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Stress Management Exercises Founded Upon Modern Science & Ancient Wisdom

Discover easy and effective tools and techniques for everyday life

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

The American Institute of Stress reports that 120,000 people die every year as a direct result of work-related stress.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t love my job that much that I would die for it. And I’m sure the other 120,000 other people don’t either.

So, let’s look at ways in which we can live with it better so it doesn’t manifest in the myriad ways it can.

There are signs that stress is present everywhere: The tension of our muscles, the speed of our breath, the sharpness of our eyes, butterflies, stomachaches, headaches, anxiety, brain fog, heat, sweat, and goose pimples are some of the most common in daily life.

Inflammation, hypertension, chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, and heart failure are when it becomes more serious.

“Everything we put into our bodies — from foods and toxins to thoughts and feelings — can shift immune function at a base level.” — Jeffrey Rediger

Let’s play a game for a minute:

  • Squeeze your right fist as tight as you can, tensing all of the muscles around your forearm and elbow
  • Squeeze even tighter

How does it feel to hold on?

  • Now release

How does it feel to let go?

I know holding onto thoughts, identity, projects, relationships, trauma, and so on might not be as extreme but they bring as much tension into the body nonetheless.

And by holding onto these things, we often bring stress into the body. Then, if stress is sustained over long periods of time, the short and long-term side effects that I mentioned above are more likely to show up.

However, by letting go, we invite the body to relax, soften, and open, thus releasing stress before it accumulates.

“Stress is one of the biggest causes of epigenetic change, because it knocks your body out of balance. It comes in three forms: physical stress (trauma), chemical stress (toxins), and emotional stress (fear, worry, being overwhelmed, and so on). Each type can set off more than 1,400 chemical reactions and produce more than 30 hormones and neurotransmitters.” Dr. Joe Dispenza

Stress in the body

On a physiological level, the nervous system reacts to both positive and negative stress in the same way. Good stress such as exercise, focused learning, ice baths, cold water, time in a sauna, breathwork, etc… create a positive stress response while bad stress such as a heated argument, violence, and anxiety creates a negative stress response.

The effects of stress on the body are:

  • Heart rate increases
  • Blood circulation quickens
  • Oxygen levels rise
  • Pupils dilate
  • Focus narrows
  • Diaphragm engages
  • Adrenaline & cortisol are released
  • The body becomes more tense and alert
  • (Only positive stress response) — Endorphins and hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin & serotonin are released

As you can see the only difference between a negative stress response and a positive one is that endorphins and hormones are released. However, that makes the world of difference in the context of the nervous system because it relays those messages to the heart, brain, and every cell in the body. So, depending on what those messages determine how the body responds and feels.

This goes a long way in explaining why exercise feels so great but why emotionally toxic relationships feel so terrible. The nervous system is responding to both scenarios in the same way but is only being rewarded for one. In the case of the latter, it’s flooded with adrenaline and cortisol and put under more tension because it’s having to decide whether to fight or flight.

This can then lead many people to find comfort in addictive habits and substances such as smoking, alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, gambling, gaming, TV, social media, binge eating, etc… to fill a void that’s otherwise lacking from their environment.

The immediate reward of this, of course, is one of relief. But as neural pathways in the brain continue to fire and wire together, the nervous system continues to tell the body to keep doing what’s doing, so it often does. So, in terms of addictive substances, the things that cause relief in the beginning quickly become a source of dependency because we become reliant on them to make us feel good.

For most people, this begins to show up as mild cravings but for those less fortunate, it can be as severe as withdrawal symptoms.

Negative thinking is equally as destructive, if less obvious.

That’s why habits are so hard to break. We’re literally fighting a chemical and biological impulse that drives the very thoughts, emotions, desires, and cravings we’re trying so hard to forget.

Luckily, the same chemical and biological impulses are responsible for driving all habits, both “good” and “bad”. So, if our habits support a healthy lifestyle and the body feels good doing them, it will naturally seek to do them again. Our only job then is to direct the body towards these experiences.

Below are some examples.

The breath

While squeezing your fist a moment ago you may have noticed you were holding your breath. That might sound insignificant but it’s big in terms of how the nervous system responds to such subtle changes. So, let’s look at how.

The Heart/Brain/Breath Connection

As the body inhales our diaphragm flattens, our lungs expand, and our heart contracts. This sends an incredibly speedy message up to the brain that then sends an incredibly speedy message back to the heart that says, “you must speed up”, so it does.

Then as we breathe out the reverse is true. As the body exhales our diaphragm lifts, our lungs compress, and our heart opens up. This sends an incredibly speedy message up to the brain that then sends an incredibly speedy message back to the heart that says, “you must slow down”, so it does.

The body has developed this speedy response mechanism because it knows that there are only a few precious seconds whenever the breath changes so it wastes no time in alerting the heart and brain of what’s going on as quickly as possible. Therefore, every breath that we breathe carries a message but the way we breathe determines how the body receives it. Whatever messages are sent thereafter create the thoughts that we think, the emotions that we feel, and the actions that we take.

One of the quickest ways to create such an experience is through connecting to the breath. So, the more we can trust and work with the breath, the more we can trust ourselves. And the more we can trust ourselves, the more we can trust each other. And the more we can trust each other, the more we can trust life itself. And the more we can trust life itself, the more we can begin to feel that life is happening for us and not to us.

And that’s when the fun really begins!

The breath in the body

The breath in the body can be broken down into 3 zones: the belly, lungs/chest, and throat. So, if a full breath (100%) is to be accurately divided up, it might look something like this:

  • 30% into the belly.
  • 60% into the lungs/chest.
  • 10% into the throat.
Image by Andy

Depending on how deeply you breathe, what physical shape you’re in, what you eat, how much stress you experience, how mentally and emotionally stable you are, how often you exercise, and whether you breathe in through your nose or mouth will determine which part of your body you breathe into most.

Which part you breathe into most has a tremendous effect on how your heart, brain, nervous system, and vital organs co-exist and communicate together too. And how they communicate affects everything.

The area of the body we breathe into most influences how much stress we experience. High levels of anxiety, for example, live in the final 10% of the breath, right there in the throat region. This naturally creates more tension in the body which encourages the cycle to continue. A gentler state of being, on the other hand, invites softer breaths into the belly which naturally encourages the body relax.

Science has long proven that high levels of stress correspond to serious health conditions if sustained over long periods of time. And where we breathe in the body has a big part to play in this.

By connecting to the area of the body that you breathe into most, you can begin to adopt new breathing habits that support and enhance health and longevity.

Where we breathe and how often we breathe are so intrinsically linked that it’s hard not to look at one without the other. So, let’s look at that now.

The number of breaths we breathe

Take a moment to review the table below. As you do, give attention to the four different examples of how the number of breaths we breathe per minute affects our overall health and stress levels.

20 breaths per minute

Effect: High, consistent stress levels in all areas of life.

Location of breath: Upper chest/throat

Nose or mouth breathing: Typically mouth breathing (may partially alternate)

Possible side effects: Anxiety, depression, poor sleep, poor digestion, inflammation, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue; skin conditions such as eczema, and a susceptibility toward addictive habits such as overeating, drug use, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, pornography, sex, etc…

15 breaths per minute (the average person’s breath count)

Effect: Medium levels of stress consistently throughout each day.

Location of breath: Chest/throat

Nose or mouth breathing: Both (may alternate)

Possible side effects: Anxious or overly confident, active mind, brain fog, a susceptibility toward addictions such as overeating, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, etc…

10 breaths per minute

Effect: Calm, collective, peaceful, and balanced with a stronger resistance to emotional and mental stressors. Less emotionally reactive.

Location of breath: Belly/chest

Nose or mouth mouthing: Nose

Possible side effects: N/A

5 breaths per minute

Effect: Calm, consistent mind, optimal awareness. Presence of being.

Location of breath: Belly/chest

Nose or mouth breathing: Nose

Possible side effects: N/A

This table is based on your day-to-day routine life. Exercising, eating, talking, lovemaking, and other daily activities naturally fluctuate the number of breaths you breathe per minute but, on average, it’s how many breaths you are breathing most consistently throughout the day which is what’s important to note here.

Now, although this table demonstrates how the body can breathe stress in it also shows how to breathe it out. Below is one example of how to do just that:

1 minute = 60 seconds

60 seconds divided by 10 (breaths) = 6

6 breaths divided by 2 (inhale & exhale) = 3

Inhale — 3 seconds

Exhale — 3 seconds

That’s very doable!

And I’m not even taking into consideration the natural pauses that can occur at the top of the inhale and at the bottom of the exhale. So, it might well look more like this:

Inhale — 1 second

Pause — 1 second

Exhale — 2 seconds

Pause — 2 seconds

Or

Inhale — 1 second

Pause — 1 second

Exhale — 3 seconds

Pause — 1 second

Or any alternative in between!

In today’s modern world, stress is on the rise and there’s no sign of it slowing down anytime soon. So, breathing fewer breaths per minute could be a saving grace in a world that’s only getting faster.

Shaking

Another fantastic exercise for relieving stress, anxiety, and tiredness is shaking.

If you’ve ever seen a wild animal go through an intense encounter, you may have noticed how they shake and shake and shake until their stress has been released. This allows them to simply move on with their lives afterward.

It also moves stress on so it doesn’t get stuck in the muscles and cells of the body where it can build up as residue.

Us humans have forgotten this most primal response. However, it’s easy to replicate. Here’s how:

1. Stand up and spread your toes wide. Find a nice grounded position

2. Allow your body to become nice and relaxed with your arms hanging by your side

3. Gently begin shaking your body creating movement frontways, backways, and sideways

4. Stay connected to your breath

5. Increase the speed from the tip of your toes to the top of your head

6. To finish, stand in stillness for a few seconds

Eyes

Our eyes, like the breath, often reflect our inner state of being. Sharp, dilated, focused eyes reveal a heightened sense of alertness, for example. Soft, open eyes reflect a sense of ease and relaxation. So, by creating “soft eyes” the nervous system naturally relaxes as a result.

This practice is great for relieving stress, reducing anxiety, and relaxing the body. It’s super quick and effective and taps right into our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) so we can often feel peaceful and calm as a result.

It’s also what wild animals do after they’ve been hunted. It allows them to experience extreme stress one minute and deep relaxation the next.

Create “soft” eyes

  • Sit comfortably and allow your body to relax
  • Look straight ahead and land on an object in the distance
  • Connect to your peripheral vision while continuing to look straight ahead
  • Now, expand your awareness to the spaces up and down as well as from side to side
  • Allow your focus to be on ‘all things’ as your eyes ‘soften’
  • Stay connected to your breath
  • Remain here for as long as comfortable

Creating A Healthy Environment

The environment that we create for ourselves both internally and externally either helps to support our nervous system or not. And everything counts.

If our external environment is filled with people that put us down, for example, or who are violent, negative, judgemental, unsupportive, and/or disinterested; who eat junk food, listen to loud music, watch violent movies, and engage in unhealthy lifestyle choices such as drinking excessive alcohol and taking drugs, there’s a much bigger chance that our nervous system will be on high alert at best, and completely frazzled at worst.

If, on the other hand, we’re surrounded by kind, loving people that support us, that are positive, healthy, relaxed, and creative, that spend time in nature and look after their bodies and mind, we will typically find that our nervous system is more open and balanced as a result.

I don’t make this comparison to favour one way of living over another but rather to highlight how the nervous system responds to each environment it’s subjected to. My goal here isn’t to judge, belittle, or condemn any way of being as that would be hypocritical of me, to say the least. After all, I still love listening to my teenage favourite Jamie T, eating a Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate bar, drinking a cold beer, and feeding my obsession with Formula 1, so I get it. So, this isn’t to judge any of the above lifestyle choices a person makes but rather to show how the nervous system responds to the different environments it’s exposed to.

It’s only by knowing what happens on a physiological, psychological, and biochemical level can we use tools like breathing exercises, shaking, and soft eyes to support the nervous system if it ever needs it. And knowing that there is an extremely reliable, effective, free, and ever-willing way to do this right under our very noses is a very liberating and empowering thing.

If you’ve been inspired by the power of the breath, check out my favourite breathwork technique here

Or alternatively, sign up for a free online masterclass here

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