Taking control

Christine Hennebury
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Reducing stress is a matter of adopting personal stress relief techniques

Roger Baggs, mental health advocate and workplace mental health co-ordinator with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Newfoundland and Labrador, says stress in the workplace and at home is a common problem today. But there are remedies.

"It is important to recognize that we all struggle with stress," Baggs says, "and that we can find improved ways of coping. Finding ways to have fun and enjoy our lives helps to create better life balance and, consequently, reduce stress overall."

Roger Baggs, mental health advocate and workplace mental health co-ordinator with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Newfoundland and Labrador, says stress in the workplace and at home is a common problem today. But there are remedies.

"It is important to recognize that we all struggle with stress," Baggs says, "and that we can find improved ways of coping. Finding ways to have fun and enjoy our lives helps to create better life balance and, consequently, reduce stress overall."

While many people talk about stress as if it is an outside force, feelings of stress are actually an internal reaction to life's circumstances.

"Stress is a psychological and physiological response to events that upset our personal balance in some way," says Anne Menchinton, a personal trainer and nutrition specialist at Nubody's in Mount Pearl.

And, she says, stress affects different people in different ways.

"Some people primarily experience physical symptoms, such as low back pain, stomach problems and skin outbreaks. In others, the stress pattern centres around emotional symptoms, such as crying jags or hypersensitivity. For still others, changes in the way they think or behave predominate."

Gary Summers, a certified hypnotherapist with a master's degree in physiology, identifies two different types of stress - short term and long term - each with different effects on the body.

"Short-term stress, they call it survival stress; you've probably heard it as fight or flight syndrome. Some of the symptoms: increased adrenaline, increased heart rate, increased sweating, cold hands and feet, tense muscles, which affects us a lot."

That type of stress is unpleasant, but ongoing daily stress has a more significant impact.

"And then you've got your long-term stress, in which increased levels of a hormone called cortisol causes all sorts of problem. It can affect your digestion, your appetite, you can get colds, there are headaches, there's all kinds of problems that can happen when you let stress kind of get out of control."

Summers uses hypnosis in conjunction with techniques from cognitive behaviour therapy to help his clients take control of their stress levels. "It's not what happens to you," he says, "It's how you deal with what happens to you. It is how your thinking either helps you get through it or makes it worse. It's more than positive thinking, it is recognizing distorted thinking."

Hypnosis helps his clients learn to focus on positive aspects of life situations, he says. "Hypnosis gets at you on an unconscious level and gets you to change those unconscious thoughts that can tend to paralyze you. It gets you into having a more positive, empowered outlook on what happens to you in your life."

Taking control of thought patterns is one way to calm your mind, but stress sufferers can also benefit from physical techniques that help get them out of their frenzied thoughts: taking deep breaths; exercising; grounding themselves in their bodies.

"The routine exercise your personal trainer can give you can help your mind focus on the tasks at hand," Menchinton advises. "The strenuous activities can develop your muscles which improves your body's coping mechanism to stress, and allows the body to release chemicals and hormones that are beneficial to your physiological well-being."

The Lotus Centre's Meranda Squires recommends yoga and meditation for stress relief.

"With the help of deep breathing, holding a yoga pose draws in new life energy and exhaling frees the stuck energy sitting in the tight muscles. This in turn releases emotional and mental tension.

"When one sits in stillness for 15 minutes or longer, one is pulling away from thoughts and is observing the mind in its all its drama and colour. Practising being the observer in meditation, one becomes the master over the mind rather than being the victim of the mind."

But Baggs says it is important for everyone to have their own way to relieve stress, and what works for one person may not work for another.

"Generally speaking, people have developed personal stress relievers. Meditation may be good for some. However, sports may be the answer for another. I find a good song, or deep breathing exercises can relax me in seconds."

Whichever techniques people choose, they need to use them in a preventative way and make them part of their regular routine since, as Baggs suggests, people experiencing extreme stress may forget to employ their stress-relieving techniques.

And, even with these techniques, stress is not entirely avoidable. With so much going on in people's lives, stress is generally managed rather than eliminated.

As Menchinton says, "We will always live with some degree of stress in our lives, how each of us manages it will be reflected in our health. Whether it is a walk around the lake or a day at the beach with your family. Find something that takes you out of a stressful situation and allows you to relax."

Summers even suggests that stress can be a good thing. "A little bit of stress in everyone's life is good because people it tends to challenge you and you get out of your comfort zone and learn to grow a little bit."


Stress reduction strategy
Stress relief is an individual matter, so try a variety of these techniques to find one that works for you.
Exercise releases hormones into the body that allow people to bring balance into their lives and focus better on everything they do there's no doubt that physical exercise has a positive effect on stress and can calm the mind and relax the body. Exercise releases endorphins, the body's "feel good hormones," and in as little as 20 minutes a day, can change your entire outlook on life.
Cardiovascular workouts can improve your heart and strengthen it to avoid stress-related problems like strokes, high-blood pressure, chest pains and rapid heart beat.
If possible, even a brisk 10 minute walk will also help to de-stress the body.
- Source: Anne Menchinton, personal trainer and nutrition specialist, Nubody's Mount Pearl
Identify stress relievers at work
The workplace is very complex. People are trying to be friendly and amicable in an environment that is in reality competitive and demanding. We are asked to do so much nowadays, and workload has reached extremely high levels.
Reducing stress in the workplace is very individual. A stroll or going to the gym may be helpful. Deep breathing may work to control anxiety. Not taking issues personally at work is very important and dropping past run-ins with co-workers and superiors, while difficult, is very necessary.
The Canadian Mental Health Association, Newfoundland and Labrador Division has a workplace mental health page (www.cmhanl.ca/work) with lots of tips on reducing stress and finding better work/life balance.
- Source: Roger Baggs, mental health advocate and workplace mental health co-ordinator, CMHA-NL
Yoga and meditation
Stress is the result of overstimulation of the senses without reprieve. The eyes watching too much TV, ears hearing too much chatter and noise, the mind trying to make sense of all the chaos coming in through the senses and trying to keep up with the demands.
Stress reduction happens when we withdraw from outside sense stimulation and draw the life force inwards to nourish our inner being with love and attention.
Yoga - 1. Yoga mudra or chest expander: Start standing with hands interlaced behind the back. Inhale and lift the arms up toward the ceiling. Hold and breathe deeply three breaths. Then drop the torso forward toward the floor with the arms lifting up toward the ceiling. Continue to breathe deeply three breaths. Release and come back up.
2. Hamstring stretch. Lie on the floor, place a tie or band under one foot (or your hands behind the leg) with the body resting on the floor. Draw the leg toward you with deep belly breaths. Hold for at least five breaths. Repeat on other side.
Meditation - Sit in a quiet place (or use earplugs) on a chair or cross-legged on the floor with eyes closed. Take in several deep full breaths and exhale fully, think about letting go. Place attention on the incoming and outgoing breaths and observe it filling up the lungs and affecting the body in its movement. Notice how you are in relation to what's occurring at the moment (body sensations, emotions arising and mental patterns) as you breathe in and as you breathe out. Stay with the breath for 15 minutes or longer.
- Source: Meranda Squires, spiritual guide, yoga and meditation teacher with The Lotus Centre in St. John's
Take control of your thoughts
There are a number of types of distorted thinking. One, called the mental filter, is when people say things like "I feel like an idiot, I must be an idiot." Another is called overgeneralization, when people think, "If it happened once it's going to happen all the time." There are many, and if you can learn what they are and then learn how to untwist your thinking, you become more empowered.
Some techniques to start to untwist your thinking and reduce stress:
Rehearse and plan - If there are things in your life that cause stress, if you can't avoid them, one option is to rehearse. If you have a presentation to do, make sure you rehearse it through and focus on all the positive things. Whenever possible, plan to reduce the uncertainty of situations that can cause anxiety.
Talk yourself through it - When you get that anxiety that tends to build up and you can't do anything, teach yourself, "I am in control." Say things like, I can do this, I can pick up a pen, I can walk around, I can do lots of things. Take control of that moment.
- Source: Gary Summers, certified hypnotherapist

Organizations: Canadian Mental Health Association, Lotus Centre, Newfoundland and Labrador Division

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's

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