(Reproduced from an old article in Martial Arts Illustrated)
Part 3 – De-stress or Distress
We are all martial artists aren’t we? Amongst other things, we train to master our style in order to be prepared for any physical confrontation we might encounter. A simplified version granted! However, the vast majority of us probably haven’t had a violent encounter in ages. The savvy and holistically minded martial artist knows there is a much more sinister assailant that is trying to attack us 24/7. Who or what then is this foe? Stress! In one form or another it is a part of life. Situations can often crop up unexpectedly that really pull us to the ‘ends of our tethers’. Long term stressful issues in life such as financial worries often manifest in so many different symptoms. That being said I do feel that a certain amount of measured stress, or perhaps a better term would be pressure, can be a useful motivational force in bringing out the best in us and keeping us sharp, focussed and active. It’s when stress literally overpowers us, does it stop us dead in our tracks. As I said in part one of this series, so much of what will be covered will be inter-related and you will soon see that stress in your life without a management plan for it will affect your training and progression through the martial arts. Now, I am certainly no psychologist nor do I claim to have all of the answers by any means. I have suffered with stress just like anyone else. When you feel paralysed by your own situation, perspective can really be warped. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes or new insight is just what we need. So, as we have been doing in this series so far, let’s get the axe to the roots and see if we can’t get a grasp on this subject as well as provide some key strategies in combating this most violent of enemies.
What is Stress?
From a purely physiological perspective the feelings of stress we experience come about as a result of chemical interactions by stress hormones, namely Adrenaline, Noradrenalin and Cortisol that are released by the adrenal glands, which sit just above our kidneys. These ‘fight or flight’ hormones are essential for our survival such as blood vessel constriction during a time of bleeding and an extra kick of alertness right after we have had a two second micro sleep driving home on the motorway at 4am. The point is they play a vital part in our day to day lives. It’s when these hormones uncontrollably flood our systems due to external stimulus can they begin to elicit devastating effects. These hormones can raise our blood pressure which if untreated over a long period can affect our kidneys. They can also greatly lower our own immune system making us far more prone to infection and disease. To name but a few, these are all of the things we don’t want if we want to be making consistent progress along our own paths in the martial arts. This continual breakdown if not dealt with can have even more sinister consequences such as psychological issues like anxiety and depression right through to bi polar disorders, schizophrenia and sadly even death by suicide. All of these often have their roots or a trigger point somewhere in stress. These of course may be examples at the extreme end of the scale but it still bears highlighting them. Many of us find that by practicing our martial arts discipline it is just what we need to combat stress, and that really should be the case! Remember our enemies are not only without but also within. Anything that attacks our bodies should be dealt with as clinically as anyone that tries to rob us or attack us with a broken bottle. If only life were that simple huh? The roots of stress can range from the most simple to an incredibly complex web of difficulties and I for one am certainly not going to make light of anyone’s own personal situation.
Roots of Stress
Stress comes in all forms but there a few that seem to be common to pretty much everyone. Among them are:
- Financial worries. Probably one of the biggest causes of stress. We forever seem to be trying to make ends meet every month and along with the red letters and calls from the bailiffs threatening to remove our possessions, it’s no wander we don’t sleep at night. Living beyond our means can really get us into trouble so it’s important to have respect for money and do a good a job in stewarding however little or much you have.
- Relationships. Have you ever been so let down in a relationship that you feel you have a dark cloud constantly over that you just can’t seem to shift? Maybe your heart has been broken and a knife forever seems to be piercing it. Issues in relationships are such stressors and life force sappers that I would rather get pummelled by the champion of the world for twelve rounds than go through these issues. Bereavements often cause huge stress and even split whole families apart.
- Health. When health begins to suffer it can really have a profound effect on our stress levels. It brings with it so many worries in itself, and yet no matter how much we live a good healthy lifestyle, sometimes illness and disease can get the better of us. Many health problems are lifestyle related and it’s those things that we can positively influence.
These are just some of the more general examples that cover a broad spectrum. The point is at one point or another we all come face to face with situations that could really knock us for six. However, going back to the point of perspective, a situation that might well be a mountain to one person could be a molehill to another.
If stress is getting the better of you, the first thing that really needs to be done is to actually identify the root or cause of that stress. Is it something that by your own intervention can be dealt with? This can often be a very sensitive area for many people and sometimes it might seem much easier to “brush it under the carpet” but I am a firm believer that acting on a potential hazard fast is quite often the best course of action to take in order to stop stress proliferating. Depending on what the cause is, most simple stresses can be quite well “project managed” and completely eradicated. However with far greater complex stressors this is by no means any easy task and in the case of long term illness for example faith,hope and support from loved ones might be all we have. I think one big key to at least being able to start tackling that which we can influence it is to find someone you can share with. So many times we keep things to ourselves which in turn weighs us down even more giving us those sleepless nights which then perpetuates into a cycle of even more stress because of those hormones kicking in and working overdrive. Can you see? The cycles can often repeat over and over and it’s this ‘nipping it in the bud’ if you can and as fast as you can often make all of the difference. Going back to the point of having someone to talk too is such a big key. None of us are an island and we all need counsel and a different perspective from time to time. Someone you trust and who’s opinion you value counts for so much. Often times getting stuff of your chest makes you feel better, and in feeling better you can often think better, decide better and therefore act better.
In the same way that you may have a planned and aggressive approach to your training, if you have stresses in your life then face them head on and do what you can to break them down into small components that you can deal with. Whatever you do, you need to have an aggressive pro active approach to dealing with any form of stress that comes into your life. Remember that for the most part there are solutions for everything and it sometimes is a case of simply looking to find the right keys to unlock the door and send stress packing.
As a rule we are creatures of comfort. We don’t like pain or discomfort and we do all that we can to avoid experiencing it. During times of stress we seek to find solace and some respite from our woes in a great many things. Some are very useful to us and I will briefly mention a few in a moment but other things are just downright self-destructive. It is ironic that stress and emotional upheaval in our lives often cause us to abuse our bodies even more therefore increasing stress levels. Any form of substance abuse or binging of any sort whether it be eating, drinking, drugs or even binge spending where huge credit card bills are rung up need to try to be avoided at all cost. These things may offer some transient relief from pain or emotions but that soon wears off and the cold hard reality of your situation will still be there, often with a massive hangover or bill you have no way of paying.
More Tools for the Box
As I have done in the previous two articles in this series I will list a few things that might be useful to combat the symptoms of stress but just remember that no amount of masking something will make it go away. Get the axe to the root and take hard action of needing to eliminate any negative stresses from your life.
Counselling. Never feel you are too tough to admit you are weak and struggling with certain stressors. Friends and family can be great but there might be those times you need greater objectivity and a view from someone that has no emotional attachment to you. If your situation warrants it there are many good counselling services that exist out there. Don’t feel you have to go it alone.
Improving Sleep. Touching on what I spoke about in my last post – part two, sleep is essential for recovery and progression in training and stress is a robber of decent sleep. Aside from the practical tips I mentioned, a couple of nutritional strategies may help you chill and get the sleep you need during those tough times. Three natural supplements that may prove beneficial are 5-htp, Melatonin and the pro B vitamin Inositol. I won’t go into detail with them here but there is plenty of anecdotal and some good scientific data online demonstrating their efficacy. Obviously it goes without saying you need to stay away from stimulants such as any caffeine based sources or some sports supplements near to your sleep time as these can certainly rob you of sleep. Teas such as chamomile and valerian have been shown to be useful in promoting better sleep.
Meditation. This can be as simple as taking some time out during your day to close your eyes and listen to your breathing as you sit relaxed and just forget about everything but the moment. There are so many forms of meditations, spiritual or otherwise and all depending on your belief have merit. However you view it, consciously taking even a small bit of time out during the day to have some stillness and quietness can help you to really ‘hear yourself think’. Doing this often gives you inspiration to take the right steps and live a more stress-free life.
Often times it’s doing the simple thing – going back to basics – that gives us the best results! In combating stress it’s up to each and every one of us to take responsibility and be honest in knowing what our strengths and weaknesses are. In having this understanding we can often avoid situations that become stressful to us. The bottom line is that life isn’t easy. It’s downright tough at times! Strive for happiness but realise that true happiness isn’t always about how much we have; sometimes it’s found in the most simple of things and also being content with what you do have. Try and do the things that really make you the most happy. Remember the days when you were a kid and life seemed pretty carefree? Alas we all have to grow up and see the world around us for what it is but within all of that there are still some magical moments to be had. There are times where we all need to be serious but so many of us take ourselves far too seriously. Have a laugh at yourself every now and then and have plenty of laughs with friends and family as it’s such a great stress reliever. As the saying goes “try keeping your head when all around you are losing theirs”! Doing all you can to preserve your peace and keep stress at bay will be yet another victory in helping your go the distance in your martial art journey, but far more importantly, in your journey through life. With the stresses we have all especially faced these last couple of years, and with what so many are still struggling with, let us also not try to be so narrow focussed on just ourselves but also those around that we might be able to help in some practical way.
Happy New Year to you all. Let us do all we can to make 2023 our best ever. As Rocky Balboa said “I don’t hear no bell, one more round”.