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Learning the Art of Relaxation

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Stress isn't always a bad thing; it mobilises our bodies and energises us during the coping process. But being overstressed may result in a range of health problems, including headaches, upset stomach, high blood pressure - even strokes or heart disease.

Responding to life stress

One of the first steps to coping with stress is learning to recognise your personal signs and symptoms. The way you function on a daily basis may change, or you may notice a difference in your body (such as tense shoulders), thinking, or general sense of well being. Is the cause for your stress a real threat? Or is something causing needless worry in your life?

Stress is part of life; everyone knows what it's like to be anxious. But we don't need to compound our problems by putting ourselves down and thinking irrational thoughts such as "I'm weak", or "Nobody gets stressed out like I do". We're not weak or neurotic because we're stressed - we're stressed because we're human. We shouldn't waste energy on blaming ourselves or doling out negative thoughts as self-imposed punishment.

Approaching stress constructively

It can be tempting to hide from the people, places and tasks that make life difficult. By removing yourself from the situation, it's possible to find immediate relief - but these sources of stress will never go away unless we confront them. Being haunted by these stressors means that we can't relax in case the sources of stress return.

If avoiding stress triggers isn't such a good technique of dealing with stress, what is? Life experience teaches us that whenever we need to master a new skill - learning to swim, giving a public presentation, taking risks in front of others - it pays to take a deep breath, perhaps grit our teeth, and get on with things. Most of the time, it all works out.

Positive confrontation is a good coping skill when faced with stress. Instead of avoiding a difficult boss, why not take every opportunity to work in his or her presence? Throwing ourselves in at the deep end until we master it is one way to desensitise ourselves to the people, places and work we find stressful. Taking action is good for our self-esteem too.

Another way to take action on stress is to control the body and mind. Self-relaxation leading up to stressful times (as well as afterwards!) and positive self-talk ("I have the skills to do this job well", "I've done this a dozen times before") are excellent skills to have. Sometimes our perceptions of a situation may be inaccurate - interpretations of an event or situation may be more negative when we're down or dissatisfied.

The first step to practising meditation is learning to breathe in a manner that facilitates a state of calmness and awareness. As the mind settles down, the body also achieves a unique state of rest. The changes that take place have been measured in physiological tests and are found to directly reverse the adverse effects of stress.

Nowadays, stress is a fact of life. Furthermore it tends to build up in the system over the course of a lifetime. Even a good night's sleep or an extended holiday may not enable us to recover fully. Research shows that when you meditate, the body experiences:
  • Deep rest - Physiological indications of deep rest
  • Reduced stress hormones
  • Natural change in breathing
  • Increased relaxation and decreased stress
  • Reduced anxiety
After we have finished meditating, the mind is fresher, quieter, more alert, happier. Any problems that there may have been prior to meditation are frequently seen in a better light.

There is increasing evidence that complementary and alternative therapies can help with stress-related symptoms, tension, anxiety and depression.

By Om Shanti and Sue Hine
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Learning the Art of Relaxation

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