• Chris Varano

5 Steps to Alleviate Physical Symptoms of Stress

Stress is our body’s natural reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. Stress is a normal part of life and our bodies naturally respond to stress in a variety of ways. However, when we experience too much stress, we can experience prolonged and intense physical symptoms such as chest tightness/pain, a shortness of breath, tingling sensations and panic attacks. These symptoms can be very frightening and can worsen if they’re not addressed. There are six steps we can take to naturally lower stress levels and eliminate the physical symptoms of our stress.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness, is a strong buzz word and many of us have unique opinions on this topic. However, when I refer to mindfulness, I simply mean paying attention to ourselves. Utilizing mindfulness allows us to realize the feelings of stress and anxiety that we're experiencing, which is crucial. Acknowledgement of our stress gives us the opportunity to move towards a more peaceful and joyous life.

Point of Action: Take a second to pause and notice what’s going on in your mind and your body. What are you experiencing? Do you have racing thoughts? Do you feel any physical pain or tension?

Taking the time to ask ourselves these questions will help us better connect with our minds and bodies. By doing so, we now allow ourselves to become more aware of the triggers that are causing our worries.

2. Journaling

Once the symptoms of stress are recognized, we are ready to identify the triggers of our stress.

Point of Action: The next time you experience a physical sensation that you believe is a result of stress, write it down in a notebook or type it into your phone. Make sure to document as many details as possible, indicate what you’re feeling, notice where in your body the symptom is occurring, take note of how long the sensation lasts and in what environment or context do you experience the sensation.

Here’s an example of how I might write this down in my notes...

Symptom: Chest tightness

Where in my body: Left side of my chest and towards my stomach

How long does it last? 25 seconds

Environmental context: Walking into physics lecture hall

3. Understanding Why Our Environment Causes Stress

Now that we are aware of the particular environment that causes our stress, it is necessary to discover why being present in this particular environment induces stress. More often than not, we can find that we’ve been holding onto a previous painful experience that may have evoked pain in this environment.

For instance, say that I feel some tightness in my chest right as I walk into my physics lecture hall. At first I may not know why I feel like this, but I begin to realize that this feeling consistently occurs when I walk into this class.

I don’t walk into physics and deliberately tell myself that I’m scared of something. There’s a deeper repeated thought or experience causing this pain. By taking some time to look back at previous classes, I remember that on the first exam day I was anxious and worried that I wouldn’t pass the class. Then, a few lectures later, I received my mediocre exam score and this idea that I may not pass the course was reinforced. With this reinforced stress linked to the environmental cue of walking into my physics class, my body began to react repeatedly to this specific environment with a tightness in my chest.

This process of identifying the specific trigger that is causing our stress is tricky and requires reflection. However, when we invest the time to understand why a particular environment triggers our stress, we are cable of letting go of the negative thoughts that cause our physical symptoms.

4. Coming to Terms with the Stressor and Physical Symptom

Congratulations! We’ve made it to the point now where we’re ready to free ourselves of the stress that is caused by this specific thought. The next step is practicing acceptance. A good place to start is to begin by fully accepting the physical symptom.

Point of Action: When that physical symptom arises, repeat the process of simply noticing the symptom. Observe where you feel this symptom and how long it lasts. Does the symptom arise as pain or a tingling sensation? A burning? Focus all of your attention into just observing the symptom for what it is. There’s no need to judge or scrutinize this symptom, just watch it and let it be.

Once you believe you’ve spent enough time internalizing and accepting the physical sensation, begin to shift your attention to your consciousness. Simply watch your thoughts. And now begin to internalize that thought causing your physical sensation. Again, begin to notice the mind’s production of the thought and how the body reacts with that particular sensation. Begin to accept the thought and the sensation for what they simply are, a thought and sensation. This thought is not a part of you, it is merely a misconstrued idea that your brain has attached itself to. It does not define your identity whatsoever. Beginning to realize that the thought is just a thought that has no real significance or power, allows us to free ourselves from the thought.

5. Visualization and Gratitude

Now it’s time to move on and let go. We’ve made tremendous progress identifying the stressful thought that has been producing our physical symptoms and accepting its presence. It’s time for us now to let this thought go.

Point of Action: Imagine that the thought and symptom are connected by a chain that is inside a balloon that you’re holding. It’s important to recognize that this thought and sensation once served a purpose, but you have since outgrown them. You are grateful that the thought and sensation kept you safe in the past, but you now understand that you are ready to leave them behind. All you have to do is imagine yourself letting go of the string that is attached to the balloon. Imagine the balloon floating away into the sky, appearing smaller and smaller, until eventually it has disappeared…

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