I was a Yoga teacher for eight years.
My training taught me a lot about the interrelationship between the mind and the body, on a physiological, scientifically explainable level. Using that knowledge, I compiled some quick and easy stress control techniques for my students I call “On The Go Stress Control”. These are small things you can do during your day to reduce stress and alleviate its negative consequences.
STRESS AND YOUR BODY
Stress is a condition which causes psychological and physical damage. The most insidious and dangerous form of stress is the everyday kind. Traffic, being late, dealing with difficult situations, and other people. This kind of stuff bombards you constantly. The damage it causes is consistent and cumulative. Ironically, while there are no “quick fixes” for most things in life, there are quick fixes for stress-related symptoms. Called Relaxation Techniques, you can do them for a few minutes, any time, even during your most hectic days. These are easy to learn, pleasant to do, and are amazingly effective at curbing your body’s harmful reactions to stress.
There’s a saying, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” These techniques can allow you to surf in the often turbulent seas of life.
In this first piece, I’d like to concentrate on breathing, which is the simplest and most powerful of the relaxation techniques.
Breathing is important in two different ways. Breathing involves two different systems in your body – respiratory and the nervous systems. I’ll only talk about the latter here because most people already have a rudimentary understanding of the respiratory system.
Breathing forms a bridge between your body and mind. It’s the key to preventing or minimizing stress reactions. It acts as the messenger service by which the mind communicates with the body – and visa versa. Your breathing is the only thing you can consciously control which lets you turn off the stress response.
When your mind perceives or even imagines a threat or impending stress — big or small — your breathing changes. It triggers what’s called the “Fight or Flight Response” which automatically releases over 1500 chemicals into your system to prepare you to fight for your life — or run like hell.
Heart and breathing rates increase dramatically, as does blood pressure, muscle tension, and the amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream, along with many other toxic reactions.
Constant stress slowly poisons you and over time, this wear and tear can injure almost every system in your body.
The problem is that this system evolved to protect early humans from infrequently real threats to life and limb. It doesn’t differentiate the more subtle stresses of modern life. The fight or flight response is on or off. There’s no dimmer switch to deal with the stressful but non life threatening situations which make up most of our lives.
Rapid, shallow breathing triggers the alarm and initiates the survival mechanism of your body. Slow, deep breathing — called abdominal breathing — is the “all clear” signal. It turns off your body’s red alert and reverses the fight or flight sequence. It stops the release of stress hormones that initiate physical stress reactions.
When you learn to control your breathing, you also control your stress response.
Relaxation works on tension the way aspirin works on headaches. You can do breathing exercises (or other relaxation techniques) anywhere, anytime. You can do it while you’re stuck in traffic, waiting in line, sorting laundry, sitting in a dentist’s chair, or at your desk. The more practice, the more effective they are and the more relaxed you will be. You can use them to deal with a specific stressful situation more calmly and rationally — without being thrown into a panic state.
Breathe through your nose (unless I tell you otherwise).
Put one hand on your belly, one on your chest. Start by taking a take a slow, deep breath. Feel your belly rise, then as you breathe deeper, feel your chest rise.
Feel the breath going into your throat.
As you exhale, reverse the process. Feel your chest falling, then your belly as you tighten your abdominal muscles and squeeze out that last bit of breath before you inhale again. It may take a while before this feels natural. This is the way you should be breathing all the time, to keep your system in equilibrium. Most people don’t, hence high stress levels.
After you’ve mastered abdominal breathing, you can go to the next level and add counting. You foster relaxation when your exhale is longer than your inhale. You energize yourself when your inhale is longer than your exhale. If you want to relax or stay calm, inhale to a slow count of 3, then exhale to a slow count of 6. Next, inhale to a slow count of 4, then exhale to a slow count of 8.Two to one is the best ratio for breathing.
Experiment until you find the count which works best for you. Continue doing it as long as you can — at least a few minutes.
If you find yourself getting sluggish during the day and need a pick-me-up, instead of grabbing an energy drink or another cup of coffee, get a shot of natural energy. Inhale to a slow count of 4, 6 or 8. Then expel your breath rapidly through your mouth, making a whooshing sound — or saying “Haaaa”. If you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, just do a quiet exhale to the count of 2, 3 or 4 while keeping the 2 to 1 ratio (if possible).
Abdominal breathing is not only a stress relieving exercise. You can combine it with all the other forms of relaxation. It allows other techniques to work and can help you fall asleep, even if you have insomnia.
In subsequent pieces I’ll teach you other techniques, like Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Visualization, and Mindful Walking.