How To Deal With Stress
Stress has become the defining epidemic of the 21st century. With longer working weeks, fewer hours of sleep and an incessant stream of empty information clouding our thoughts, it’s little wonder that an increasing number of men are burning out before they’ve had time to shine. We’ve normalised the intensity of modern life to such an extent that we allow the physical consequences of stress to insidiously chip away at our wellbeing while we go about our work. Months or years later, we wonder how we’ve ended up in chronic pain or with a coping mechanism that has become unmanageable.
And yet, in spite of its ubiquity, few people really understand the biology of stress. It has become a catch-all term with no concrete definition. An excuse for not living up to other people’s standards and, among hard working men, a label that is bandied about in glorification of a culture that’s hell-bent on overachieving.
The truth is stress can be a good thing (“eustress”, such as exercise) and it can be a bad thing (“distress”, such as bereavement). When we talk about stress as a modern phenomenon, we are referring to one of these three stages of distress: alarm, resistance or exhaustion. Stress is anything that threatens our existence, interferes with optimum biological functioning or triggers the famous fight-or-flight (or even “freeze”) response, the evolutionary switch that’s designed to save us from predation, but that now fires off whenever you take a peek at the contents of your inbox.
Most of the people I see on a daily basis are physically locked in some degree of stress. In my practice, I use bodywork and yoga to override that internal alarm and balance out the nervous system (touchenergetics.co.uk). The tried-and-tested tools outlined below are designed to decrease cortisol, the primary stress hormone, lower the heart rate and, most importantly, help us observe our habitual responses to stressors so that they can be changed over time.
Go back to nature
The thought of leaving a metropolitan area might leave you in a cold sweat, but there’s something inherently healing about time spent in nature. Before Western medicine was even conceived, nature was the primary physician, a fact our ancestors both understood and respected. After all, our bodies are pre-tuned to the sounds and sights of the outdoors, not blue light and police sirens.
Unsurprisingly, there is an irrefutable relationship between stress (and depression and anxiety) and increased urbanisation. And with more than half the world’s population living in an urban setting, that correlation will take centre stage in the coming years.
“Being in nature is a fast, easy counterbalance to our mentally restrictive way of living and working,” says Ms Anna Hunt, the author behind a new 30-day online course, From Stress To Inner Calm & Confidence (annahunt.com). “And because we are part of nature, the tonic works without us having to do any more than head outside and enjoy the beauty around us.”
Science has started to validate this age-old prescription. We now know that time spent outdoors shifts brainwaves from the default “beta” setting (12-40Hz, a stress-fuelled state of heightened alertness and linear thinking) into the “alpha” mode (8-12Hz), the light “meditative” frequency that bridges the unconscious world and conscious thinking.
In this state, the brain is more conducive to creativity and problem solving. And, just like meditation, there is a measurable drop in heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones. A study published in Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Science found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with depression and rumination on negative emotions.
“If getting to the countryside isn’t an option, half an hour in the local park being fully present to the environment, watching the colours and the wildlife, will radically shift how you feel,” says Ms Hunt. “Add a digital detox into the mix, and you’ll feel markedly different from when you were at your desk.”
Learn to breathe consciously
Breath marks the first and final acts of our life; the bit in between is a series of inhalations and exhalations that, for many people, is left unexplored. “The most powerful mechanism for transformation is literally right beneath our noses,” says conscious breathing teacher Mr Alan Dolan (breathguru.com). “Unfortunately, we rarely give it more than a passing thought.”
On a physical level, breathing ensures that every cell is supplied with oxygen. It strengthens the immune system, relieves tension and is a key player in sleep, digestion, physical performance and detoxification. But breath can also be used to calm or rev up the nervous system by engaging the parasympathetic and sympathetic response respectively.
As a yoga teacher, the first thing I tend to observe in a stressed student is the air darting up and down between their mouth and the upper part of their chest. Constricted chest breathing, as opposed to fluid abdominal breathing, is a telltale sign that the student can’t turn off the sympathetic response. To deepen the breath and calm the nervous system, there is a 10-minute pranayama (breath control) exercise that can be practiced by anyone:
Lie on your back, knees bent with your feet flat on the floor. Gently place one hand on your belly just above the pubic bone, the other on your chest. Observe your breathing and see if you can direct the inhale all the way down to the depths of your belly. So much so that it forces your navel to rise and push your hand away. Notice how many counts it takes for you to inhale and fill both lungs evenly. Then count the full exhale until the lungs are completely empty (the point at which the abdominal organs relax).
Now attempt to make the inhale and exhale of even length, keeping the rhythm smooth and relaxed. Once you have achieved that, see if you can extend only the exhale. The goal is to arrive at a 1:2 pattern so that the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. For example, if your inhale is a count of four, then your exhale should be a count of eight. Continue this pattern of breathing for five to 10 minutes.
It is crucial that you do not feel any strain in your body as you do this or the stress response will kick back in. Over time, you will be able to slow the breath down dramatically and consciously engage the parasympathetic system at will.
If you can’t meditate, visualise
It is a far cry from its Buddhist roots, but the growing trend for mindfulness-based meditation in the West is no bad thing. A daily meditation practice can have a profound effect on our physiology and how we respond to the stresses we encounter in the outside world. The problem is that mindfulness doesn’t deliver instant results and can be frustrating for beginners who are left alone with the mania of their internal dialogue.
“People struggle with meditation and quickly become disenchanted because, with only the breath to focus on, the mind wanders and we feel bored,” says Ms Hunt, who prefers creative visualisation to help clients overcome issues including chronic anxiety and burnout. “The process involves using images that we draw from our intuition to problem solve, gain clarity about ourselves and others and make decisions.”
Visualisation has the same physiological benefits of meditation – reduced inflammation, lower stress hormones and a calmer nervous system – but it is infinitely more accessible and interesting. “By creating a mechanism for the intuition to come forward, mental chatter automatically takes a back seat. Clients can attain the mental stillness that meditation promises in one or two sessions, on the online course or over a workshop. The fact that this practice pays dividends so quickly is hugely motivating.”
While Hunt tends to guide clients through a bespoke visualisation, there’s no reason you can’t attempt the technique yourself first thing in the morning when the unconscious world is more readily available. Find a comfortable seat, take seven deep breaths and simply imagine in your mind’s eye what the day ahead will look like, hour by hour. Just as you visualise all the things that will make the day enjoyable and productive, imagine a positive resolution to the less appealing events scheduled for the hours ahead. Holding that image for a couple of minutes before you step out of the front door will have a profound effect on how you meet the day ahead.
Ask for help
For several generations of men, asking for help is considered emasculating, a pitiful sign of weakness as opposed to strength. Society and upbringing demands that we subscribe to a hegemonic brand of masculinity that isn’t compatible with therapy or self-improvement of any sort. Can you imagine GI Joe bearing his soul on a therapist’s couch?
And so, powering through crisis alone and without help has become the modus operandi for millions of men. It’s a tactic that isolates them from loved ones and ultimately causes more distress. A Dutch survey found that men had a lower contact rate with their GP than women, and, unsurprisingly, higher hospitalisation and mortality rates.
Suffering in silence only tends to compound stress. The Campaign Against Living Miserably (thecalmzone.net) has publicised the fact that the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK is suicide. And while this might sound like a rather dramatic outcome for something as common as stress, it is important to understand that stress affects each of us in different ways and, without a way to speak about it, it can easily metastasise.
The egoic pride of self-reliance is nothing compared to the feeling of connection and relief one gets when assistance is received from – and this is the crucial bit – a person who is well equipped to offer guidance (ie, not Drunken Dave who props up the bar on a Friday night). For many men, help doesn’t need to take the form of advice or feedback; being heard is more than enough. In fact, the very act of verbalising and naming stress is, in itself, cathartic.
This is the reason both Calm and I have teamed up with yoga apparel brand Ohmme (ohmme.com) for a series of workshops throughout 2018 called “Stillness in Motion”. The aim is to create a dialogue among men and give them practical tools to combat stress and depression.
Feel, don’t overthink
My own relationship with stress was so isolating and overwhelming that, even as a writer, it took me years before I could find the right words to explain how I felt. And perhaps this is why body based psychotherapy and yoga resonated so strongly with me, eventually inspiring me to retrain as a teacher and bodyworker.
There is a beautiful simplicity to working through a problem on a physical level because you don’t have to get mentally involved with the whys and wherefores of your story. There is no room for analysis, pathologies or labelling, which, in my opinion, only complicate the underlying problem.
The reason yoga and body-based therapies (like craniosacral therapy, Feldenkrais, Rolfing or somatic psychotherapy) are effective is because they hinge on one key tenet: that stress isn’t an intellectual construct; it is a quality that resides in our fascia, muscles, bones and cells. These modalities see the body as a biography of our lives.
Going for an insanely long run or beating the crap out of a boxing bag might be more relatable stress relievers for men, but these bursts of physical energy lack the subtlety and neural reprogramming that is at the heart of somatic (or “body-focused”) therapies and yoga. A good yoga teacher or therapist will help you explore the body for the hallmarks of stress. There’s the anxiety that spirals through the gut, the anger that locks the hip flexors and the frustration of responsibility that burdens the shoulder girdle. Working through these distortions in a therapeutic context can provide instant, experiential relief.
Illustrations by Mr James Oconnell