Wow, what a busy summer we had.
Graduations, new jobs for the kids, a broken arm for our youngest, and high school football conditioning kept me hopping! I had the pleasure of working with several clients over the summer. We saw a lot of success by getting their nutrition under control as well as positive changes in their overall well-being. By identifying food intolerances and vitamin deficiencies my clients were able to stop an unsettled digestion system, lose weight, and feel better! However, there was a common theme I saw that was a consistent issue…..week after week.
We live in a very demanding world. Stress is as commonplace as the air we breathe. Everyone experiences it. No one is exempt. You can develop techniques to handle your stress and learn to trigger your relaxation response with practice. Although everyone is different and have different ways to deal with stress, there is one way that will help relieve the anxiety from stress and that is breathing. Not just the automatic air intake and expel process that keeps us alive, but the intentional control of how you breathe in and release can help reduce our perceived stress. Deep breathing can help release serotonin in our brain which is our “feel-good” hormone. Before we try a breathing exercise together, notice how your jaw feels at this moment, as well as your shoulders and back….do you feel any tension there?
Now, try this with me:
Breathe in slowly filling your lungs to capacity for a count of 4 or more
Hold your breath for a count of four
Release all the air in your lungs, forcing every last bit out (for a count of four or more)
REPEAT 4 TIMES This technique is called the 4x4x4x4
Now, take another inventory of how you feel. Did your jaw, shoulders, and back relax a bit? This is a relaxation response. Memorize this and use it every day!
Why is learning to control your response to stress important? We have a hormone named cortisol that plays an important role in our body. Cortisol helps us with our “get up and go” in the morning. Cortisol also plays a role in our “fight or flight” response. In fact, most cells in our body have cortisol receptors, so the influence of cortisol in our body is far and wide. When we are stressed, our levels of cortisol spike, negatively influencing our ability to think clearly, our thyroids, and increase our belly fat…which comes with a whole other set of problems. The influence of stress and high levels of cortisol is not be taken lightly. This article from the Dartmouth sums it up nicely:
“Stress and Health: Short-Term and Long-Term Effects
Many of us know from experience that stress compromises the immune response, an empirical observation buttressed by our understanding of cortisol’s physiological effects. Indeed, the effects of acute and chronic stress on human health are myriad and severe. During periods of increased stress, “the immune cells are being bathed in molecules which are essentially telling them to stop fighting,” according to Dr. Esther Sternberg (20). These molecules, namely cortisol, suppress the immune system and inflammatory pathways, rendering the body more susceptible to disease.
High levels of stress, even over relatively short periods and in vastly different contexts, tend to produce similar results: prolonged healing times, reduction in ability to cope with vaccinations, and heightened vulnerability to viral infection (21). The long-term, constant cortisol exposure associated with chronic stress produces further symptoms, including impaired cognition, decreased thyroid function, and accumulation of abdominal fat, which itself has implications for cardiovascular health. The bottom line is that both episodes of acute stress and more prolonged stressful circumstances precipitate lower levels of general health, and exposure to such stress should be minimized. In the most extreme cases, Cushing’s Syndrome, characterized by dangerously high cortisol levels, can result. Those afflicted with Cushing’s experience rapid weight gain, hyperhydrosis, and hypercalcemia, along with various psychological and endocrine problems (22).
Stress is unavoidable. Our bodies are designed to react to our environment in an effort to preserve homeostasis. Arming ourselves with an understanding of the mechanisms, agonists, and antagonists of the stress response, however, positions us to minimize stress and its impact on our minds and bodies. It is both a blessing and a curse that the HPA axis evolved to be so sensitive to factors like circadian rhythm, caffeine, and alcohol. We are experts at maintaining homeostasis but often novices at managing stressful circumstances. The good news is that stress levels rest largely on our own behavior and decisions and that we can optimize our bodies’ responses to stress based on how we live our daily lives.”
Find a way to relax and respond to stress. Use the breathing exercise above to start! Finding some time to sit outside each day will help you relax as well. Finding different ways to help you combat stress can be the key to sleeping better, weight loss, and overall wellness. Breathe deeply and relax.
To read the above article in its’ entirety click here.