Stress and stress management
I think we can all agree, things are a bit stressful right now
We have never experienced a time like this and we don’t really know what is going to happen or if we even should ‘go back to normal’. And one of the most powerful stressors is uncertainty. I’ll chat a wee bit about the physiological process of stress response, but you are more than welcome to skip down to the stress management exercises.
What is stress anyway?
Stress is a natural response to threatening stimuli and used to be an essential response for survival when the world was a physically dangerous and frightful place. I know things may seem dangerous now, but I’m talking about hunting and competing for food in harsh conditions when there were scary, huge ass mammals that could kill us with one slap or bite cruising around. Now, for the majority of the Western World, we don’t have to physically fight for survival and we have sufficient shelter and resources (although things were getting pretty intense with the ol’ toilet roll situation). And let’s not disregard that stress, for a short/acute period, can be great and productive and the body systems can balance themselves out. But when the stress response is constantly being activated, that’s when we have trouble. With the increase in social competition and endless worries we now face, the stress response becomes chronically activated.
The physiology stuff…
When the body responds to a threatening stimulus, the Sympathetic Nervous system activates and increases adrenaline, blood glucose, heart rate, blood pressure and reduces resources to the non emergency processes such as digestion and the reproductive system. The adrenal glands also secrete the hormone cortisol, which can impair the immune system. In acute episodes, cortisol reduces inflammation to keep the immune system within a functional level. However, when continually secreted, the immune system becomes insensitive to cortisol and this leads to inflammation. There is a whole heap of conditions that have been linked to increased inflammation such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, chronic pain etc. And the immune response to colds and viruses can be inhibited too. Yikes.
I have been reading The Meaning Of Pain by Nick Potter (I recommend this book so darn much) and have got a lot of information from there as well as other studies if you’d like further (better) reading.
So, now I’m more stressed (cheers), what can I do to reduce my stress levels?
I know you’ve heard it everywhere, but it does actually work- breathe! Most of us don’t breathe properly, which sounds ridiculous because, hey (hello) you’re alive. But poor breathing styles can lead to poor posture, increased pain and insufficient levels of oxygen in the body (which can impair the immune system, chronically make you feel tired and give you nasty headaches too).
I have chosen three techniques from various sources to share with you.
Buddha belly breathing
(from The Meaning of Pain, Jing School of Massage and lots of yogi’s)
I’m pretty sure it’s actually called diaphragmatic breathing but whatever.
- Get yourself into a comfortable position in which you feel completely supported and as if you’d be able to let go of all the tension in your muscles (lying down or seated. If you feel any discomfort then have a play with putting pillows under your knees or lower back to see what works best for you)
- Place one hand on your chest and one on your naval/tummy. Just tune in and monitor your nature breathing pattern for a few breaths. Have a looky and see if one hand moves more than the other.
- Now, if it is possible for you, only breathe through your nose. On the next inhale, imagine your torso is a balloon and as you breathe in, the air inflates your tummy first and then up to your chest. The inhale should be 5 seconds. Then hold the breath in for 1.
- Then exhale everything out for 7 seconds. Hold the breath out for 1.
- Repeat this for 10 breaths
- Give the world a cheeky smile. Hi world.
(from The Meaning of Pain)
- Breathing through nose, inhale for 3 seconds
- Hold the breath for 4 seconds
- Breathe out for 5 seconds
- Smile. Say hello to a tree. Hi tree.
Body Scan with deep breathing
(from a CBT diploma I’m doing, Breathworks and my uncle)
- Get in a comfortable, supported position that you can be relaxed in for about 10-20 minutes.
- Practice breathing into your Buddha Belly (not calling you fat, Buddha is just really chill and has a great belly and I’m referring to the first exercise). You don’t have to count in for 5 and out for 7 the whole time, just try to breathe a wee bit deeper than you normally do and make sure you breathe into the belly. If you feel woozy at all, take a break.
- Now, you are going to go through each part of your body and see if you can feel any tension there, starting at your feet.
- If you do feel there is some tension in an area, for example your hips/glutes, contract the muscles in that area and squeeze for 10 seconds. Then on a big exhale, let everything go. Let all that tense tension release. Say bye to the tension. Bye tension. Focus on the new sensation of release and relaxation in that area. Ooh so nice and melty (floaty).
- Go through each part of your body; feet, calves, thighs, all the way to your jaw and forehead, until your whole body feels relaxed.
- Stay here for as many deep breaths as you need. If you’re not asleep, give yourself a smile and say hi, you are great. Hi me.