Stress, Mindfulness, Meditation or Sleep
Nigel Lowson is a Chief Relaxation Officer and has kindly come to share his expertise with us in the Brain Tumour Comunity. Nigel gives practical advice to those who are in need – this may be in the field of stress, mindfulness, meditation or sleep. Today he talks about dealing with Stress and more. I will leave you in the safe hands, Nigel, enjoy!
Stress is what we feel when the pressures of a situation are greater than the capacity of our resources to cope. And it hurts. It hurts us and can impact negatively on our workplace and on the people around us.
Very few of us escape life’s difficulties lightly and I know that part of my education into stress was with my health problem a few years ago.
Then, I learnt pretty quickly and powerfully just how strong the link between physical and mental health was with regard to stress when I woke up a few years ago and couldn’t move without excruciating pain – real, horrible pain in the fingers, my toes, my feet, my hands, in all my limbs – in fact, everywhere. Scary? It sure was! but after various tests and chats with consultants, it was clear to me if not to them that my stress levels had been high for far too long for my wellbeing— it was a wake-up call and by Jove, I woke up! Quickly! I practised intensely what I’d been preaching about for years and within a few months I was back to pretty close to my normal self. But I had changed inside – now I was even more determined that I would expand my help to people who found stress difficult.
Being told one has a brain tumour is a shock. A big shock. It really pushes a person’s stress and fear levels through the roof. And those of their carers of course. And it’s known that people with a brain tumour diagnosis find it especially difficult to cope well with stress because more often than not the brain is just not functioning as well.
So it is perhaps “super important” for people with brain tumours to adopt a routine that includes relaxation techniques as a matter of course. To lower the stress levels and to keep them low. Relaxation is all about feeling calm and this post is focused on this and is accompanied by several video and audio clips with practical tips that work very well at helping people relax.
How do you know when you’re stressed?
We all have markers that warn us that we’re moving into the land of stress.
My tell-tale signs are:
- Clenched fists
- Tight, hunched shoulders
- Stomach issues – say no more!
I used to see these as problems but then I realised they were messages from me to me. Important messages to try to get me to change how I reacted to whatever it was that was going on around me. Once I saw these signs in this way, as a sort or early warning system, I started to be able to take control of my responses more and more. And life became a lot easier.
When stressed we produce certain chemicals that call us to action so we can defend ourselves against the “threat”. That’s good…and essential against real threats but…. they also influence our mind so we feel less positive, can’t think as quickly or rationally as we usually do, we are more judgemental of others and ourselves, and we just can’t think straight any more…. Have you been there?
Also, when we’re stressed our memory lets us down more, we become angry more easily, may have temper tantrums, feel anxious, feel others don’t understand us, feel lousy about ourselves… Been there too? Has it been made worse by the brain tumour?
And, when we\re stressed our behaviour changes as we become less energetic, less enthusiastic about life, maybe eat/smoke/drink more and of the “wrong stuff”, get tongue-tied with people, sleep poorly…Been there too?
How stressed are you?
On a rough scale of 0 to 10 how stressed are you now? 0 being so chilled you are like an industrial freezer and 10 being so hot and frazzled by life that you really don’t know how to keep going at all.
If you can score your feelings of stress along this 0 -10 scale every hour for a few days, or better still over an “average” week. Then look at your scores and see if there is a pattern – for example most people I have worked with feel more stressed in the morning or when they are with, or about to be with, a certain person. A few people have a pattern that ebbs and flows over the days amazingly consistently, probably linked to their circadian rhythms. Others see a pattern with what they have eaten or drunk earlier.
This self-examination and the evidence it produces can be a great asset in moving from stressed to calm. Especially if you can look at yourself without adding to your stress levels and without judging yourself as weak or as a failure.
Of course, you could see your stress as a sign of failure to be an ideal or a successful person and add to your stress that way. You could also blame everyone else for your stress if you wish to. Or you could just accept the stress levels for what they are – just scores from 1 – 10. Just numbers which only mean something when we say that’s “good” or that’s “bad”.
Can you see two buttons?
Imagine you have two lovely big buttons inside you. When you, or people you care about, are in danger, you’re in pain, or have low blood sugar, or are excited or are stressed you automatically press the first one.
Actually, this is pressed even when you think something bad is about to happen to you, even if you’re wrong or exaggerating things massively! It’s also pushed when you feel negative emotions!
So, a lot of people are pushing this button a lot of the time today! Once this button is pushed, the perfectly normal SNS (the sympathetic nervous system) kicks into action.
The job of this SNS is to protect you by turning on the fight or flight response. This prepares your body for emergencies within seconds by pumping more blood to the muscles (to the arms if you are angry and to the legs if you are scared) and releases chemicals, especially cortisol and adrenaline. It acts a bit like an accelerator in a car by increasing your energy which raises your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and so on. You feel threatened and your body quickly gets ready to fight or to run, to flee.
The effect of this button is worse if you feel you have no, or little control over the situation; if you lack hope that there is a way out of the situation; and if you feel you have no emotional support from other people. It’s all made worse because as the cortisol level increases in your body it has a knock on effect which makes you feel more apathetic, distracted and less able to enjoy anything. In short, you feel lousy! Really lousy. Been there?
Our bodies were built to activate the SNS in emergencies, for example, when being chased by a wild and rather hungry animal! But because we live in a world that is pretty intense, exciting, stressful, aggressive at times, and busy we actually think there are emergencies a lot of the time. So, the SNS is over-activated and its base level is too high for our comfort and health much of the time. And when a brain tumour is present this is all magnified even more.
Obviously this is not good for our physical or mental well-being as it makes us tune into, pick up and dwell on negative experiences and negative feelings a whole lot more easily. All this makes us tense, not able to sleep well and generally feel down.
What can you do to help yourself? Fortunately, a lot. Read on.
What can you do to help yourself?
The answer is: lots and lots!! Some people seek medicines and others look for ways to reduce the stresses in their lives, for example by changing jobs, partners, drinking too much alcohol etc. But these might not be the best options for you. But there is always that second button. Remember?
Hitting this second button turns on the perfectly natural PNS (parasympathetic nervous system). This works to conserve energy and acts like a brake in the car. It is the relaxation response, the rest and digest response which you can activate yourself to quieten the mind and relax the body. Then your body is more able to heal itself from all sorts of illnesses. The PNS counteracts and regulates the SNS and the good news is you can do a lot of really easy things to activate this and make yourself less stressed, less anxious and less worried. And probably more like the person you were or want to be.
Benson, the person who brought the relaxation response to everyone’s attention in the 1970’s, suggested that we sit still for 10 minutes a day and just focus on a word or phrase that meant something to us – such as ‘love’, ‘peace’, ‘healthy mind and body’. And if our mind wandered we just brought it back to this word or phrase. He felt that by doing this we would exercise this response and it would become more natural. He was right but many people find this difficult to do and most people who start on this stop it in a few weeks. A pity because it works but don’t worry there are lots of other techniques that are quick and easy to do that activate your relaxation response and we’ll come onto them in a moment. But first…