Stress is a survival mechanism from our caveman days. When we are stressed, we feel emotionally and mentally strained by difficult or demanding circumstances. Stress causes a great deal of tension in our bodies and minds. Chronic stress, in particular, has been referred to as a proxy killer, linked to the six leading causes of death.
How stress works is that when we see a perceived threat or, these days, an unmet need or task to complete, we feel stress and go into “fight or flight mode”. As a result, the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released into our bodies, causing our hearts to beat faster, our blood pressure and sugar to rise, our immune system to be suppressed, our breathing to quicken, and less blood supply to be delivered to our digestive tract.
We all experience stress, and while temporary or fleeting moments of stress, also known as acute or short-term stress, can in fact propel us to perform better, experiencing stress consistently over a long period of time can be greatly detrimental to our physical and emotional health. Each of us has experienced both forms of this stress. Acute or short-term stress is what we feel right before giving a presentation, taking an important test, or going into a job interview; you feel your heart beating faster, your breath quickening, and maybe even your throat and hands trembling. This is our bodies way of protecting and preparing us for a challenge, as well as enhancing our mental and physical capabilities for a short period of time.
Chronic stress is something we may experience due to a toxic work environment, caring for a loved one who is chronically ill, or coping with external turmoil in our lives. This form of stress weakens our immune system and can have lasting negative impacts on our hearts and blood vessels.
So how can we prevent ourselves from struggling with chronic stress? Meditation, and in particular, mindfulness practice, is a powerful way to combat our inclination to feel stress and anxiety for extended periods of time. How? By guiding us to consider what thoughts, emotions, and external situations demand our energy or not. Meditation allows us to find more clarity in understanding what are actual reasons to feel stressed and what are just our own self-imposed sources of stress. In other words, we don’t aim to eliminate stress but rather, we try to live with it and manage it.