Stress, for many people, is something to dread. For others, it is the means to their existence. While stress is a natural occurrence, and our response to it has helped us evolve and survive through the centuries, too much stress on a regular basis can be detrimental to our health.

Over 30,000 years ago the Cro-Magnon man needed his body’s response to stress to be swift, especially when hunting for, or being hunted by, large predators. Our Cro-Magnon guy needed this mechanism of his autonomic nervous system (what is termed the fight-or-flight response) to allow for important adjustments in the face of danger—in his case, to eat or to be eaten.

Caught in the cycle

Unfortunately, in today’s high-stress culture, the stress response is activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal—resulting in a state of chronic stress. It is this perpetual stress that can make us susceptible to disease and illness.

The effects of long-term stress are numerous. They include exhaustion, muscle breakdown, an altered immune system, a lowered thyroid function, cardiovascular stress, and alterations in blood sugar levels.

Stress causes elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which leaves us craving high-calorie, high-fat and high-sugar carbohydrates. This in turn causes weight gain, which then usually creates more stress. A very nasty cycle.

Controlling chronic stress

Can we completely avoid stress in our lives? Absolutely not! In fact, I am fairly certain that even the Dalai Lama gets stressed once in a while. What we can manage are our reactions to daily chronic stressors. We can also identify whether we are encountering real stress or just plain old simulated stress, compliments of our busy lifestyles and the urgent-seeming nature of many aspects of modern life.

Next time you feel yourself getting a little worked up, try these three exercises designed to bring the mind back to the moment and help you go from stress-junkie to Zen-master-in-training.

Deep belly breathing

This exercise can be performed anywhere and in any position—seated, standing, in the car, or in bed. Breathing deeply not only gets your mind focused on something that you can control (and off what you can’t), it also provides extra oxygen to the blood and causes the body to release endorphins—brain chemicals that re-energize and assist the body in relaxation.
  • Place your hands on your belly and, if you are able to, close your eyes.
  • Using your nose, take a deep inhalation for five seconds, filling all the way into the lower lobes of the lungs. You should feel your rib cage expand underneath your fingertips.
  • Hold the breath for one to two seconds, then slowly exhale through a slightly opened mouth, this time feeling the rib cage deflate under the fingertips.
  • Continue breathing like this for two to five minutes.

Neck stretch

Most people hold their stress in their neck. Try the following two static stretches to help bring the shoulders down and relax and loosen the tight muscles running along the sides and the back of the neck. Both the neck stretch and side neck stretch should be performed two to three times.

  • Stand or sit up straight with the pelvis rolled under—do not arch your back.
  • Slowly drop your chin into your chest and hold.
  • You should feel a stretch running down the back of the neck all the way down the spine.
  • Hold for a few breaths and then bring the head and posture back to a neutral position.
  • Side neck stretch

    1. Stand or sit up straight with the shoulders relaxed. 2. Drop your left ear to your left shoulder, keeping the chin centre.

    3. Turn your chin in toward the left armpit and slide your left hand on top of the head.

    4. Apply slight pressure on the head, drawing the chin closer toward the left shoulder.

    5. Hold for a few breaths and complete the same steps for the right.

    About the Author

    PJ Wren is a personal trainer and health and wellness writer who tries to not sweat the small stuff.