By DR. MEGAN ASPELUND, Alaska Native from the Bristol Bay Region
As children and young adults begin a new year of school and fall time activities begin, we can find ourselves easily burdened by the stress of juggling new schedules, meal plans, after school activities, holiday events, and different social engagements. Stress can often hunt us, lurking in areas of our life without us noticing, until it becomes a big health problem. Stress is our chasing bear.
What is Stress?
Stress is something that we have all experienced in one way or another. Whether it is that feeling you get when trying to complete a task in a small amount of time or when caring for a sick loved one, we experience stress whenever we have to respond to something that changes our normal way of life, how we think, our emotions, our spiritual connection and how our body works.
However, stress is not all bad. In fact, stress is a signal that our bodies use so that we can respond in specific ways to handle new situations. Our ancestors used this stress response when faced with a predator or when trapped in dangerous weather. And while we may not have as many hungry bears to look out for, our bodies respond to stress today in a similar way by changing how we function internally to prepare us to either fight or run away from that situation that causes stress.
How Our Body Responds to Stress
One way that our bodies respond to stress is to change the amount of specific hormones and chemical messengers in our brain, signaling that it is time to prepare for action. Our senses of vision, touch, and hearing become sharper in order to help us focus on sources of stress.
Our muscles become tense, and our blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate increase so that we become ready to run or ght. However, all of this comes at a price. For the body to focus on getting ready for action, it means that other functions become less important, such as our growth, sleep, digestion, and the ability to fight off infections.
The problem with stress today is that our bodies no longer experience just that one brief episode of stress from a chasing bear, but instead experience many episodes of stress every day. These stressors may be brief, like someone cutting us off in traffic, or may be prolonged, like living with daily pain. When the body is not able to turn off the stress response, it can lead to wear and tear on every system of the body. It often leads us to make bad choices, such as drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and marijuana, or even trying other drugs to help take the stress off for short periods of time, and we can get stuck trying to find a way to be free from the chasing bear of stress.
What Stress Can Do to Our Health
The health of our lives is connected to our mind, spirit, body, and emotions. Stress can easily cause issues in all of these areas. When it damages one of these connections, it causes damage to all the other areas.
» Mind: Our mind and body take much of our energy to manage stressful situations. This can make it difficult for us to concentrate and worsen our memory and learning. This can, in turn, result in struggles at school or at work.
» Spirit: Our spirit, which is the innermost part of ourselves and helps us to connect to others and the world around us, can also be impacted by prolonged stress. Stress can make us feel isolated and distracted from our true selves and how we normally function.
» Body: Our physical health can be damaged as chronic stress can lead to troubles with prolonged muscle strain, recurrent headaches, chronic fatigue, digestion problems, and sore muscles and joints. It can also leave us prone to catching colds and other illnesses by weakening our immune system.
» Emotions: Our emotions change with stress so that we can quickly react to danger. If our emotions are not able to be free from stress, it leaves us vulnerable to feeling exhausted, sad, depressed, lonely, and anxious, and can damage our relationships with others.
How to Reduce Stress in Our Life
Even though stress can impact so many aspects of our lives, there are ways to keep the bear of stress from eating away at us. Many of these suggestions have been known to help reduce anxiety, build concentration and self-discipline, overcome depression, and enhance a sense of well-being.
» Mind: Take more frequent breaks. Try meditation, progressive relaxation, constructive distractions (like a new hobby), or writing in a journal. Most importantly, be good to yourself.
» Spirit: Participate in community gatherings or sweat lodge. Find inspiration (from nature, books, music, art performances, movies) or artistic self-expression. Practice forgiveness, prayer, and spiritual healing.
» Body: Exercise regularly, invest in your rest and sleep, give your body the nutrition it needs, and avoid or minimize exposure to toxic substances, such as tobacco products, alcohol, and other harmful drugs.
» Emotions: Practice gratitude, journaling, and empathy/affection/compassion. Dare to dream and hope. Ask a health professional to help you build your courage to conquer anxiety and depression. Extend good will through smiling and laughing. Avoid bad habits and try to avoid self-pity or focusing on the negative.
To get the most out of these stress management tools it is important to practice them regularly. Find what works for you and keep it as part of your daily routine. By practicing, you will be able to quickly and skillfully tackle any bear of stress that may present itself. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness but of wisdom, particularly when asking a good coach, such as counselors, teachers, doctors, or therapists who are always ready to help.
The bears that hunt us may not always go away. Stress can lurk and create chaos in our lives, and we often don’t notice the effects until it hurts us and those around us. The most important thing is to make sure to take care of ourselves and each other. There are many resources that can help keep stress at bay. If you ever have questions or would like more information about how to manage stress, PTHA and Kwawachee Counseling are great places to ask.
Source: Mental Health Naturally by Dr. Kathi Kemper MD, Healing Secrets of the Native Americans by Porter Shimer.