From a pandemic that led to worldwide lockdowns, a civil rights movement, murder hornets (did we ever get real confirmation on those?), losing loved ones, losing jobs, schools closing and a presidential election, 2020 was a year that tested our daily stress. Our fight or flight response was sent into overdrive, which resulted in some of us practically operating in survival mode.
Physiologically speaking, our bodies are designed to operate this way when there is a perceived threat. During periods of acute emotional or physical stress, our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated. This response triggers a release of hormones that either prepares us to stay and combat the threat, or flee to safety. We experience perspiration, muscle contractions and an increased breathing and heart rate while our breaths become shallow.
There are probably several moments from the last eight months alone that you could look back on and recall experiencing these physiological responses to stress.
But remaining in that state of chronic stress for extended periods of time can create an imbalance due to our sympathetic nervous system being overstimulated. Continuous stress can affect our overall health and longevity and negatively impact our bodies. Studies have shown that prolonged stress, when unchecked, can lead to more inflammation, higher blood pressure, muscle pain and digestive issues (1, 2). It’s also worth noting that when we are constantly anxious or stressed, we tend to engage in unhealthy habits to try and cope. *Cue finishing off the whole bucket of Halloween candy I promised my kids I wouldn’t eat.*
So how do we offset this? For starters, we pause, then take a deep breath. No really, like right now. Unclench your jaw, relax your shoulders and unfurl your brow. Then take a full breath in through your nose, open your mouth and sigh it all out. Now do it again.
Did you feel yourself soften in your chair, did your chest relax a little bit, or was there a moment where your mind wasn’t going over that endless to-do list?
This is how we start effectively managing our stress. We begin by stringing together these moments that eventually build into hours, days, weeks and months. Then, before we know it, we have a new lifestyle routine. It all starts by setting simple, attainable goals that set us up for success.
We won’t be in a pandemic forever, but we will still have to balance our regular daily life stressors. So, we should strive to incorporate ways to maintain a healthy level of stress that don’t negatively impact our well-being. When we can effectively manage our response to stress, we improve our overall health, which builds the foundation for us to live long, adventurous lives.
Let’s take a look at a couple practices that have been proven to help with stress management (3).
Yoga is an ancient, popular practice of mindfulness, in which practitioners direct their attention to the present moment and create an environment to slow down and tune in. Our stressed-out minds tend to focus on the past and the future, both of which we have very little control over. So, whether you’re looking to increase flexibility, calm your racing mind or begin a journey toward spiritual growth, yoga has a myriad of benefits when practiced regularly.
Yoga allows us to extend some compassion to ourselves, show up just as we are without any expectations and let the judgement disappear for a moment. Combining physical movement, controlled, mindful breathing and stretching is a proven way to elevate mood, which in turn reduces stress levels (4). Remember all those side effects of an overstimulated sympathetic nervous system: high blood pressure, increased heart rate and muscle tension? Good news, yoga can help reverse all of those.
Starting a yoga practice can seem daunting, especially with all of the apps, YouTube channels, different studio and class options (some of those class descriptions cause my head to spin and I’ve been practicing for 17 years). Try to keep it simple, start slow and don’t overcommit yourself. If you only have time to practice for 15 minutes twice a week, that is perfectly okay place to start. Find a teacher you connect with (shamelessly raises hand) and a style that feels good in your body. Feel free to explore; variety after all is the spice of life. You will be amazed by the positive changes that happen within your body. The payoff for the amount of effort you need to put in is great. Before you know it, your head is going to be hitting your pillow every night filled with a little less chaos, your breaths will be a little more full and your sleep a little more sound.
Pranayama or Breathing Exercises
Pranayama is a yoga practice that means the control of life. We refer to the breath as prana, or life force, in yoga. By using different breathing techniques, we can change subtle energies within the body and reverse the effects of our stress response. However, most of us go through the day either holding our breath (hands clenched on the steering wheel navigating through rush hour traffic) or taking shallow chest breaths. Chest breathing is not as efficient as abdominal breathing (think full deep breaths where the belly expands) because the greatest amount of blood flow happens in those lower lobes of the lungs. This results in less oxygen getting into our blood. However – like riding a bike – we can train ourselves to switch to more abdominal breathing. This might sound strange since we don’t ever really think about breathing, but stick with me.
One of my favorite breathing exercises is the three-part breath. It is used to maximize inhalation and exhalation in order to increase oxygen intake. This is my go-to practice before I begin climbing because it is helpful for calming my nerves:
- Find a comfortable position, whether sitting or lying down. The key is to feel at ease.
- Inhale through your nose and into the belly. Let the entire abdomen expand.
- Once the belly reaches full expansion, expand the ribs in all directions.
- When the ribs are fully expanded, inhale a bit more and begin to expand into the chest, then all the way up to the base of the neck.
- With the end of the inhale, start a smooth, even exhale at the base of the neck, traveling all the way down to the base of the belly.
- Try to keep an even breath where the inhales and exhales match in length and depth.
- Repeat at least three times.
Learning and using proper breathing techniques is one of the most beneficial things we can do for our physical and emotional health.
Stress will come and go. It’s a part of our existence. When I find a magic cure all for a stress-free life, I will be sure to share. What I have come to realize as being a key component to living a long and healthy life is to just be kinder to yourself. That, combined with any of these techniques discussed, have been valuable assets in my stress management journey. Remember that you are only human and you are doing the best you can. Take a deep breath, go for a walk outside. You’re doing an amazing job!
- Gordan R, Gwathmey JK, Xie LH. Autonomic and endocrine control of cardiovascular function. World J Cardiol. 2015;7(4):204-14. doi:10.4330/wjc.v7.i4.204
- Meier SM, Mattheisen M, Mors O, Mortensen PB, Laursen TM, Penninx BW. Increased mortality among people with anxiety disorders: total population study. Br J Psychiatry. 2016;209(3):216-21. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.115.171975
- Russo MA, Santarelli DM, O’rourke D. The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe (Sheff). 2017;13(4):298-309. doi:10.1183/20734735.009817
- Li AW, Goldsmith CA. The effects of yoga on anxiety and stress. Altern Med Rev. 2012 Mar;17(1):21-35. PMID: 22502620.