Chapter 4: Stress Relief

It’s true that stress, in its many forms, is part of life. But it’s also true that stress affects people in different ways and to different degrees. When we leave stress unmanaged, whether it be related to work, family, relationships, or other issues, it can take a toll on our personal well-being.1

What is stress?

When we feel a physical, mental, or emotional response to a challenging situation – that’s stress.

In some instances, stress can be beneficial. Think of the excitement and anticipation you feel when getting a promotion, going on a first date, or visiting a new country for the first time. This kind of short-term positive stress can be good for our bodies and minds.

On the other hand, when the stress we face is negative and on-going, the stress can become toxic and lead to serious, long-term health effects including high blood pressure, heart disease, inflammation, anxiety, and depression.2 Think of the kind of daily dread you might feel if you were dealing with a long-term challenge at work that isn’t getting resolved, or every month having to pay more toward bills than there is money in the bank.

In such situations, our bodies release hormones (including cortisol and adrenalines) which prepare us to give fight or take flight. This biological reaction is helpful in the short-term, but when the stress is prolonged, so is the body’s response. Over time, elevated hormone levels can cause changes to our bodies and minds.3

Identify and address sources of stress

A first step in managing stress is recognizing that it’s having an effect on you and identifying the root causes – and taking steps to identify what causes of stress are under your control.4

“Taking proactive steps to address stress is crucial for maintaining your overall well-being, both at work and in your personal life,” says Eric Pfeiffer, a Workplace Well-being Consultant at Manulife. “Identifying the root cause of your stress and eliminating or mitigating it is important. Remember that asking for and accepting help is a sign of awareness and strength, not weakness! Taking care of yourself so you can take care of others is a win-win situation.”

Strategies and practices to help you manage stress

There are several strategies for managing the impact of stress on your body and mind, and a good place to start is with relaxation techniques. A few of these techniques include deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization.5

  • Deep breathing exercises involve taking slow, deep breaths (in through your nose and out through your mouth). This technique can help slow down your heart rate and reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in your body. This technique helps you become more aware of physical sensations and helps relieves physical tension which can reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Visualization involves imagining a peaceful, calm scene in your mind. Visualization can help reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.6 It can also be used to promote a good night’s sleep, and even reduce pain7.

“Managing stress can be an important health priority for many of us, whether it's through exercise, meditation, or seeking support from a mental health professional,” says Dr. Marie-Hélène Geoffroy, primary care physician with Cleveland Clinic Canada. “In addition to identifying and addressing ongoing stressors, stress management techniques and self-care can help individuals improve their overall health and well-being, and reduce their risk of developing chronic health conditions.”

Physical activity and certain mental practices can also help reduce stress, on their own or in combination with each other. These include exercise, meditation, yoga, and spending time in nature.

  • Exercise can help reduce stress by increasing endorphins, which are the brain’s natural mood-boosting chemicals.
  • Meditation and yoga can help calm the mind and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
  • Research shows that spending time in nature helps promote relaxation and reduces stress levels, while also having positive effects on blood pressure, heart rate, and overall wellness.9

Mindfulness and stress reduction

Mindfulness is another helpful stress management approach. When practicing mindfulness, people strive to be present and “in the moment.” Mindfulness calls us to become more aware of our thoughts and feelings, and how those might be affecting our bodies and minds.

Some mindfulness practices that can be helpful in reducing stress include mindfulness meditation, body scan meditation, and mindful breathing exercises.

  • Mindfulness meditation involves sitting quietly and focusing on your breath or a mantra (a word, sound, or positive affirmation that helps you focus and concentrate).
  • Body scan meditation involves focusing on different parts of your body in a specific sequence and being aware of any sensations or tension that you feel.
  • Mindful breathing exercises involve focusing on your breathing and noticing the feeling of your breath as it enters and leaves your body.10

Incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths before starting your day or taking a few minutes to sit quietly and focus on your breath during a break at work.

Getting support – Manulife benefits coverage

If you’re struggling with stress, reach out for support. Your Manulife benefits plan might offer resources to help you manage stress, including virtual health coaching, counselling, and other services. To learn about the programs available to you, visit your benefits plan website or speak with your plan administrator – the person at work who’s responsible for your health benefits program.