Are You Losing This Stress Battle?

Do you remember the olden days when you were young and carefree?  You know, you’d get up with a smile, excited to face the challenges of the day as opportunities to improve your world.  

Or how about when you would just look at your spouse or children and just feel pure and simple joy and enjoyment at simply spending the day with them without thinking about the next mortgage payment or all the demands work was placing on you. 

Did you notice when the times changed for you? When you started to feel the burden of stress and most of your thoughts became counted as worries or fears? I’m not talking about a clinical type of depression or anything, but more about how adulthood, parenthood, professional life, and well, even pandemic life takes its toll on us.  More and more of us are stressed out and we can’t remember the last time we weren’t stressed.   

Because living with high stress can cause some serious health concerns, we wanted to share some practical and helpful ways to lower your stress and hopefully ward off the long term effects of high stress on your health and wellness.  After all, less stress means better quality of life for you and for those around you. Imagine being able to just relax and enjoy your family and friends again without the constant worry and fear stress can cause? Wouldn’t that be great?  

Let’s start with some basics, then we’ll share some strategies for reducing your stress and your cortisol. 

There is a Stress Hormone? 

It’s not quite that simple, but at the risk of oversimplifying it, you bet there is!  Obviously it is a bit more complicated, but without getting too detailed, we all have this hormone called Cortisol that plays an important role in regulating several important things our body does, including: 

How Does Cortisol Work Exactly?  

When we’re stressed, our body makes more cortisol. So, when we experience stressful thoughts and emotions like fear, overwhelm, anxiety, anger, and more, our body sounds an alarm button and increases its production of cortisol to help keep things like our blood sugar levels and blood pressure within healthy ranges.  When the stress passes, our body responds reduces how much cortisol it makes until our next serious encounter with stress. 

What if We’re Under Constant Stress and the Alarm Button Stays On?  

Well, if we’re under constant stress, our cortisol levels don’t decrease as they should. When our bodies have high levels of cortisol for long periods of time many of our body’s most important functions can be derailed which can an weaken our immune response and lead to the development of chronic health issues such as:  

 Sound familiar? So, what can we do?  

For most of us, reducing our stress would mean drastically changing our circumstances or perhaps giving up some of the very things that we love, our children, our spouses, our careers.  

That's not so realistic, is it? We’ve got few easier ideas that are far more realistic and much easier to pull off! 

  1. Change your thoughts! 

We’ve already shared that stressful thoughts and emotions are enough to increase our cortisol levels causing our body to be stressed.  Since we are constantly exposed to our thoughts and our emotions, we can learn to change them rather than making drastic unrealistic changes to our life circumstances.  

Changing our thoughts is both a skill, and a habit. It doesn’t mean avoiding reality, it means looking at it in another way.  For instance, if the glass is half full, it is also half empty right?  Both are true statements.  But how you choose to look at it is all in your perspective. Choosing to view the situation in another way takes effort, but pays high dividends, resulting in a high success rate!!  Take responsibility for your thoughts, tell a different story, choose your response! 

I am quite sure most of you have heard about how gratitude as an emotion can be so helpful in suppressing our stress response, as it lowers our cortisol hormone.  Seeking to find gratitude every day is a skill that can be developed and encouraged throughout the act of writing down and journaling your gratitude experience. Give journaling a try. You would be amazed at how therapeutic it can be! 

  1. Deep belly breathing  

So under-rated, and so basic that many people dismiss it.  Think about it. When you are busy, stressed, racing around, you are breathing shallow breaths.  This sends the brain the message that you must be fighting, flighting or freezing as a result of a dangerous situation.  If everything was fine and you were safe, you would be breathing deep full breaths and exhaling slowly, pausing in between breaths.  How many of us do this?  It is only done when we are mindful of it. 

One way to do that is by building this breathing practice into our day by setting a timer on our phones every hour and doing box breathing for 5 minutes.  That’s all it takes.  There are many forms of breathing, and they are all effective. Box breathing is breathing in for the same number of seconds, holding it in for the same number of seconds, exhaling for the same number of seconds, and pausing at the bottom for same number of seconds. An ideal sequence is 4-4-4-4, taking great care to expand your belly on the inhale. This is so great for calming your stress response and promoting healing in your body. 

Breathing Control Can Change Your Life

When you are under stress your body reacts in a variety of different ways. Although everyone reacts to stress differently, there are a number of common techniques that can have a great impact on your body’s response.  

When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. One of the most useful methods of lessening these reactions is to control your breathing. 

By controlling your breathing you are, in essence, telling your body that everything is ok and under control. This allows your body to relax, slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. This isn’t just useful in terms of stress. It can also be helpful in controlling anxiety and symptoms of depression. 

Controlling your breathing is a form of "entry level" meditation that anyone can do. One of the easiest ways to reduce stress is to simply focus your attention on your breath.  

There are many forms of breathing, and they are all effective in reducing your body’s response to stress. We will discuss just a few of them here. While we shouldn’t stay in a prolonged state of controlled breath, starting the practice for a few moments per day can make you more conscious of your habits outside of the exercise. 

Ideally, for a full deep breathing exercise, you should find a comfortable seat in an upright position. As you inhale, your diaphragm muscle contracts downwards and as you exhale, the muscle relaxes upward; having the space in your physical body to expand is helpful in order to reap the benefits. 

  1. Just Breathe 
    The simplest breathing technique is to count your breaths. You start by counting 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale, and so forth. You can choose to count up to five, then repeat back at one, to make sure your attention doesn’t wander.  
  1. Box Breathing 
    Breath in for the same number of seconds, holding it in for the same number of seconds, exhaling for the same number of seconds, and pausing at the bottom for same number of seconds. An ideal sequence is 4-4-4-4, taking great care to expand your belly on the inhale. This is so great for calming your stress response and promoting healing in your body. 
  1. Alternate Nostril Breathing  
    This is a practice that can increase energy and calmness. This is best practiced sitting straight with a long spine — take your thumb and close off one nostril, then inhale fully. When your lungs have expanded completely, release your thumb and immediately use your ring finger to close off the opposite nostril and exhale slowly. You will repeat while switching nostrils for your inhales and exhales. 
  1. Deep Breathing  
    This technique helps to relieve shortness of breath by preventing air from getting trapped in your lungs and helping you to breathe in more fresh air. It may help you to feel more relaxed. To do this, while standing or sitting, draw your elbows back slightly to allow your chest to expand. Take a deep inhalation through your nose. Retain your breath for a count of 5. Slowly release your breath by exhaling through your nose. 

These are just a few of the many, many breathing techniques that can help you to control your breathing and give you a sense of calm and peacefulness. Don’t wait until the next time you are feeling really stressed out to try these breathing exercises. Start practicing them now and that way when you do need them, they will come as second nature. 

If you would like more tips and ideas on dealing with stress and improving your health visit my website at flourishhealthcare.ca.