I'm a teacher at a local school in south west London and am fortunate enough to be on holiday at the moment. I've been spending some of my time preparing for a talk I plan to give at an occupational health company. They're not sure what mindfulness is, but are interested in stress reduction and want me and another colleague to present to them. I have read a bit on stress recently and would like to share what I have learnt. Hope that's ok!
If I say the word stress, what does it mean to you? It has become such a common word to throw around, it has almost lost its scientific label. "I'm stressed!", "don't stress me out!", "He looks stressed at the moment - BIG TIME", are comments we hear quite often.
Stress, and what it means to us, actually comes from an engineering term. When a piece of metal is stressed, it's got a force on it. When I feel stressed, I suppose I do have a force on me - deadlines, the internet suddenly decides to shut down or at the moment, the flu, act like a force. Damn flu!
So what? Well, I'm telling a little story about stress and how it was discovered. It all started with a guy called Hans Selye. He started researching stress in 1936, after experimenting on rats. He noticed that the rats kept having the same physiological reactions, no matter what he injected them with. He discovered that they all had a specific response to being 'stressed'. He thought stress was so important that he then went all over the world to tell people from England to Germany to use the word 'stress'. It's the same word used in most countries. Amazing.
So, what is the stress response and why do you need to know about all this anyway? If you know what it is, and what happens to your body in a stress response, you know what's going on. You can then go on to choose coping strategies that would be helpful like mindfulness (finally I got my favourite word in) as apposed to caffeine or cocaine something inbetween.
The stress response is also called the 'fight or flight' response. When someone annoys you, or something for that matter, we feel stressed. Now you know why you feel like shooting your computer or strangling your boss - it's the fight or flight response. Your body produces hormones that make you want to either lash out, or run, run, run. Unfortunately, if you're sitting in an office cubicle, or sitting in traffic, running is not really an option - unless you're quitting your job, or aren't keen on that old banger after all.
What's happening inside to make us want to do this? It all starts at the hypothalamus. This is a small part at the base of the brain. Through the use of nerves and hormones, it releases amongst other things, adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, from the adrenal glands which are at the top of the kidneys.
- Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.
- Cortisol helps to release sugar into the bloodstream, so that the major muscles in the arms and legs are ready for action. It also releases substances to allow tissue to be repaired quickly if it is damaged. Non-essential processes for a dangerous situation, like immune system, reproductive system, digestive system and growth processes are all reduced though the use of cortisol.
OK, so where's the problem with all this? We get stressed, but we get over it, right? Well, yes and no. The body naturally regulates itself after a stressful situation, but if the stress is sustained, long term, day after day, it takes its toll. The intense response is only designed for short periods of time and not continuous. This leads to health problems such as:
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Digestive problems
- Memory impairment
- Skin problems such as eczema
That's why it's important to cut down on your stress! Just chill out is easier said than done. That's where mindfulness and the mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) program comes in. Eight weeks of hard work on your part, to result in possibly a life time of lower stress and greater well-being. And you don't have to just believe me - go to google, type in MBSR research and look at what the scientists have found out. About 90% of participants in the program continue some sort of meditative practice 3 years later.