This summer has been a game of hide and seek with the sun, if you are lucky it is bright in the morning, rain all day and then a little respite early evening. A typical Scottish summer. If it is not raining I like to open the patio doors in the morning to allow fresh air to enter and I try to breathe the fresh air deeply into my lungs in an attempt to wake up my body and my mind. Fresh air and morning coffee 8 out of 10. Morning coffee, fresh air, and sunshine 10 out 10. Unfortunately few and far between are the days we are blessed with a blue sky and the warming rays of the sun on our faces. I do miss the sun, the feel good hormones it releases just makes the world a brighter place, but this year it has been a little nondescript, a few days of lovely hot weather and the rest just a little bit indifferent. We have had so much rain this year that some of my flowers have drowned. It has killed the roses which are falling off or drooping down with a sadness etched in their petals. They lasted so little time this year, and all they needed was a little bit of sunshine to dry off the rain and make them bloom again.
Sometimes we can all feel like that, too much rain and not enough sunshine makes us feel that we are drooping from the day to day stress and pressure. Events from the outside world that we allow to enter our inside world. Sometimes we are totally unaware that it is happening, and we do not realise the negative impact it has on our body, our minds, our health, and our immune system. There are times in our life that we have been stressed for so long that we think the way we are feeling is normal, the upset stomachs, the aches and pains, the sore heads, and the sleepless nights. If we have never taken the time to listen to our bodies when they are calm, then we will not notice the difference when they are stressed and crying out for help.
If we care at all about the health of both our minds and our bodies then we need to begin to understand the impact that our stressful live is having on our immune system which in turn effects our ability to fight colds, flues and other illnesses. Getting regular colds adds to our stress levels as we bravely try and battle on with our day to day life. But is it brave or is it foolish. If you have a cold, the effect it has on how you feel, and how long it lasts are likely to be affected by the level of stress we are under.
We cannot go on putting our bodies under stress and pressure, day after day leaving us in a constant state of fight or flight. That old reptilian brain that kicks in when we see a tiger coming towards us in the street, or in a modern-day context, we become aware of someone behind us when we walk home in the dark. Short bursts of adrenalin with all our energy going to our limbs to help us survive when danger strikes. But day after day, living in a state of fight or flight puts too much pressure on our bodies and minds.
Our brains have never developed to cope with the pressures of modern living, the fast pace that we live our lives, working full time, raising a family, running a house, finance worries, job insecurity, children with their own problems that we try to find solutions for. Nothing seems to be permanent anymore, there is no job for life with a carriage clock after 40 years of service, relationships are throw-away, nothing lasts, nothing is permanent.
We know at a certain level that this is how we are living our lives; we know that something is just not quite right. It can feel that we are living in the eye of a hurricane, a whirlwind that has picked us up and is carrying us along and there is nothing we can do, nothing we can hold onto for support.
So, how do we ground ourselves again, how do we shout “STOP”, just for a moment, recognising that only you can help yourself, nothing will change unless you decide that you want to change how you are living your life. Rushing from one crisis to the next, putting out the fires as they ignite all around you. Only you have the power, but you also have the responsibility to your health and your sanity to understand how you can calm down your fight or fight response.
The first and maybe one of the important things is to recognise how your body responds when it is under pressure, and this will be different for everyone. For me, my stomach churns and feels uncomfortable, I get heartburn, my sinuses start to bother me again and give me headaches and I have sleepless nights. With my husband his sciatica always returns when he is worrying over something. For everyone it comes in a different form from pains in the chest, to a pain in the body or nausea. To notice what it is you feel you need to know how you feel when you are relaxed. And I am talking about relaxed without the use of artificial stimulants as these are false friends. If use alcohol or drugs to create good feelings it is just the same as taking an aspirin for a headache, you will never find out why you had the headache in the first place.
So, when was the last time you felt perfectly at peace? Maybe you were on holiday, sitting on a beach with the family when you felt you were in a moment that you would have loved if it could have lasted for forever.
If our stressful live is our Yin how to we find the balance of the Yang. There are many ways to do this, meditation, exercise, yoga, getting out into nature, the important thing is that we do something that calms us. Think of it like a scale with your stress on one side, and you need to balance this out by doing things that calm you down to balance the scale. If we cannot get rid of the things that are causing us stress, then we need to find ways to get a balance between the stress and the calm.
To know that you are managing to calm yourself down, you need to recognise the signs that you are stressed. You need to be able to compare your body feeling relaxed and feeling stressed and under pressure. We need to find a way to calm the stress response down, because it doesn’t help in our day to lives and it doesn’t help in stressful situations, unless you can see a tiger coming towards you of course. When we have too much adrenaline coursing through our body we have no way of standing back and rationally accessing the situation, weighing up if we need to do something or if it would be better to leave well alone. Our thinking, analytical brain has packed up and left for a holiday and all we can focus on is whether we should run or stay and fight.
The other reason we need to calm ourselves down is that it has a negative effect on our immune system and the longer we live our lives under this negative pressure the more we lose our ability to fight illnesses and diseases.
First thing we need to do in any stressful situation is to get control of our breathing. When we are stressed our breathing becomes shallow, so one of the best ways to let your body know that everything is Ok and that there is no tiger lurking around the corner is to slow down our breathing, if our breathing is calm, then our mind will believe that everything must be ok.
So, if you recognise that you are living in a stressful situation and would like to try a little breathing exercise then let’s try this little exercise.
Start by taking a deep breathe in, the biggest breath you have taken all day, and fill your lungs, put you hand on your stomach so that you feel it expand as your body fills with air, hold for a few seconds and then very very slowly release, and then repeat. You can do this as many times as you need to but do at least 5 rounds. You can do this anywhere, it’s free, no-one knows you are doing it, and most importantly it helps. The important this is you are still when you do it. Don’t try and rush around the supermarket getting the weekly shopping while you try to relax yourself by focusing on your breath, but by all means do it at the checkout while you wait in the queue, instead of whipping out your telephone and getting upset over what is happening on Twitter. Think of the time you take as a little gift to yourself.
STOP, sit down, lie down or do it while waiting on a lift or stuck in a traffic jam, take the time to focus on your breathing, and as you breath let your shoulders fall down, don’t think of anything else, just focus on you breath and the movement of your stomach as it fills and empties of air.
The more stressful our lives are the more we need to do this exercise, the more we need to slow down, listen to our bodies, they are talking to us in its own language, it is letting you know that you cannot keep going and living your life in this way. Listen now, and act before a more serious illness forces you to stop to allow your body to heal.