What happens when you are overly stressed?

You may be familiar with what happens when there is stress overload and your body produces specific stress hormones such as Adrenaline, Cortisol and Norepinephrine which is your body’s way of preparing you for the ‘flight or fight’ response. When the stress response is activated your breathing is quick and shallow (low oxygen levels) heart rate increases, digestive function is decreased (not hungry) and your liver releases sugar (glucose) for energy. This type of stress response is natural and necessary when faced with life threatening situations requiring you to act quickly, such as coming face to face with a wolf or tiger. This same response however wears your body down when it is constantly activated in response to everyday stressors you can’t always avoid such as work deadlines, job interview, divorce, moving house or meeting with your boss.

The relaxation response

You can counteract your stress response to everyday stressors by learning how to produce the relaxation response using deep abdominal breathing techniques.  This type of breathing is often regarded by mental health experts as one of the best ways to lower or manage your stress or anxiety because the act of breathing deeply sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax which then sends a message to your body to do the same. The mind and body work together and so when the relaxation response is fully activated it results in a state of equilibrium which is opposite to the stress response. Your mind is quieter but still alert and you are physically relaxed.

What you will notice

When you activate the relaxation response your breathing does become slower and deeper, heart rate is decreased, blood pressure slows down, muscles relax and there is more blood pumped to your brain.  Being more mindful of your breathing not only helps to calm and relax you in this way but distracts you from what it is that caused your stress in the first instance.

With regular practice, you can start to notice and enjoy other physical and psychological benefits of deep breathing such as increased energy and focus, fights against illness, builds relieves aches and pains, improves problem solving abilities which helps you to perform better in life. This occurs because your body is no longer being constantly compromised or depleted of vital oxygen and energy necessary to maintain good health.

Here’s a deep breathing technique for you to practice when you feel your stress response has been triggered. Remember it takes time to master this because it may be new to you so please persist with it and please let me know how you got on.

But first let’s check where you draw your breath from:

  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your diaphragm just below your tummy. Breathe like you normally would. Which hand did you notice rise more? If it was the hand on your tummy then you are breathing correctly from your diaphragm so please keep going. If it was the hand on your chest then you’ll need to practice more. Breathing more from your chest is less likely to be helpful during a stress response.
  • Now breathe through your mouth and notice how that feels. If you felt cold air at the back of your throat you are more likely to start breathing quicker during the stress response which will increase your symptoms of anxiety.
  • Try breathing now from your nose keeping your mouth closed. Does the air feel different? It should feel warmer and is a healthier way of breathing because of filtered germs.

Are we now ready?

Let’s get started then with your deep breathing. Find a quiet place. You can start by lying down with your eyes closed if this helps and then as you get familiar with it you can practice sitting in a chair before using it in everyday situations such as when you are in a supermarket queue or doing the laundry. You can look forward to breathing in this way no matter where you are when you start to feel stressed or anxious. Practice this breathing technique 2-3 times a day for at least 10-15 minutes each time or as often as you need until you master it.

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose with your mouth closed and then slowly breathe out again through pursed lips. Feel your stomach expand as you breathe in, imagine you are inflating it like a balloon and as you breathe out slowly allow your stomach to deflate.
  • Concentrate on the sensation of your breath going in and out.

You might like to try this breathing to relaxation music or have fragrant candles burning or incense. Breathing in this mindful way helps to maximise the healthy exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that will calm your mind and body down and so reduce your stress related symptoms.

If you need support, contact me for an informal chat.

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