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Jane Alexander

Stress Relief: Coping with Life
in a Difficult World 
by Jane Alexander


My friend Liz is a highly successful lawyer in her mid-thirties. She has all the material trappings of success yet her life is spiraling out of control. She feels guilty that she doesn’t spend enough time with her young child. Pressure at work is intense and she frequently spends half the night working. She has been on six holidays so far this year (which sounds great), each time telling me, "Jane, I’ve really got to get my head together," yet each time she comes back more disillusioned. She is suffering total burnout, a classic victim of stress.

Even more distressing is the case of my niece, Kate, who at just nine years old already shows symptoms of severe stress. At school she’s under enormous pressure to do well in exams and has several hours of homework every night. She shows clear evidence of anxiety, has nightmares, separation anxiety and the start of obsessive-compulsive disorder. As far as I can see, it’s only going to get worse when she goes to her senior school.

I’m not usually a doom and gloom merchant but I’m getting increasingly worried about stress. It’s all very well and good to say that stress can be "good," that there is such a thing as "positive stress" but, in my experience, nobody I know is loving his or her stress. We’re getting ourselves into deep dark misery – and it’s getting worse. The 21st century is a more difficult place than we ever imagined. Life is changing faster than anyone could have predicted and the bottom line is that we’re just not coping.


The Energy Secret by Jane Alexander
            Live Well: the Ayurvedic Way to Health and Inner Bliss by Jane Alexander


We’re seeing the inexorable rise of "brownout" and burnout – which lead to depression, anxiety and despair; in some cases mental or physical breakdown, even suicide. Psychologists witness the onslaught of new and frightening phenomena, such as "desk rage" where workers resort to stand-up rows with their colleagues because of work pressures. We’re starting to hear about "future shock syndrome," "information fatigue syndrome" and "data smog" as the information highway sends our minds into gridlock.

It’s not just at work either. Cracks are appearing in our relationships, our families and in society as a whole. We feel ourselves failing as parents, as partners, as friends, as people – because, contrary to what we’ve been told, we simply can’t have it all. We just don’t have the time to do it all.

A report from the International Labour Organisation predicts a dramatic worldwide increase in stress as new technologies grow and globalisation accelerates. A recent survey found that more than 75% of Americans alone feel they’re not coping. Stress is becoming the ruling factor in our lives.

This isn’t very positive and it certainly isn’t very soulful but I hope you haven’t given up yet. The point of banging on in this way is to show that, if you’re suffering from stress, you’re certainly not alone. Our culture demands that we cope, that we put on a brave face, that we struggle through. It’s weak to admit you suffer from stress. Well, what a load of nonsense! We’re petrified of failure; guilty because we imagine we’re the only ones who feel this way. Yet the truth is, we’re all facing much the same dilemmas – it’s just that few of us will openly admit them. We’re stifling our fears, our anxieties, our anger and our misery – and so the problem grows.

I will be totally honest, up front, and say that the suggestions in this feature won’t cure the stress of the world. My own feeling is that we need a sea-change in the way we live, the way our society functions, before we can see a real dip in our global stress levels. But there are ways and means of coping with stress on a day to day basis. To take the edge off. To make stress manageable. So this feature is going to be as practical as I can make it, stuffed full of tips for instant stress-busting and more long-term tactics. You’ll probably find that some are more appealing than others – so take your pick. But I would seriously recommend you try to incorporate at least one of the longer-term stress strategies into your life. They can be real lifesavers – literally.


The Five Minute Healer by Jane Alexander            The Weekend Healer by Jane Alexander


SHOCK TACTICS FOR SHORT-TERM STRESS

These can be useful for occasions when you need immediate relief for tension and stress:

  1. Don't fly for the coffee machine or reach for a Coke - caffeine merely exacerbates your stress mechanisms. Drink a long cool glass of water or orange juice instead. Then get up, walk or jog around outside in the fresh air for a few minutes. At the very least, get up and stretch - it gets the oxygen round your body, gives you fresh energy and stops rising panic.

  2. Vent your spleen (but not on other people!). If it's feasible, yelling your head off is a wonderful way of getting the stress out (I regularly scream like a banshee while belting along the motorway.). Or invest in a punching bag for the office/home (wherever) and give it a good thump or six.

  3. Practice constructive vandalism: Beat the hell out of bubble wrap. It sounds acutely weird but a professor of psychology, Dr Kathleen Dillon, has proved that popping bubble wrap (apparently the big bubbles work best) dispels pent-up nervous energy and muscle tension. She also points out that, unlike many other forms of stress-busting, bubble-popping requires no instruction and no practice. Try it – it really does seem to help.

  4. Stuck in traffic? Use your car as a portable sound therapy session – nobody will be any the wiser (unless you have all the windows open!). Try the following:
    • Humming – apparently babies hum to soothe themselves – so you can do the same. Just hum very gently and feel it resonating through your body. Where can you feel the hum? Does it change if you alter the note of your humming?
    • Sighing – indulge in really elongated, noisy sighs and groans –they really help to disperse negative emotions. But really let it all hang out – half-hearted groans just don’t do it!
    • Singing – tune in to a cheerful radio station or sling in a feel-good CD and sing along (however tunelessly). Most people find that soft soothing music actually makes them more irritable when they’re tense – instead try belting it out to Meatloaf or Tina Turner.

  5. Try this simple tension-release. Clasp your hands behind your head, so your palms are touching the back of your head. Let the weight of your hands pull your head forward, feeling the stretch in your neck and all the way down your spine. Don’t pull down; simply relax your arms and let the weight of your hands do all the work. Hold the position for at least 20 seconds, longer if you can. Breathe out with a deep sigh, "A-a-a-ah". Repeat several times if possible.

  6. Learn to breathe -properly. Breathing exercises are perhaps the most effective, instant way to reduce stress. Ujjayi, the "victorious" breath is simple yet incredibly effective – use it whenever you feel the need to "keep your cool". Here’s how:
    • Learn how to practice ujjayi sitting comfortably with your eyes gently shut. With a little practice you can use ujjayi in any position.
    • Breathe in deeply, contracting the muscles around the top of your windpipe. Focus on your throat and you should hear a gentle hissing sound.
    • Now breathe out as slowly as possible, closing off the muscles around the epiglottis. Your breath will sound rasping, as if you had a bad cold.
    • Breathe in and out in this way six times.
    • Now relax and breathe normally.
    • If you have time, repeat this cycle (six ujjayi breaths then six normal breaths) for four cycles.

  7. Try this chi kung exercise – called Wu Chi. It’s something you can do pretty well anywhere – it’s particularly good if you’re waiting for public transport or an elevator and feel your stress levels rising.
    • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Find your natural balance - your weight should neither be too far forward or too far back.
    • Feel the rim of your foot, your heel, your little toe and big toe relaxed on the ground.
    • Keep your knees relaxed. Check that your knees are exactly over your feet.
    • Relax your lower back. Relax your stomach and buttocks.
    • Let your chest become hollow. Relax and slightly round your shoulders.
    • Imagine you have a pigtail on top of your head, which is tied to a rafter on the roof. Let your head float lightly and freely. Relax your tongue, mouth and jaw.
    • Stay in this position with your hands hanging loosely by your sides.
    • Envisage a pure flame shimmering through your body, giving you energy.
    • When you’re ready, simply bring your awareness back to the world around you.

  8. Office gymnastics. You’d be surprised where you hold tension. These simple exercises give you the chance to off-load some tension, without co-workers being any the wiser.


Mind Body Spirit by Jane Alexander            The Detox Plan for Mind, Body and Spirit by Jane Alexander


SHOULDER-SHRUGGING

  • Sit comfortably with your arms free.
  • Bring your shoulders right up to your ears, shrugging as hard as you can. Intensify the tension in your body as much as possible. Breathe in as you shrug upwards.
  • Tilt your head back as far as it will go.
  • Exhale and let your shoulders flop down and your head return forwards. You should feel a sense of heat in your neck and shoulders - more blood is now able to circulate through this high-tension area. Repeat as necessary.


HAND AND FOOT GYMNASTICS
Repeat each step five times.

  • Curl your toes as tight as you can and release.
  • Curl your entire foot down towards your heel and then stretch upwards.
  • Now circle your feet slowly clockwise and anticlockwise.
  • Clench your hands into fists. Then release, opening the fingers wide.
  • Stretch your fingers up at right-angles to your wrist. Then bring them down so they point towards the floor.
  • Make fists again and circle clockwise and then anticlockwise.


LONGER-TERM STRESS STRATEGIES

If you regularly find yourself at boiling point, it's time to adopt some deeper self-preservation techniques. I’d suggest everyone practices the good mood diet, incorporates regular exercise into their lives and uses at least one dedicated stress-busting technique on top (i.e. meditation, floating).

  1. Adopt a good mood diet. Doctors have always recommended regular meals to combat stress, but now they know that the actual foods we eat can affect our mental state. Depression, anxiety, an inability to concentrate, panic attacks, mood swings, forgetfulness and lethargy - all symptoms of stress - can be triggered by sensitivity to food. The anti-stress diet is high in fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and grains. In their book Superfoods, Michael Van Straten and Barbara Griggs recommend grapes, millet, wheatgerm, brewer's yeast, oats, molasses and buckwheat as anti-stress superfoods. Foods to avoid include all refined carbohydrates, sugar, tea and coffee, sweetened commercial drinks and excess bran.

  2. Exercise - strenuously. A good tough aerobic workout can release stress like virtually nothing else. When the body cannot rid itself of the excess hormones generated by stress it causes a harmful state in which the mind and body are permanently aroused. If you're stuck in this twilight zone you need to kick yourself into a state of pure physical arousal rather than pure mental arousal, then you can swing back into the state we know as rest. Try to get yourself into the habit of going to the gym after work instead of automatically heading for a bar or reaching into the fridge for a beer. Maybe squeeze in an aerobics class at lunchtime (providing it doesn’t cause you more stress getting there and back). Choose a form of exercise you enjoy. Team sports can be fun and motivating – what did you enjoy at school? Martial arts are a fabulous way to work off stress – particularly if you tend to erupt in anger. Or try out something more unusual – check out your local sports centre for ideas. It’s worth balancing your strenuous workouts with quieter classes – try yoga, chi kung, tai chi or Pilates.

  3. Float. I bang on about floating a lot because I really do think it’s an incredibly undervalued therapy. If you haven't yet tried it - do have a go. Regularly floating in the equivalent of an isolation tank is one of the best stress-busters going. Not only does it relieve stress but it also enhances creativity, decision making and problem solving so it is often used by high-flying businesspeople and creative souls. One of the frequent criticisms of stress-busting techniques is that they take up too much valuable time - "I'd love to do meditation or yoga," says a very stressed friend of mine, "But I just don't have the time." Well, floating could save you time in the long run. The ideas you come up with or the creative solutions to sticky problems might well save you hours in the normal world. Oh, and guess what, it feels great (and not claustrophobic, I promise!). Check out www.floatation.com to find your nearest tank.

  4. Delegate. You're not superman or superwoman - you can't do absolutely everything and, believe it or not, the world won't fall apart if you say no occasionally. Stress management counselors all recommend taking stock of your life and deciding what's important and what can go by the wayside. Write a list of what causes you stress and see if there is anything that you can drop or delegate.

  5. Clear the clutter. A messy desk, office, home all contribute to stress levels. How can you ever relax if you don’t know what’s lurking in that huge pile of papers? If you can’t put your hand on what you need without an hour-long hair-pulling search? Have a brutal turn-out every week for papers, post etc (use it, file it or bin it) and periodic purges of the other "stuff" in your life. If you need more help check out my book Spirit of the Home which will hold your hand through the process!

  6. Meditate. Researchers have found that meditation reduces hypertension, serum cholesterol and blood cortisol which is related to stress in the body. Meditators see their doctors less and spend 70% fewer days in hospital. Anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease while memory improves and reaction times become faster. Meditators, it appears, have more stamina, a happier disposition and even enjoy better relationships. Why wait? For tips on meditation check out my book Live Well (Element).


Spirit of the Home by Jane Alexander


THE REAL SOLUTION

I hope the suggestions above help. They are pretty well tried, tested and trusted so they should work for you too. But if you really want to beat stress once and for all, I think you have to go deeper still. This isn’t a popular thing to say but if you really want to stress-proof your life, you have to make some (possibly uncomfortable) decisions. Ask yourself the following:

  • What is causing the main stress in my life?
  • If I woke up tomorrow and that stress had vanished, how would I know? How would I behave? How would other people know I was different?
  • What steps could I take to get to that place?

These are very simple questions yet the answers might shatter your world. And maybe that’s a good thing. We’re living life like a race at the moment – always seeking more (more money, more possessions, more prestige, more excitement). We’re losing track of what really matters. Why are we pushing our children to the point where they are suffering stress as young as four or five years old? What is so important about earning another 10K that you’re willing to sacrifice your relationship for it? Do you really need a house that’s larger than your neighbor’s?

This part of the equation won’t be for everyone (though as you’re reading SoufulLiving.com I’m willing to bet you’re more up for it than most people!). My feeling is that to beat stress we have to re-evaluate our lives entirely.

  • What are the most important things in your life?
  • How would you feel if you were told you had a month to live? How would you want to spend that time?
  • If you were looking back on your life as an old man/woman, what advice would you give to the younger you?

I can’t tell you what to do. Only you know that. My suspicion is that, at the base line, most of us do know what we need to do. Good luck.

Many of the exercises from this feature come from my book The Five Minute Healer (Simon & Schuster). You’ll also find ways to stress-proof your life in Detox for Body Mind and Spirit (Tuttle) and Mind Body Spirit (Carlton).

Read more of Jane Alexander’s work on her website: www.janealexander.org

Copyright © 2002 Jane Alexander. All Rights Reserved.


Jane Alexander
Jane Alexander is a UK-based writer on natural health, holistic living and contemporary spirituality. She has written sixteen books on holistic (and soulful) living, including the bestselling Spirit of the Home (Thorsons), The Energy Secret (Element) and The Five Minute Healer (Simon & Schuster). Her website, www.janealexander.org is full of tips for living soulfully.

 

Visit:
www.JaneAlexander.org

 

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