Stress has become so common in modern day society that we have been conditioned to expect it on a daily basis. We are so used to feeling stressed that even when we can relax, we question what we may have forgotten. Did I leave the toaster oven on? Did I remember to pay that doctor’s bill?
There are many things that can cause stress. Some of these include the pressures from work, juggling finances, conflicts or responsibilities in our family or social lives. And one that I have struggled with through most of my life is the pressure we place on ourselves to excel in specific interests and pursuits.
Some stress, such as a deadline for work, is normal and can even be helpful at times. This kind of stress encourages focus and productivity. But too much stress is not fun, nor is it healthy!
Chronic stress has been linked to numerous serious health conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity and Alzheimer’s. Then there are the less severe, yet still very debilitating symptoms of stress, such as headaches, insomnia, anxiety and even depression. This is why learning ways to manage your stress levels will not only make your life more enjoyable, but it will also help keep you healthy, both physically and mentally.
It is important to try to find a balance between the stresses and responsibilities you deal with on a daily basis with time you make to relax and unwind. We can only cope with so much stress before it begins to take a toll on our health. This is why finding time to do the things that make you relaxed and happy is so important.
Keep in mind that what you find relaxing might not be the same as the next person. It is completely subjective. For example, your ideal way to relax and de-stress may be to lace up your joggers and go for a 10k run, or perhaps you prefer a hot bubble bath with a good book. Neither is right or wrong.
It doesn’t matter so much how you relax, only that it works for you.
Are you more ‘Fight’ or ‘Flight’ in your response to stress?
When you experience significant levels of stress, your body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated and your ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. This response dates back to when we were cavemen and had to protect ourselves by either running for our lives or defending ourselves against predators. These days this response isn’t always necessary. However, the changes still occur within our physical body.
When trying to determine what types of relaxation will be most effective in helping you combat stress, take some time to consider how stress affects you. Do you experience more of a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response to stress?
Fight response – If you are the kind of person who gets worked up and agitated when under stress, then you may benefit more from calming relaxation such as meditation, guided visualizations, listening to relaxing music and most importantly relaxed breathing practices.
Flight response – If you notice that stress causes you to become withdrawn, depressed or even a little spaced out, then you are more of a ‘flight’ response person. You may find that you benefit more from counteracting this response by stimulating your nervous system with active relaxation such as jogging, power yoga, cycling or even mindfulness practices.
Regardless of whether you have more of a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response, one technique that is universally recognized as an effective way of managing stress is breathing exercises.
Breathing is something that happens without much thought. It can be either a conscious or an unconscious act. However, without it, your body would simply stop functioning.
The primary function of breathing is to bring in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, moving them throughout the body. However, you may be surprised to learn that breathing also plays an important role in how you are feeling both physically and emotionally.
When your sympathetic nervous system has been activated, i.e. in times of stress, your breathing becomes lighter and shallower and primarily takes place in the upper chest. This ‘thoracic’ style breathing only activates the top half of the lungs, which means that you are no longer getting as much oxygen to carbon dioxide exchange. This fight or flight response, which prepares your body for running away or defending itself, only works to exacerbate the experience of stress.
So really it doesn’t help at all.
By becoming aware of your breathing, and taking a few moments to both calm and relax the flow, you can not only help ease both the physical and mental symptoms of stress, you can also induce other positive physiological changes.
Some of these benefits to relaxed breathing include:
- Balances the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen within your blood
- Reduces heart rate and lowers blood pressure
- Reduces the levels of cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’ released by your sympathetic nervous system during a flight or fight response)
- Relaxes muscles, as well as the lactic acid buildup in muscle tissue.
- Improves immune function
- Has a grounding and calming effect on the mind
- Increases physical energy
Though there are many different breathing techniques that can be used to help alleviate the experience of stress, they all essentially work with the same principle: moving the breathing from the thoracic region (the upper chest) down into the abdomen.
Abdominal breathing utilizes the diaphragm as a means of drawing the breath all the way down into the lower lobes of your lungs. It also works to help ease and relax the muscles of the abdomen, where tension is often present.
Ideally take yourself somewhere quiet where you can sit down, close your eyes and not be disturbed. If this is not an option you can practice this same technique anywhere and keep your eyes open. I use this sometimes when sitting in traffic.
Take your attention to your belly and consciously relax this area. You may wish to lightly place one of your hands over your belly so that you can feel the muscles relax, and experience the change as your breathing starts to flow from here.
On your next inhalation, slow your breathing, just slightly, and allow it to expand out through your belly. Remember not to strain you breathing, this should be a comfortable way to breathe!
Mentally begin to count your breathing (Breathing in 1…. Breathing out 1…) as a way of helping focus your attention here and calm your breath.
Continue this for as long as needed, until you feel your body and mind calming and relaxing.
Do you take time during your day to just breathe?