Are you feeling stressed, lonely or sad? Don't be surprised if you become ill. Research has shown that our state of mind affects our health.
Our lives today can be filled with stressors such as financial worries, relationship problems, work issues, loneliness and health concerns. Even positive events such as moving house or a new baby can contribute to stress.
How does stress affect our bodies?
Our minds and bodies are closely linked, meaning that mental stress leads to physical symptoms. For example, when we feel overwhelmed or threatened; our heart rate increases, muscles tense up and breathing becomes fast and shallow. This is part of what's known as our 'stress response' - our body's natural survival mechanism which allows us to remain alert and fight an imminent threat. The trouble is that this reaction is only meant to be temporary; when it's prolonged (chronic), it can have a negative effect on our health.
Chronic stress can actually contribute to serious conditions like heart disease, disorders of the digestive system, and mental illness. It can affect our immune system, making us susceptible to all kinds of bacteria and viruses. It's a nasty cycle, stress makes us ill, and illness makes us stressed.
How can we help ourselves?
Years of research now indicates that we can change the way stress affects us. One study, which monitored students doing days of important exams, found that their immune response became weaker each day. However, when they began to practice stress relieving techniques consistently, their immune system function significantly improved.
There are many ways to relieve stress and practice mindfulness - from practical activities such as listening to music, reading, exercise, and hobbies - to learning strategies such as mindfulness and meditation. Even changing the way you breathe can improve your mood and counteract stress.
We can't avoid external stressors, but we can manage how we react and cope with these. Simple stress-management techniques can have a positive effect on our immune system and health in general.
Try this easy exercise:
Using your diaphragm (the muscle below your ribs) to breathe, rather than your upper chest, inhale slowly through your nose until you can't breathe in anymore and your belly has expanded.
Hold for a count of three, exhale slowly until you've emptied your lungs and your belly has deflated.
Repeat up to three times, and then resume breathing normally.
You can repeat this sequence as often as you need, but stop if you start to feel faint or dizzy.