By: James MacFarlane MScPT (candidate)
Stress, stressing, stressed. Everybody is feeling it these days. Whether the pressure is from work, school, taking care of the family, or just life in general, Canadians are a stressed out bunch. According to Statistics Canada, nearly 25% of Canadians report that most days were either “quite a bit” or “extremely stressful” – that’s huge!
If stress was simply a passing feeling of being a little overwhelmed in the moment, that alone wouldn’t be a big issue. But being stressed isn’t just about worrying whether everyone has their lunch packed, whether all the bills are paid up to date, if the report from the last meeting has been drafted and, oh, by the way, did you remember to buy a gift for Becca’s wedding next month? It can be a lead to illness, with chronic stress taking its toll on many different body systems, and contributing to a host of bigger health issues, like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and even obesity!
But what actually is stress, and how can we manage it?
Our autonomic nervous system is the force behind the stress response. One part of our body’s nervous system which basically operates on autopilot. It controls a ton of our body’s functions, like heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. This part of our nervous system actually has two branches. The first, the “sympathetic” nervous system, generally readies the body for action. You’ve probably heard the function of the first system called the “fight-or-flight” response. It prepares the body for intense work.
Unfortunately, this fight-or-flight response sometimes gets hijacked by the modern world – we encounter a ton of minor stressors in everyday life and, even in small doses, they can keep our fight-or-flight revved up, and us with it. Constant revving of our fight-or-flight response can lead to elevated blood pressure, mental fatigue, general restlessness, and a bunch of other health problems. This is why we always ask about stress in our physiotherapy assessments!
Thankfully there is a second part to this system, the “parasympathetic” nervous system. This system generally relaxes the body and promotes recovery. Sometimes, this is called the “rest-and-digest” system. It slows the heart and breathing rates, lowers blood pressure, increases digestion, and chills us out. This system normally works hand-in-hand with the fight-or-flight system. When the fight-or-flight system is constantly on the go, the rest-and-digest part of the equation goes to the backburner, and the body is constantly stressed out for action without getting the equivalent rest it needs.
Luckily, with some practice, we can actually increase the use of the rest-and-digest system. Creating some voluntarily controlling things from the top down. This can make sure we bring balance back to our bodies!
Breathing to control our stress?
Find a quiet, distraction-free environment with a comfortable place to sit.
Close your eyes and take a calm inhale through the nose. Take 2-5 seconds to complete the inhale, hold it for a pause of 2-3 seconds, and then gently exhale through the nose. The exhale should last 4-10 seconds (about twice as long as the inhale). Finish with a pause before starting to inhale again.
There is NO rush with this breathing. If slowing it down even further makes you feel calmer, then do that! Keep your mind on the breathing itself. Every time it wanders, focus on the feeling of the air moving in and out of your nostrils.
Continue breathing like this for a minimum of 5 minutes. With practice you can get up to 10 or 20 minutes! That’s it!
By doing a simple breathing exercise as part of a daily routine or whenever you feel extra stressed boosts the relax signal of our nervous system while toning down the panic button. By voluntarily slowing down our breathing rate, we force the rest-and-digest system to increase its activity. This allows us to restore balance and physically reducing the stress in our bodies. Naturally.