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Gaining Control over Stress

Benjamin J. DeLong/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

Somehow I thought that as I entered my 49th trip around the sun, my life would be a little less stressful.  Ha! 

I am not a control freak, although I do appreciate a certain sense of order and routine in my life.  But, I have long believed that I have little to no control over most things that happen to me and around me.

What I do have control over is how I react.  This means that I try not to yell at or hurt people, and most importantly I try to remember to breathe and be grateful for what I have.  Boy has this year shown me that I still have a lot to learn.

Stress is part of life.  And as with most things in life, it is generated in large part by human actions.  Stress is the intersection of multiple factors: the physical, political, economic, and social environments that we occupy.  Some people experience more stress than others and like many things in life it is relative. 

I happened to be born a white female in the US to a working class family that valued education.  This ascribed status, which I have no control over, has afforded me many opportunities that are unavailable to my African American or Latina counterparts. 

Credit Courtesy photo
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad


On the flip side, the mere fact that I was born female and not male places me at an economic and social disadvantage while I work under a glass ceiling. 

The American Psychological Association reported in their annual Stress in America report that nearly 90% of Americans they surveyed said the level of stress they feel about money has either remained the same or gotten worse in the last year.  On the days when I think my life can’t get any more stressful, I remind myself that it is a cakewalk compared to being a woman elsewhere in the world – say Afghanistan or the Congo.  It is all relative.

What is not relative about stress is how it manifests itself in our physical bodies.  Stress is the body's reaction to harmful situations -- whether the situation is real or perceived. Our minds and bodies are a closed loop system. When you are stressed your heart rate increases, your breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and your blood pressure rises.

A little bit of stress can be a good thing. If you are being chased by a lion you want your “fight-or-flight” response to kick in because it will help save you from injury by producing a state of heightened physical and mental tension. 

Ongoing, chronic stress, however can cause or exacerbate many serious health problems; including but not limited to depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke, eating disorders, and insomnia.  Long term stress can trigger chemical reactions in our bodies that can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system thus making us more susceptible to each and every pathogen we come into contact with.  However if we relax our minds then the muscles in the body will follow.

One easy and effective way to do this is through the practice of yoga.  Now I can hear many of you laughing through the airwaves right now, but let me tell you that yoga is for everyone.  First you need to drop your misconceptions of what you think yoga is. 

One, you do not have to be young and skinny and flexible to do yoga.  I have a group of retired yoginis who practice a form of chair yoga once a week with me.  I am guessing that they are in their mid-60s, but it so hard to tell because these women are more flexible and more balanced than many of the college athletes I practice yoga with twice a week!  They are also among the most positive and resilient women I have ever met.  Yoga provides them a space for them to be good to themselves, which in turn allows them to be good to others. 

Two, yoga is not a competitive sport.  Who cares whether you can touch your toes or not?  One of the best things about yoga is that each pose or asana can be adapted in multiple ways to fit your body where it is right now.  It’s not about looking better or worse than your neighbor, it is about being mindful to the stretch and breath that yoga brings your own body.  It’s not my practice, but your practice and it will look different each and every time you come to the mat. 

Three, yoga reminds you to enjoy your breath.  When you concentrate on the rise and the fall of your breath you let go of the external worries, anxieties, and competitive nature of everyday life.  Yoga is about you in the here and now. Yoga is meant to bring us into the present moment. Yoga allows us to find joy in the physical movement of our bodies, but also in spending time in the present and not worrying about what is to come.

So, as we venture headlong into a year full of uncertainty let’s all remember to enjoy our breath.  Because as Hans Selye once said, “It is not stress that kills you, it is your reaction to it.”

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University. 

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.