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By Barbara Leverone
Stress is a fact of everyday living – it’s here to stay, and we need to learn to recognize it. With more knowledge about how to relax, we can learn to recover from stress. Step One is increasing our awareness of the various stress factors in our lives and how stress manifests in our bodies. Some stresses are long-term and chronic—an unhappy job situation, financial worries, or difficult relationships, or perhaps you periodically suffer from allergies or food sensitivities that have plagued you for years.
Acute stress comes in the form of a blow-up with a loved one, a car accident, or nervousness about an important job interview. And there are other, less obvious forms of stress—thermal ones like stepping from hot, humid outdoor weather into an ice-cold air-conditioned restaurant. And chemical ones like junk food, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and other drugs, as well as environmental factors like smog.
So, begin by learning to recognize the various stressors in your life and decide if there are some that you can eliminate. It’s equally important to acknowledge those that you can’t do much about. Sometimes, you’ll find that you become overstressed because there’s just a little bit of stress coming at you—from each of the different categories. At first it seems like there’s nothing particularly huge to point to, but it’s the cumulative effect of many small amounts of stress—chronic and acute—that bring you to the brink of exhaustion.
Another aspect of the recognition step is to learn to observe the physical manifestations of stress, particularly in the early warning stages. Insomnia, shallow breathing, grinding your teeth at night, stomach aches, headaches, anxiety, are all physical clues that indicate you need to be practicing Step Two—options for relaxing, in the moment—that can help bring you back to a place of homeostasis, or balance.
Increasing your awareness of these factors in your life has to be the first step. Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli physicist and educator, said, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t do what you want.” A recent newspaper article warned that people are assuming they can handle stress with isolated blocks of relaxation like weekend getaways and evening yoga classes. Instead, the suggestion was made that we need to learn to handle stress as it happens, by changing the way we react to it.
Dr. Feldenkrais, who lived from 1904-1984, developed a series of movement explorations to help us learn to recognize our physical habits and introduce more efficient, healthy patterns. Many of the lessons he created involve physical functions such as reaching, bending, turning and walking, and many of them involve more subtle functions like breathing and becoming aware of the tension patterns we have developed.
These simple breathing and movement explorations can be practiced anytime, anywhere, and in just a few minutes, help you recognize the tension in your body, relax, and recover. The process of increasing awareness and exploring new choices for yourself is something that can easily be learned and practiced so that you can approach life with health and resilience.