With stress on the rise as we face three of the most challenging factors for the human psyche – change, uncertainty and lack of knowledge – watching for some really common stress-related symptoms is a good barometer to acknowledging when we need to step back for some self-care.
There are some quick-fire ways to address your body showing you it is in survival mode, but paying attention in the longer term can help us ride the waves of change and keep our sanity intact.
From the fear-based place of the fight-or-flight response, finding ways to let your whole mind-body know it is safe in this moment is the route to calming excitation that spreads into muscles, mind and affects our capacity for sustainable sleep, mood and energy.
Racing mind, worry and anxiety
It’s natural for our inner dialogue to go to full-on protection mode when we perceive danger is afoot. It doesn’t matter that the threat might not be of a full-on physical nature, we are set to track for dangers on the periphery and this constant vigilance running along in the background can go a little crazy when stress becomes the usual way of living.
If we’ve had trauma in our lives or if we are currently living in a situation where we don’t feel fully safe, the voices can pipe up to keep us on our toes. Safety within job, money, family and how kindly we are treated featuring high as basic needs for us to be able to relax into each moment.
Those inner voices are playing out old strategies designed to keep us safe, even if these can seem misguided. So self-criticism and negative thinking might pop up to keep us from trying new thing where we run the risk of being hurt or disappointed for instance.
This language based warning system comes from the left sides of our brains where we tend to view the world from interpretation, analysis and comparison. We can get caught up in this cyclical inner dialogue particularly when we don’t understand a situation, have decisions to make, things on our mind…. Anywhere we might want to get answers and feelings of control.
This can be especially true in the wee hours of the morning when we may be waking from stress affecting our ability to drop into and maintain deeper sleep cycles. If highs and lows of blood sugar in the day feed into dropping levels in the night, we can even wake from a shot of adrenaline preventing us dropping into a hypoglycaemic coma. Because this is the fight-or-flight response it is natural for our fears to come up and feed into the inner narrative.
How to help in the short-term: audio books, podcasts and any spoken word audio can satisfy our left brain’s want for language and intercept our own voices very effectively. Guided meditations can help (see my meditation series here) to calm as a voice other than your own is letting your subconscious know it is safe to relax.
These can be particularly helpful in the middle of the night when we can feel starkly hemmed in to the world in our heads in the dark. Listening to stories, novels, Dessert Island Discs and my personal favourite, podcasts about quantum physics, can give our attention an alternative to mind-bending loops. Letting yourself just listen and enjoy the experience in your lovely, warm, cosy bed – rather than try to get to sleep – can send you off without even noticing.
This 15 minute sequence can also intercept mind racing; firstly with body focus to bring you down out of your head, then doodling to switch attention from left to the more creative right brain and then a healthy almond snack to provide the nutrition satisfaction that can stop us adding sugar cravings into the mind racing mix; they have the highest protein content of any tree nut.
Almonds also provide essential B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and omega oils that our brains need to regulate our nervous systems and stabilise mood.
Longer term: mindfulness meditations and practices help us learn to experience the present moment, just as it is, without judgment or interpretation. In this space we can see that mind ruminations are of things that are often not with us at that moment and that we don’t need to keep up a heightened response to these vigilant patterns.
Long-term practice has shown to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increase compassion and self-compassion (including how we objectively view ourselves), improve neuroplasticity (more flexibility in different situations) and increase axonal density, which can determine how well our brains signal.
Eye fatigue is a common feature of our screen-heavy society and can involve tired, burning and itching sensations in the eyes. With the stress response including a widening of pupils to take in more peripheral information in the face of perceived danger, it can also include sensitivity to light when chronic and long-term stress is in the mix.
The constant, flicking movements our eyes do to watch information moving across screens is not like anything we might watch in the wild.
When our eyes don’t get to rest in between these demands, the muscles can tire. When this moves to headaches, double vision or changed vision, it is important to get this checked out by a doctor or optician.
According to a survey of 2,000 British adults by Innocent Smoothies last year, a fifth of us feel separation anxiety from our mobile devices. This reliance on tech is seriously detrimental to our mental health, driving us to distraction and, in the worse instance, anxiety.
According to WebMD, screen-related eye strain is known as computer vision syndrome and affects about 50-90% of computer workers. They report that “Research shows that people hold digital devices closer to their eyes than they hold books and newspapers.
That forces their eyes to work harder than usual as they strain to focus on tiny font sizes.” Blinking up to half the usual 18 times a minute when looking at a screen also dries out eyes and adds to itching and irritation.
Screen-time late in the evening and at night has also A 2012 study reported that “light level and duration of exposure determine the impact of self-luminous tablets on melatonin suppression”.
This study showed a reduction in melatonin levels of about 22% when someone is exposed to backlit screens for two hours. As the hormone melatonin allows us to go to sleep, this can further tire us and steal sleep time that we need to feed vital nutrients to the eyes.
How to help in the short-term: avoid your smartphone in breaks, closing your eyes and rubbing the lids to encourage lubrication if need be. Cucumber slices can cool and refresh tired eyes as the inside of a cucumber is about 5 degrees lower in temperature than the air around. Used chamomile tea bags may also bring down any irritation and have a soothing effect. The
Longer term: give your eyes, brain and nervous system a rest by getting away from screens as often as possible. Ban technology from the bedroom and pick up a book, swap TV for radio or music as often as possible, resist picking up your phone as soon as you awake and make clear boundaries for checking emails, social media etc. Learning to be without your phone can allow the work time you need to be at a screen to cause less issues.
Jaw tension and headaches
Clenching in the jaw is a basic part of the stress response as it primes us for self-protection, increasing blood flow to the temples to create the heightened vigilance that our primal selves perceive we need for survival when life is challenging.
It gives us a sense of motivation and forward thrust, but when it becomes set as default it can add into neck and shoulder tension, keep sending the signals to keep up stress and agitation and even lead to symptoms like headaches and teeth grinding.
With workplace stress on the rise (Health and Safety Executive: Work related Stress, Anxiety and Depression Statistics in Great Britain 2015, //www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/stress.pdf ) phrases like ‘gritting our teeth through it’ can seem more literal and part of your body’s ‘normal’ setting.
If you practice yoga, you may have noticed your yoga teacher saying lines like “release your jaw”, “soft jaw” or my personal favourite; “allow space between the back teeth”.
This is one of the most important physical observations we can use in both our yoga practice and our life, to gauge how much tension we may be carrying and a route in to letting release and relief flood back into the whole system.
How to help in the short-term: Chewing slowly and mindfully can unlock all kinds of muscles in and around your jaw and into your face. Chewing celery is not only a good jaw workout but it also contains the nervous system soothing chemical apigenin, so can help bring you down from the signals that keep up jaw stress.
If you can gurn, make faces, stick out your tongue, gargle and unstick your usual set ways of expressing through your face! Also cranial osteopathy and auricular (ear) acupuncture may provide immediate relief. The head rolls and shoulder release in Step One of the WIN sequence above can also help if you allow your jaw to slacken as you do them.
Longer term and for immediate relief: help the tension locked into your TMJ, temples and forehead by pinching the muscles that have got stuck in contraction. This gives them the signal that they can release and allow you to feel that you can move your jaw around to create space. this exercise can help relieve stress held from holding stress body patterns chronically:
- Start by pinching the middle of your eyebrows, taking your time to move out to their edges and across the temples, massaging and exploring any way that feels right to you.
- Work out from the temples around the skin covering the bony protuberances behind the ears and even the ears themselves, with a gentle but firm pinching and kneading action.
- Move down the outer back line of the neck down from the skull behind the ears; here you can massage the big scalene muscles that create head turning movements. These are not designed to hold up the head as they are not postural muscles, but can end up doing this job when we tense the shoulders, hunch on chairs and then lift the chin to look forwards.
- Continue down to the upper back and shoulders, anywhere that simply feels good and that it is calling out for this attention.
- Finish by opening the jaw and face and moving into neck and shoulders to feel fully loose.
Cramping and/or pain in the abdomen
Feeling stress in the gut isn’t simply descriptive, our bellies are in constant communication with our brains to guide how we respond to external (and internal) stimuli. As I explain in my book The De-Stress Effect, much stress research has been directed towards the gut, where the enteric nervous system (ENS, aka ‘The Second Brain’) is a complex mass of nerve cells running the entire length of your digestive tract, from mouth to anus.
About the size of a cat’s brain, it can operate separately to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) but is in continual dialogue with the brain. With research now showing that 90 per cent of information flows from gut to brain and only 10 per cent ‘top-down’, simply attempting to soothe ourselves by talking to the mind and staying up in our heads can only get us so far.
Gut feelings are to be listened to; these ‘somatic markers’ are communications about how safe or unsafe are immediate surroundings, situation or people feel to us. These signals can start as whispers, but if not listened to or we are unable to change our situation, then we can feel this as anxiety in the gastro-intestinal tract as cramping or tightness in the belly or the nerves that feed in such as knots in the solar plexus area below the breastbone.
Stress also causes immediate cessation of digestive function, so if you’re partially through digesting a meal, a challenging event or communication (or even simply worry) can leave partially digested food hanging around in the gut and this may create gas that creates pressure, pain and/or flatulence.
How to help in the short-term: calming your whole nervous system can start by connecting with and signalling safety your belly region. If you can lie down with legs bent, but sit comfortably (away from a screen) if you need and place your hands comfortably onto your lower abdomen; with loose fingers and so that you allow the natural rise and fall of your belly as you breathe.
It can take a while to feel this motion of rise on the inhale, drop on the exhale if stress has you breathing up into your upper chest and shoulders, but if you exhale fully into these areas too, you can start to feel release down into the lower body. Releasing the jaw (see above) and sighing out on the exhalation can also signal the space that calming needs to happen.
Longer term: research is beginning to understand how looking after our gut environment helps to signal back up to the brain to either keep the stress response going or allow us to calm back down the other side. Beneficial bacteria in the form of a good quality probiotic and fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir and apple cider vinegar can help feed them and support the right pH balance for them to flourish.
Ensuring adequate levels of the mineral magnesium can help our ability to calm smooth muscle, including that in the bowel, so plenty of green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish can help redress how we use up lots of magnesium in the stress response. If other potential magnesium deficiency symptoms are present – anxiety, insomnia and depression for example – taking 200-400mg magnesium citrate a day may help. Vegetables, fruits and nuts also have a prebiotic action, which feeds beneficial bacteria, particularly artichokes, onions, leeks, bananas, kiwi fruit and almonds.
Getting irritable, intolerant or angry
Anger is a normal response to pain, threat and injustice. It is a healthy response to be able to express it in a calm and reasonable manner. But if this moves into the territory of snapping, lashing out at others or sending out blame out in all directions, this can create the kind of happiness around us that comes straight back towards us.
Being left feeling frustrated, irritated, or resentful eats away at our mental and physical health. We often feel intolerant or angry when we are low on resources, are not feeling heard or respected or (particularly if of an introvert nature) have not had enough time to ourselves for recovery.
If you’ve been putting others first or struggle to say no to expectations from family, friends or work colleagues, having a short fuse is a red warning to create good boundaries for yourself and others.
How to help in the short-term: remove yourself from the situation and find a place where you can see the possibility of space. Place one hand on your heart and the other on your belly. Connecting in to these places we associate with compassion for the heart and intuitive wisdom in the belly (those gut feelings again) in a palpably physical way can help us come down from heightened responses that may be inappropriate for the level of stress presented.
Breathing here and allowing looseness in the jaw can bring a sense of unlocking the tight head we feel in anger and dissipating the intense emotions involved. You can even give yourself a hug; touch, massage and pressure from a warm body is soothing to the nervous system and lets us know that we are safe.
A hug from ourselves – just as from others – produces the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin when over 20 seconds, which has the nurturing effect that can mean a different route to anger or seeing another’s point of view may suddenly seem possible.
Longer term: according to the late psychologist and creator of Non-violent Communication (NVC) Marshall Rosenburg, anger is one of the expressions we can have when we felt we’re not having our basic needs met. His book of the same name is a very helpful guide to finding a language with others and our inner voices to navigate communications with compassion and solve conflict where everybody feels heard and respected.