Carole. "Knowing I needed to, I would sit to meditate or practice yoga in the morning. Yet my mind would be filled with so many "to-dos". Once I even put a notepad next to my practice mat so I could write down the tasks on my to-do list in case I forgot!"
"With all good intentions I would go to play with my 4-year-old, and then found myself either working on the computer or smart phone. So not only would I not be with him, I would feel guilty and sad for being unable to."
If the body gets in a constant level of stress and has increased stress hormones throughout the day it can come to the point where sleeping becomes a challenge: if stress hormones are still raging in the body and don't come down to balance in the evening, melatonin cannot do its job to make you fall asleep.
"Eventually that all came to a crescendo. I experienced all types of insomnia—outstanding plans would play over like a recording in my mind, as I wake up in the middle of the night and not being able to sleep again."
"So finally I decided to seek help and have some sessions with different practitioners at IMI. I tried homeopathic remedy from Dr Benita Perch, started taking herbs previously recommended by Tej BG, along with other supplements such as "stress response" to help my body to deal with the chronic stress and begin to re-build my nervous system."
"I re-committed to my daily yoga and meditation practice. I decided to re-prioritise, reduce my expectations at work, and slow down. Once it became clear that I needed to change my patterns, I consciously chose to make real time for myself and my family."
A natural, effective approach to stress and stress management
IMI offers a cross-modality, integrated approach to stress-related conditions and stress management.
Naturopathic doctor Benita Perch (ND) approaches work stress on various levels. "Very often, a homeopathic remedy can help shift the perspective and strengthen the body's vitality to cope with the stress," says Dr Perch.
"Adaptogenic herbs like Siberian ginseng or rhodiola can help offset the impact of stress. Nervine herbs like lavender and kava can nourish the nervous system, which can get burnt out from stress."
On the nutritional level, Dr Perch recommends supplementing the body with omega 3 essential oils, vitamin B-complex and magnesium, which are the co-factors for many reactions in the body and can become depleted over time with chronic stress. Replenishing these nutrients help support the body's response to stress.
"Most importantly you need to look into the lifestyle factors—optimal sleep, sunshine, exercise, rest and a healthy wholefoods diet enable us to handle stress more effectively," advises Dr Perch.
Chiropractic Kinesiologist Dr Brian H Leung (DC)(ND) focuses on the physical, emotional and biochemical balances in the body and returning it to the "yin state".
"Worries and stress can create inflammation in the body and lead to a wide range of problems," explains Dr Leung, "the symptoms can be not sleeping at night, breaking out in a skin condition or having problems digesting."
"If any of these conditions ring a bell, then you have a problem with your nervous system, where there is too much tension built up."
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the human body by the adrenal glands. It stimulates gluconeogenesis and activates anti-stress and anti-inflammatory pathways. However, elevated levels of cortisol over time can lead to proteolysis and muscle wasting.
"Too much cortisol over time, whether you're producing it yourself or given it as a prescription, will eventually create a catabolic state and do more harm than good in the long run."
Dr Leung's goal for each patient is to have them reach a yin state where their nervous system and hormonal system finds the balance it needs.
"A combination of adjustments, emotional releases, and natural remedies that are specific to what the body needs helps to free the blockages and return the body to a yin state allowing it to relax and heal itself."
Counselling, Psychotherapy and Holistic Therapies
Talking with a professional counseller or psychotherapist can help you express your internal emotional stressors, establish healthy changes in thinking and behaviour through developing greater understanding, more appropriate ways of coping, and deeper awareness.
IMI's counselling psychologist Catriona Rogers works closely with other IMI practitioners in the treatment of stress.
Christiane Guy also provides Cranial-Sacral therapy, which is good for relieving energetic, emotional and mental stress as well as re-balancing the whole system. "Cranial-Sacral therapy helped me to relax and really get in touch with the tensions—particularly energetic— that I had been holding inside and begin to release them. Chronic tension that had energetically and physically accumulated in my neck and shoulders also shifted significantly with both Cranial-Sacral therapy and holistic massage", says Carole.
Developing an Awareness
One of the widely researched and proven methods of successfully dealing with stressors and changing your perception of what is stressful to you is Mindfulness training.
Mindfulness was developed in 1976 by John Kabat-Zinn in Massachusetts General Hospital. He developed an 8-week program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), rooted in Buddhist meditation—but stripped of its religious aspects, to help cancer patients relate to their pain and subsequent stress differently.
The program was a great success and has been adapted to support people with all sorts of stress, from work and parenting to anxiety and depression, with great and scientifically underpinned success.
The definition of Mindfulness is learning to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. Through different forms of meditation, you can develop an ability to pay attention to bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions and feelings. Ultimately, people discover that meditation in and of itself is a relaxing experience, allowing the stressed body to purposely relax.
More importantly, they find their relationship to things that used to trigger stress, changes. By getting back in touch with their bodies, they notice when their stress response system is triggered and how often their perception is the root cause to why mostly neutral events trigger stress. They are able to change their perception and become triggered less often to experience stress.
Practical Tips for Breaking with the Work Stress Cycle
• Taking Breaks During the Work Day
Take breaks of 15 minutes or longer three times a day during work where you purposely relax, allowing the stress hormones to come down. Ideally, this rhythm breaks your work schedule in 3 equal parts.
• Eat Well
Eat a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Don't skip a meal, especially breakfast. Drink plenty of water, limit alcohol, caffeine or sugary drinks.
• Jogging/Cardiovascular Exercise
Regular exercise boosts the production of "feel-good chemical" endorphins and serotonin in your body and is a way of speeding up the flush of stress hormones—your body can at least physically fight or flee now! But don't overdo it! After 45 minutes, rigorous exercise can actually put more stress on an already stressed out body, so keep it short and sweet.
Meditating for 15 minutes is all it takes for the body to regain balance after stress. So instead of the waiting one to two hours for your body to return to the balance stage, you can press the 'reset button' of your stress system through meditating. One way to try this is by focusing on the breath: bringing awareness to all the physical sensations with each in- and outbreath at the belly. Letting go of thoughts as soon as you notice them, and retuning to the breath, time and time again. It can help to count each breath to deepen concentration. Set a timer on your phone for 15 minutes and try it.
Fifteen minutes of deep breathing, where you make sure each out-breathe is twice as long as the in-breathe (for example: 3 seconds in, 6 seconds out). You can do this at your desk or while taking a walk, just so long as you focus purposely on your breathing that way.
• Positive Thinking/Happiness Journaling
Take time each day to sit and note at least 5 moments and or people that gave you joy that day. Try conjuring them up, reliving them, and feeling grateful for them. Positive Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky researched this technique and found it to be the most effective way to increase happiness by up to 40% in people's lives after doing this practice for over 6 weeks.