While our bodies are actually designed to cope with small stresses that occur occasionally, more people are finding themselves living with chronic stress. Recent statistics suggest as much as 80 percent of adults in the U.S. experience daily stress significant enough to affect their health.
“Research has found that long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems,” explain Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, UW Health psychologist. “For example, chronic stress can create a vulnerability to anxiety and depression, and can even contribute to high blood pressure and increase your risk of heart attack or stroke.”
Dr. Mirgain offers a few simple practices that can help the body and central nervous system get back into balance so you’re better able to deal with the stresses as they happen.
Learn to Recognize How Your Body Responds to Stress
When we’re under stress, our body enters the “Fight or Flight” mode. Chemicals are released in the body and we have a physical reaction to our situation. It can be challenging in the moment, but try to notice how your body responds to stress. Do you hold your breath? Do your shoulders tense?
Mirgain likens the body’s response to stress to driving a car.
“When stress occurs, you become agitated or angry. There are many ways the body can react – you can start to run faster and become very agitated, like stepping on the gas of a car. You can withdraw entirely, like pressing hard on the brakes. Or you might even freeze up entirely, like pressing on the gas and braking hard at the same time,” she explains.
The problem is that like a car, our body can’t run well if it’s constantly accelerating, constantly braking, or freezing all the time. At some point, it will crash or break down.
|Diaphragmatic breathing can help ease stress symptoms, as well as mitigate chronic pain. Dr. Mirgain demonstrates how in this video|
Develop a Maintenance Plan
In some ways, our bodies do have warning lights that something isn’t working properly, just like our cars. Headaches, stomach aches and other gastrointenstinal issues, muscle aches and insomnia are all signs that our bodies need maintenance.
A maintenance plan is essentially a way to help manage the stress and ensure the body can continue to run smoothly. One aspect of the plan is to practice techniques that you can use during stress in order to help your body better manage it.
We breathe on average between 20,000 to 30,000 times a day. When we experience stress, many of us often respond by breathing shallowly in our chest, which actually creates more stress in our body. Our bodies are designed to breathe diaphragmatically, or from the belly. When we pause to breathe deeply, we can help our body regulate after experiencing a stress and return it to a state of balance.
Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep-belly breathing, makes you slow down, deepen your breath and engage your body with the process.
5 Steps to Diaphragmatic Breathing
Start by sitting down and getting comfortable.
- Begin to slow down and deepen your breath
- When you breathe in, stomach goes out, as you breathe out, stomach goes in
- Breathe in through the nose, out through the nose or mouth
- Lengthen the out breath
- Pair the breath with a positive memory or calming word if you’d prefer
Ultimately, the breath should feel natural and calming.
For those who may be new to diaphragmatic breathing, or if you’re struggling, Mirgain recommends starting to learn this skill by lying on your stomach for a few minutes. For most people, it’s natural to deep-belly breathe when lying on the stomach. Pay attention to how it feels and then try to recreate the same sensation while lying on your side and again when sitting up. Another suggestion is to try silently counting to 2 or 3 on the in-breath. On the out-breath, count to 3 or 4.
“When you count, it helps us focus on lengthening the out-breath,” explain Mirgain. “By lengthening the out-breath it helps ensure a deeper breath, which is what helps calm the central nervous system.”
Practice deep-belly breathing frequently throughout the day and especially after a stressful event. This is a great exercise to try at your work place while at your desk. You can even use the exercise if you’re going to the doctor or dentist and feeling anxiety before an exam or treatment.
Mirgain explains that practicing deep breathing for a few minutes after a stressful event can help keep your body healthy.
“Having a stress-management practice can lead to a reduction in your everyday stress,” says Mirgain. “It can help boost positive feelings and help you stay calm and collected under pressure.
University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority