By P.D. Kai Swigart, PhD, MFT
Stress is the leading cause of most physical, mental, and emotional problems. We all succumb to its pressurizing perturbations from time to time, and for some, it has become a way of life. Stress is experienced by the body, mind, and emotions as strain, tension, and worry; and, in most cases, it’s preventable!
It is more than just a simple response to cognitive, environmental, or genetic factors. It completely changes how our cerebellum creates its cascading neurosparkles. Stress informs the brain that we are in danger. When receiving this message, our guardian gray matter rallies its resources and prepares its troops for battle. After this red alert status is triggered, our neural net shifts us into Survival Mode, where it limits thought, perceived possibilities, and courses of action to those associated with preserving life in the face of mortal danger. It also turns off the body’s normal repair and maintenance systems to free up all available resources for what it believes will be a struggle for survival.
This is why chronic stress often leads to progressively more severe forms of physical, mental, and emotional illness. It can also damage brain structure and connectivity. Stress, whether manifesting as emotions such as anger, fear, or shock or states like depression and anxiety, originated as an instinctual aid to help focus us on survival when confronted by an imminent threat. In the absence of real danger, we were not intended to experience such negative thoughts or emotions. They were not supposed to take away our happiness. So what happened?
SURVIVAL AND THE INTERFERING EGO
When our cave dwelling ancestors developed to a point where life was something more than an ongoing struggle for survival, they became aware that more was there to see and know. The ego, our perception of self in the context of the world, began to grow. When life became more than a daily fight for food and shelter, there was room for reflection, relaxation, and peace to flow.
Although the human ego sparked the origins of basic self-awareness—which carried the seeds of self-acceptance, compassion, and responsible living—it also awakened the potential for selfish preoccupation with image, power, and possessions. The higher vibrational use of the ego offers a window to the universe, while its lower vibrational counterpart builds the walls that imprison us. It was intended to be a porthole through which to see that we are part of a larger process, to encourage our pursuit of higher consciousness.
Yet, most live lost within the limits of its levees. As time passed, for those trapped within the confines of their selfish preoccupations, growing importance was placed upon their ego issues. Image, power, and possessions—and the things that represented them—began to seem like they were matters of survival. Negative thoughts and emotions, which were biologically engineered solely for the purpose of helping us survive against legitimate threats to life, were now occurring when our ego needs were threatened. Negative emotions went from the survival basics of anger or fear that helped us fight or run away from a snarling tiger or thundering landslide to anger or fear in the service of our image, thirst for power, and push for possessions. Just as the ego was never intended to foster selfish preoccupations, our negative emotions were not designed to serve the ego. But here we are. Now what?
TAKE BACK YOUR PEACE
When I checked in with Siri regarding the definition of peace, here is what she said: “A state prevailing during the absence of war; harmonious relations—freedom from disputes; the absence of mental stress or anxiety; the general security of public places; and a treaty to cease hostilities.”
If we embroider all five of these definitions into a contextually integrated whole, then we will arrive at an image of peace that approaches its meaning in this article. Remember, stress triggers the brain into believing that our life is in danger, creating a cascade effect through our related thoughts, emotions, words, and actions. We may seem angry (fight), avoidant (flight), or vacant (freeze) for no apparent reason. We may aggressively act out, pack our things and leave, or curl up on the floor in our closet hoping to disappear. Variations on a fight, flight, or freeze theme are all the brain allows us to consider while under stress.
While in this state we do not usually realize that what we are thinking, feeling, saying, or doing is the result of a temporary condition caused by stress. We usually believe that we are fully justified in our views, and go looking for things to support them. This secondary response to the initial stress response is what reinforces the problem, and often creates new and bigger ones. We want to believe that what we said and did was right (ego image), so we look for internal (thoughts) and external (people) allies to support it. We do this even when it means distorting perceptions and contextual relevance, or fabricating information, events, and memories.
From this ego illusion comes a distorted sense of reality based on the perceived limitations generated by the brain when we are in Survival Mode. It pulls us out of our peace and places us in a primitive mindset where we again believe that we need to struggle for survival (full circle back to our cave-dwelling days). But, unless there is a real and eminent threat, it is all unnecessary. It is an ego-driven illusion. We can rise above it and take back our peace. In order to do this, we must convince the brain that we are safe.
NO MORE STRESS
With this physiognomy of stress in view, let’s take a look at some natural ways to overcome it. It is important to realize that, since we are all so uniquely different, distinctive curative combinations may be needed by various individuals. What works for one may not work for another. When someone tells you what you need to do, this may simply mean that this is what worked for them. Give yourself permission to be who you are. When you find yourself, accept yourself, and seek the truth responsibly, you will find the ways to rise above your stress.
As an alternative shrink, here are some things that have worked for me, and for those whose healing I have had the privilege of encouraging.
>>Stress Relief Through Nature
Our finest material world examples of truth, peaceful acceptance, and being present exist within nature. For me, truth is that which is natural without being altered; acceptance as non-resistance to truth; and being present as living with acceptance of the moment as it occurs. If we spend time in nature, and follow her example, our egoic resistance to life will melt away, along with our stress and its various manifestations.
The exotic passionflower, delicate rose, or dancing daffodil wears no makeup, mini skirt, or phony smile; she is not trying to be beautiful; she just is. Birds, crystals, oceans, and oak trees are freedom, magic, power, and majesty. They do not resist life; they are life. They do not seek comfort, popularity, or possessions; they simply exist, fulfilling their purpose, until they are no longer there. Whatever happens, happens. Nature is not focused on its guilt from the past or worry about the future. It has no mind to pollute the present. It simply exists in it. When we become more like the bird, flower, or crystal, our disquietude will dissolve into a delicious desire for living. In this peaceful state of acceptance, our brain will realize that we are safely buttoned up. Nature can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
*How Do I Eliminate Stress with Nature and Sun?
*How Does Nature Impact Our Well-Being?
*Stress Recovery During Exposure to Natural and Urban Environments
*Nature is Good Medicine For Stress
>>Hobbies and Stress Reduction
Leisure time activities are an important part of any healthy, balanced lifestyle. They help dissolve dolor through their creativity and release. Whether knitting, cooking, gardening, or baking, writing, strumming, painting, or chair making, hobbies stimulate fecundity, focus energy, and distract us from ennui. When happily investing in our hobbies, our resident brainiac realizes that we are safe and well. Hobbies can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Exercise Relieves Stress
Weight training, cardio, and yoga improve physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, showing the brain that we are safe and well. (We would not have the luxury of lifting, scampering, or saluting the sun if our life was in danger.) Exercise also provides structure and focus, improving our mood and distracting the mind from perceived problems. The many health benefits of exercise—greater strength, sexual performance, endurance, concentration, and longevity, to name a few—will create conditions that are incompatible with stress. Exercise can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Yoga and the Peace Pretzel
Throughout the ages, yoga has been known to create balance, stability, and improved health. When joining the models, dancers, and enlightened lovers in this ancient health practice, our control center realizes that we are out of harm’s way. Yoga helps prevent (benefits stop formation of stress, which keeps brain from shifting into Survival Mode) or decrease (benefits convince brain that we are not in danger, and then it shifts out of Survival Mode) potential stress. Yoga can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Meditation and Stress Reduction
According to decades of scientific research, and millennia of spiritual practice, meditation is the single most effective method for transmuting stress into peaceful acceptance. Most forms of such speculative contemplation slow the body down, convincing the brain that we are sitting pretty. Meditation can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Mitigating Stress with Music
Music, the apothecary’s remedy for congestion of the soul, can produce a state of calmness deep within. Her mellifluous melodies convince our gray matter that we are currently impervious to danger. Music can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Swipe Away Your Stress with Smartphone Apps
There are some remarkably effective tools for transmuting stress into serenity now available at the iTunes Store and Android Marketplace. Apps for everything from meditation to mantras to plucking your eyebrows to brewing your morning coffee can now be found for your laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
As you know, there are also apps for monitoring steps, heart rate, breathing, and so much more. Our ever-present gadgets can dissipate our dolefulness, making sunshine, love, and laughter out of rain.
When free to play with our gadgets, our neural net knows that we are shielded from the pain. Smartphone apps can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Sleep for Stress Reduction
Physical, mental, and emotional systems are more stable and balanced when we get enough rest. If we become fatigued, then these same systems experience depletion, instability, and imbalance, mimicking the conditions generated while under threat. A fatigued state is more likely to cause the brain to shift into Survival Mode because of the physiological (adrenals, thyroid, hormonal), psychological (cognitive distortions), and emotional (shorter fuse or over-reactions) effects from the tiredness.
The brain sees fatigue as weakness and a possible sign of vulnerability to danger. When combined with other things like irritability, anger, and fear, the threat indicators will eventually add up to danger to the brain and the brain will then shift us into Survival Mode, which will increase the severity even further. To master this mischievous little mind trap, it is important that we gain a clear understanding of this concept. Sufficient sleep can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Conscious Eating Relieves Stress
Consuming regular meals of fresh, organic food each day, whether hungry or not, will help us regulate the utility of our bodily systems. When our dietary decisions help balance functions like our pituitary, adrenal, thyroid, and other hormones, the brain knows that we are safe. (These functions would be either spiking or depleted if we were in danger.) The better our nutritional balance, the less likely the brain is to believe that our eating habits represent vulnerability to threat. Conscious eating can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Sex and Stress Reduction
Researchers have recently discovered that meditation and sex are the same to the brain. Because meditation may be the single greatest source of relief from hypertension, draw your own conclusions, while getting naked and grabbing your honey (or favorite sexy toy). Emerging trends reveal that everyone could benefit from having more sex. Sex is an energy source that boosts our physical vitality, emotional stability, mental clarity, and spiritual well-being.
Like superfoods, yoga, and meditation, frequent sex is a requisite element in a healthy, happy lifestyle. Regular love-making keeps the body in better balance. That erotic ascension to orgasm pumps dopamine, our body’s natural heroin-high, into our neural pathways, producing motivation, stamina, and personal power. When we erupt into orgasm, its pulsating pleasure floods us with oxytocin, increasing social effectiveness and decreasing cortisol levels (cortisol causes stress). Higher pheromone levels are sexy souvenirs from the rhapsodic radiance of our sweet sensuality. Regular sex can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Ditching Drama Decreases Stress
Drama is an exaggerated, distorted, and misleading misrepresentation of something. Whether intentional, accidental, or habitual, such egoic stagecraft can create the illusion that there is something very wrong. Drama can cause the brain to believe that we are in danger, shifting us into Survival Mode, from which our histrionic thoughts and strong emotions fuel the fire. Such flaming theatrics can cause symptoms of stress to worsen.
Stick to the facts, hold to the truth, and live in the moment. If you examine your thoughts while under the influence of stress, you will see that you are either fearful of the future or dwelling on the past. Live peacefully in the present. Ditching drama can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Self-Awareness and Stress Reduction
Increased ascetic understanding will help us realize what, when, and how we are thinking, saying, and doing, revealing higher-level steps toward growth and change. From such an elevated vantage point, it is easier to see the truth, the facts, the evidence around us—and harder to get sucked into the game.
When we broaden our perspective based on truth and deeper realizations, our irrational beliefs, destructive drama, and exaggerated emotions are uncovered, then fade away. Self-awareness makes us happier by revealing truth, exposing illusion, and proving to the brain that all is well. Self-awareness can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Natural Supplements for Stress Relief
Getting to know our body, mind, and spirit—and understanding what they crave—will improve our health and happiness today. When we have the natural resources we need to deal with life’s stressors, we will cope more effectively, have more energy and endurance, and experience less distraction and dismay. When we decrease our stress through the mindful consumption of needed natural supplements, the brain knows we are safe, shifts us out of Survival Mode, and lowers the level of our stress. Such supplements could include the maintenance variety (e.g., multivitamins, vitamin C, a B-complex vitamin, niacin, choline, inositol, ginkgo, iron, aminos, fermented cod liver oil, calcium, etc.) or mood enhancers (e.g., St. John’s wort, passionflower extract, kava, etc.). Natural supplements can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Less Stress by Helping Others
Investing time and money in the well-being of others is a scientifically proven prescription for lessening our stress. Studies have shown that the single most reliable momentary increase in feelings of well-being occurs just after performing an act of kindness for another. Such a gesture, along with the blissful burst it generates, shows the brain that we are skipping on sunshine. (We would not be helping others or feeling joy if we were under a threat.) So let’s ditch our distress by providing aid, support, or service to humanity. Helping others can transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Pets and Stress Relief
The unconditional love of a dog or cat floods us with oxytocin and endorphins, fills our heart and soul with joy, and flips us into Safe Mode—or keeps us there. Our furry friends turn bitter into sweet sun salutations, dejection into hope for a brighter day, abasement into rhythms of alacrity and promise, and sorrow into smiles and peaceful play.
Let’s face it: When our best bud races toward us, tail wagging in preparation for liftoff, jumps into our welcoming arms, and begins their lick attack, we instantly relax and start to grin. Pets can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Accepting Yourself Decreases Stress
When you stop judging, criticizing, and blaming yourself; when you accept who you really are; when you respect, understand, and love from within; then you will glow with the light of a star.
After accepting yourself, you will no longer struggle with the acceptance of other people, places, or things. Acceptance tells our command structure that we are secure. Self-acceptance can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Acceptance of Mistakes Promotes Peace
Some people would rather die than admit they made a mistake, spend their entire life pretending to be a know-it-all to defend against their fears of inadequacy, and fail to learn the lessons or see the light. They spin endlessly within the recurrent cycles of delusion, twisting truth to fit their dark, distorted views. When we have issues with being wrong, we will be perpetually discouraged, since we cannot live without making mistakes. Errors are as common as eating, and without them we will rarely grow or change. When we welcome our mistakes, and find the value in their vestige, we will learn, evolve, and normalize their range. Accepting mistakes can transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Stress Reduction Through Acceptance of the Unknown
If you have a high need to know what will happen—if, without it, anxiety rules—then you are trying to live by controlling. So take charge, of yourself, with your tools. Control issues generate distress because we cannot actually control everything, and because of the problems that develop when we try to. When we get upset when something happens differently than we expected it to and experience the resulting ennui, the brain thinks that we are in danger and then drives up dejection.
If this sounds familiar, then work toward greater flexibility, self-awareness, and self-control. Acceptance of the unknown can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
*Four Steps to Feel Less Stressed About the Uncertain Future
*Five Ways to Let Go and Embrace an Uncertain Future
*Use Your Vulnerability and Accept the Unknown to Improve Your Overall Well-Being
*Why You’re So Afraid of Change
>>Family, Friends, and Community for Stress Relief
This is a complicated, tricky, and individually specific consideration, since our relationships with others are frequently the cause of our stress. Everyone is uniquely different, has varying needs, and is exclusively impacted by contact with people. If being a hermit makes you happy, then enjoy your solitude. There is no right or wrong answer here. Some are too sensitive for this world, and find contact with people far too harsh, scary, and disappointing. This, for them, is totally okay—and should be accepted. Others crave social contact. Some quietly cruise along a scale of introversion, and others dance Grand Central with a smile.
Research has shown that, for some, staying connected with others generates hope, health, and happiness. From my personal and clinical experiences, I must add that involvement with people can destroy our lives. It is important to increase our awareness of how people affect us, and assertively adjust our boundaries to support our needs. If peaceful friends make us happy, then let it be. If they are more than we can handle emotionally, or if their selfishness shatters our heart, then we should move them away in a hurry, before crashing or falling apart. If they fail to respect our boundaries, values, and priorities, then we are better off without them in our lives (this includes family). For those with social interests, when possessing sufficient awareness of self and others, healthy contact with humanity can heal. If you are too shy or uncomfortable to deal with people directly, then you may want to consider forums or blogs for your communion. When contact with others helps us feel better, our brain knows we are safely under lock and key. Family, friends, and community can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Eliminate Stress with Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This technique is a scientifically proven method for decreasing distress and improving sleep. When our muscles relax, our brain knows we are feeling peachy—they would be tense and tight if a threat was really there. Progressive muscle relaxation can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Ruminate Less to Mess with Stress
Thoughts generate emotions generate thoughts generate emotions generate thoughts—get the picture? If you have a thought (including your interpretation of an experience) that generates stress, then accept the experience and the anxiety it produced—and let it pass. The average emotion lasts three to five minutes unless we keep it alive through repetitive thought.
If you continue focusing on what happened (or what you originally thought), then you will create the stress again. If you respond to this second round of stress with more thought about it, then you will generate a third. If this continues, then your repeating loop may broaden, pulling in additional causes of strain, tension, and worry, increasing its cognitive distortions, and intensifying its emotional grip. Rumination reduction can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Genuine Smiling for Stress Reduction
If we are smiling naturally (rather than painting a counterfeit smirk across our face), then our body relaxes—we would not be capable of sincerely smiling if we were in mortal danger. Genuine smiling can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Stress Reduction Through Structure and Routines
Maintaining a familiar structure, keeping life in its usual order, and putting frequently used items back in their place will show the brain you are safe. Chaos and disorganization create distress, causing our gray matter to conclude that we are in conflict. Order produces comfort and convinces our command center that we are safe and well. Being organized can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Essential Oils, Incense, and Crystals for Stress Relief
Wild orange tincture, the smoky smell of sage or cedar, and the energy of minerals in our hand speak of safety, so our brain will understand. If we have the luxury of slathering on silky oils, getting lost in fragrant reverie, or sharing energy with lemurians in the dawn, it’s not likely there’s a leopard on our lawn. Oils, incense, and crystals can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
>>Professional Help and Stress Reduction
Therapy or spiritual teaching can help us climb out of the darkness into the glistening light of hope, love, and truth. When, through existential analysis, vibrational healing, or awakened consciousness, we learn to put discomfort in its place, the brain will know that we are safe and stress will disappear. Professional help can help transform our stress into health and happiness.
ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES TO STRESS REDUCTION
Following are brief descriptions of some alternative approaches to stress reduction, along with links to help you locate preferred providers.
>>Naturopathy, or Naturopathic Medicine, is a form of alternative medicine employing a wide array of natural treatments, including homeopathy, herbalism, and acupuncture, as well as diet and lifestyle counseling.
//Find a Naturopathic Doctor
>>Functional Medicine is a personalized, systems-oriented model that empowers patients and practitioners to achieve the highest expression of health by working in collaboration to address the underlying causes of disease.
//Find a Functional Medicine Practitioner
>>Homeopathy, or Homeopathic Medicine, is a holistic system of treatment that originated in the late 18th century. The name homeopathy is derived from two Greek words that mean “like disease.” The system is based on the idea that substances that produce symptoms of sickness in healthy people will have a curative effect when given in very dilute quantities to sick people who exhibit those same symptoms. Homeopathic remedies are believed to stimulate the body’s own healing processes. Homeopaths use the term allopathy, or “different than disease,” to describe the use of drugs used in conventional medicine to oppose or counteract the symptom being treated.
//Find a Homeopath
>>TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine, is a profound pathway to create the life you truly want to live, the life you were born to live. It’s a timeless bridge that can initiate and support change and growth in any and every life dimension: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
//Find a TCM Practitioner
>>Acupuncture is a form of TCM that uses fine needles and inserts them into specific points in the body to treat numerous body ailments, including pain.
//Find an Acupuncturist
>>Orthomolecular Medicine describes the practice of preventing and treating disease by providing the body with optimal amounts of substances which are natural to the body.
//Find an Orthomolecular Medicine Practitioner
>>Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that has its origins in the Vedic culture of India. Although suppressed during years of foreign occupation, ayurveda has been enjoying a major resurgence in both its native land and throughout the world.
//Find an Ayurvedic Doctor
About the Author:
Dr. Kai is a licensed shrink, shaman, spiritual teacher, vibrational healing practitioner, and coach. As a musician, he writes, arranges, and records original tracks and plays keyboard, guitar, sax, flute, and drums. He enjoys working out, landscaping, outrigger canoe paddling, swimming, fixing things, dobermans, and dark beer. Visit him at alternativeshrink.com.