By Steven Lane of A Change of Mind and The Lane Clinic
Up to 90% of all doctor visits are stress related according to WebMd.com.This includes emotional symptoms such as anxiety and depression and physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, back aches, digestive disturbance, immune system problems, high blood pressure and arthritis.
Yet, because of the limitations of time availability your doctor is more likely to give you a pill than help you to reduce your stress. Of course, more progressive doctors will refer you to stress management, counselling or practices such as yoga and tai chi.
Whilst stress is a normal physiological response that is designed to enable us to deal with danger and overwhelming difficulty, for many people it becomes chronic, eventually leading to burn out and adrenal fatigue. Ultimately, we need to deal with the root causes via psychotherapy or coaching. In the meantime though, we can avail of techniques that enable us to release stress and find some inner clarity and calm. The following are important approaches to integrate into your daily life.
1. The Stress Release Breath
The autonomic nervous system is in one of two modes: The parasympathetic mode ( = relax or “rest and digest” – abbreviated as PSNS) or the sympathetic mode ( = stressed or “stimulation of the fight or flight response” – abbreviated as SNS )
Many of the symptoms of stress are a consequence of being in the SNS mode for too long. The SNS inhibits digestion, blocks clear thinking and switches on genes which if left on lead to a variety of chronic or terminal illnesses.
One quick way to switch from SNS to PSNS is through the breath. Many of the symptoms of stress and anxiety such as light headedness, panicky feelings, heart palpitations are a result of over breathing, in which too much oxygen enters the system and unbalances the important oxygen carbon dioxide ratio.
An average breath cycle is around 12 per minute. Some people may have over 20, which is guaranteed to produce a feeling of stress or anxiety. In contrast, if you can reduce your breath to just 6 cycles per minute during the follow exercise, you will most certainly switch into the PSNS and you will start to feel relaxed, clear headed and your digestion will return to normal (essential for digestive disorders such as IBS ).
• Sit or lie down in a quiet place where you will be undisturbed for 5 to 10 minutes
• Firstly, just notice your breathing and let it start to slow down naturally
• Notice if your breathing is shallow (movements in the chest and shoulders) or deep (movements in the abdomen). If shallow, imagine a balloon in your abdomen which you are trying to inflate as you breathe in – your tummy should push out, opening up the diaphragm (a muscle just above the tummy which is very important in breathing) and continue to breathe in this way – you do not need to take big breaths – just gentle abdominal breaths.
• If you can, keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose
• Breathe in easily, and then slowly release the breath and allow the breath to pause for a second before breathing in again. (your out- breath should be slower than your in- breath during the exercise)
• As you breathe out, imagine you are breathing out all of your stress and problems.
• Continue like this for 5 or 10 minutes.
• Return to normal breathing; though allow your breath to continue to be abdominal calm breathing if you can.
• Repeat a few times a day, especially before going to bed – this will help with a good night’s sleep.
Why is exercise so important in order to release stress? Stress is also knows as the fight, freeze or flight response. It is a primitive system related amongst others to the limbic system of the brain. It is the knee jerk reaction of the brain to any problem. Unfortunately, it was designed to help us to deal with danger and overwhelming physical challenges, in a physical way. If you’re about to be attacked by an enemy tribe, it is quite useful. The stress response pumps stress hormones around the system which in turn increase breathing, blood pressure, heart beats, blood oxygenation and turn off unnecessary functions such as digestion and thinking! We then have a huge ability to either fight or to run away.
The problem is that this very same response is turned on when your boss yells at you, when you receive a bill you cannot pay, when the children are all demanding your attention, of even if you just start to think about how much you need to get done. Your limbic system goes into overdrive and your body produces a stress response ready to fight or to run away. The problem is, you normally do neither. The consequence is that the natural way in which the stress response and hormones are released isn’t used; you neither fight nor flee. And these stress responses can stay circulating in your system for a long time. Even worse, if they start to produce symptoms such as panic which you then react to, you create a new stress response.
So what to do? Exercise! When we exercise, especially vigorously in such a way that we get out of breath, the body will use up the chemicals that are driving the stress response and your body will at some stage flip in the PSNS response, as well as to produce neuro regulators such as endorphins that make you feel great. Whilst for some people this can be produced with brisk walking, others may need to run, play tennis/football/swim etc.
Whilst gentle exercise such as yoga or tai chi play an important role in managing stress, they calm the system, calm the breath and stimulate the PSNS as described in the breathing exercise. Vigorous exercise actually discharges the stress hormones and produces a rapid feel good factor.
There is however, one group of “stressed” people who should avoid vigorous exercise. It is recognised that the stress response, once chronic, goes through several phases. In phase 3, a stage of burn out is reached in which the body can no longer adequately respond to stress. The adrenals which produce stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol are no longer able to produce adequate amounts of these hormones. This is now referred to as “adrenal fatigue”. Once this happens, a person will feel tired much of time, their sleep will not be refreshing and the smallest thing will create feelings of stress. Vigorous exercise will make these people feel even worse – they need to stay with very gentle exercise such as a 20 minute slow walk, or yoga.
Note: The above are the opinions of the author and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult an appropriate professional if necessary.
The Lane Clinic, run by Steven Lane and Avril Lane Watson, is based in Tullamore, Co Offaly and offers a range of services for body and mind including Psychotherapy, Acupuncture, Neurofeedback, Natural Medicine, Coaching and Dyslexia Solutions. Phone: 076 6026 777
www.laneclinic.com email: info laneclinic.com