Most of us regularly talk about feeling stressed. Even my 7 year old the other day said, “I can’t do my homework, I’m too stressed!” It is usually when we feel we have too much to do, or other people are making unreasonable demands on us, or we are dealing with situations that we do not have control over.
A survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation in 2013 showed that almost half (47%) of all respondents in the survey said they feel stressed every day. 59% of British adults reported that their life is generally more stressful than it was five years ago.
What is stress?
The Oxford dictionary defines stress as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.
While we often think of stress as too much mental or emotional pressure, it is also important to realise that stress causes very real physical and physiological changes in our body.
When stressed, our bodies produces more of the so-called ‘fight or flight’ chemicals which prepare us for an emergency. Adrenaline and noradrenaline raise blood pressure, increase our heart rate and the rate at which we perspire. They can also reduce blood flow to the skin, and reduce stomach activity. Cortisol releases fat and sugar into our system, whilst also reducing the efficiency of our immune system. All these changes make it easier for us to fight or run away.
In many of the stressful situations encountered during a typical week, such as being stuck in a traffic jam, late for a meeting, on a packed train, you can’t fight and you can’t run away. Because of this, you can’t use up the chemicals your own body has produced to protect you.
Our stress systems are designed to respond to short term stress. Everyone needs a certain amount of stress or pressure to live well. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning. However, when we are stressed over long periods of time, it can lead to a whole array of different illnesses, too many to list in this blog!
You can reduce the effects of stress by being more conscious of the things that cause it, and learning to handle them better, using relaxation techniques as well as other lifestyle changes. Exercise can be a key factor in reducing stress levels.
How Exercise Reduces Stress Levels
- When we exercise our minds focus on what we are doing, rather than focusing on the worries and hassles that have bothered us during the day. This gives our mind a rest/a break.
- Exercise can promote greater mental awareness and alertness.
- When we exercise our body releases feel-good hormones, endorphins, which help us to feel more positive, long after we have finished exercising.
- When we take time to exercise, we know we are doing something positive for ourselves, we are looking after ourselves, this has a positive effect on our mental health.
- Regular exercise can boost self-confidence, mood and sleep quality, and lower the risk of depression.
- Classes such as Pilates and yoga can help with relaxation, as well as breathing awareness. As we focus on deeper and slower breathing the body will become more relaxed.
- Pilates and yoga also focus on posture and balance, which then helps to reduce muscular tension, tightness in neck, shoulders, back.
A key thing is finding out what works for you, to help exercise reduce stress in your life.
For me, a group exercise class works well. I like to meet other people, feel part of a wider activity, and have some great music playing when i exercise. Some may choose a brisk walk outside in the fresh air, or going for a swim, a bike ride, walking the dog, a run. If you can, try different things until you find what you really enjoy, and then try to make it a regular slot in your routine. Ideally doing something everyday that helps you relax in some way will be hugely beneficial in reducing stress, and as a result will have a positive impact on your mental, physical, social and emotional well being.
Sources: BBC Science: What is stress?
Sources: Exercising away stress by Debbie Lawrence
Interesting Reading: ‘How To De-stress Without Doing Less’ by Dr Kate Middleton