With just over a week left before summer break I find the stress I carry getting heavier and heavier. As a third year grad student I have come to dread this time of the semester, it completely throws me off balance and no matter how much I try to prepare, the stress of looming deadlines tries to devour me. And it will if I let it. Fortunately (I think), I have come to know my stress well. I know my triggers, I know how it affects my health and over the years, I have learned how to disarm it – significantly, if not completely. We all live with stress in our daily lives and we all develop our own ways to cope. However, every once in a while it builds up and becomes toxic. If left unattended stress, especially chronic stress, can destroy your peace of mind, your relationships and your health.
Stressors put our bodies in “survival” mode. When we are in survival mode our brains release higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. If we are in immediate physical danger, this influx of hormones trigger what is known as the “fight or flight” response. When this occur in short bursts, it can be very beneficial to us, like if we need to run away from a stampede of wildebeest, for example. But in our modern lives, many of us walk around every day with these stress hormones at chronically high levels. And that can make us sick. Over time, chronic stress will lead to major health issues like heart disease, stroke and even certain cancers, but it can also lead to daily “dis-ease” in your body. Symptoms appear as depression, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, weight gain, memory loss and digestive upset and nausea to name a few.
There are many well know strategies to battling chronic stress: healthy diet, exercise, counseling and medication as well as relaxation techniques like taking a hot bath, reading, aromatherapy, getting outside and of course, meditation. However, our busy lives often hinder us from either making or sustaining these lifestyle changes. But there is one simple thing we can do every day to lessen our stress that does not cost any time or money and can be done absolutely anywhere. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, I assure you it’s not, because I am referring to breathing!
Obviously we all know we need to breath in order to live but did you know the type of breathing we do can have profound effects on our wellbeing? Let me explain! When you are chronically stressed, in the ways mentioned above, your breathing becomes shallow. Most of the oxygen you are taking in only hits the top 20% of your lungs. This type of breathing is what allows us to run, swim, climb stairs or engage in any other cardiovascular activity and is a great way to strengthen our lungs. However, when you breathe in this manner chronically it restricts your blood flow which causes your heart to pump harder and faster and leaves you at an elevated level of alertness or with strong feelings of anxiety. When you sustain this level of alertness for days, weeks, months at a time the stress hormones mentioned above begin to break down your body and can lead to chronic fatigue, lowered immunity, muscle pain and foggy headedness.
By taking deep, full, consistent breaths we lower our heart rate, increase our circulation, flush stagnant air out of our lungs and become more calm and balanced. In order to gain the benefits of deep breathing it is important to breath in a style that is known as “diaphragmatic”:
- Breathe with the diaphragm, allowing the ribs to slightly flare out to the sides, while the shoulders, upper chest and abdomen remain still
- Breathe calmly and smoothly, without jerkiness
- Breathe slowly, but in a way that feels like you are getting adequate air
- Breathe at a consistent depth; deeply but not so deep you feel uncomfortable
- Allow breath to flow continuously, with no pause allowed between the breaths, either between inhalation and exhalation, or between exhalation and inhalation
- Breathe evenly, so the inhalation and exhalation are the same length
This may seem like a lot to think about at first and it will take conscious effort to achieve and maintain this style of breathing. If you practice regularly, pretty soon it will become second nature to you! Remember, anxiety cannot exist in a calm environment; if you put in the effort to turn your body into a calm, peaceful place, your stress and anxiety will automatically decrease. Lowered stress and anxiety will foster better balance within your body and create more health and wellbeing in your life! Wishing you a peaceful day!