The Cure for Stress
3 Steps to Recharge Your Brain and Your Life, Part 1
This is the first of a 3-part series I’ll be sharing for National Stress Awareness Month, looking at the neuroscience of stress and how we can train our brains and bodies to use stress as fuel for positive change.
Step 1: Breathe
Recent research at Stanford identified a cluster of nerve cells in the base of the brain that use breathing patterns as an indicator of physiological state to communicate to the rest of the brain whether or not we need to be stressed. Slow, calm breathing techniques have long been used in medical and mindfulness practices to induce what’s known as the Relaxation Response (see work by Herbert Benson).
This state of parasympathetic activity is opposite to the Stress Response we typically think of, which relies on sympathetic activity to drive fight-flight-freeze reactions to real or imagined threat. In today’s fast paces, hyper-connected society, the demands on our time and energy can feel overwhelming, triggering the Stress Response consistently. The same mind-body reaction to stress that was designed to help protect us from danger has actually become one of the greatest threats to our health and happiness.
According to The American Institute of Stress chronic, unmanaged stress has been correlated with 75–90% of medical visits and is responsible for an economic burden of approximately $600 billion to US businesses due to consequences such as health problems, turnover, and burnout.
While the idea of just taking a deep breath may seem shallow in comparison to all of the pressures of life, research has long supported the notion that when we shift to a more coherent physiological state (slowing breath rate, heartbeat, and experiencing emotions like gratitude, curiosity or humor), we create a more positive and resilient lens through which to experience the challenges of life.
On the flip side, when we’re feeling rushed or stretched too thin, our breath will naturally shift to a short, shallow pattern that actually hijacks the brain’s ability to problem solve effectively while simultaneously triggering the release of toxic stress hormones. Proactively training yourself to stop, quiet the brain and body through intentional breathing, and shift into a calmer state every day will enable you to use this technique more effectively when you need it in the moment.
There are many types of breathing techniques that help to calm the brain and body, all supported by solid research. What’s most important is that each person finds the method that works best for them, as some people can actually find some styles of breathing to be more stressful than stress reducing. Experiment with a few options and then enhance your practice by adding a nudge like aromatherapy, music, or gentle movement that calms your senses to shift stress even more.
When we shift our senses to a more relaxing state, our breath patterns naturally start to slow down and deepen. For people who are stress sensitive or have experienced trauma in their life, this is usually a better first step. Move your body, light a relaxing candle or smell some essential oils, and listen to some calming music to shift your state and allow your breath to naturally settle down.
Although there are dozens of breathing techniques that work, most have a few simple steps in common:
1Shift your attention to your breath and just notice how it feels to breathe in and out.
2Notice your chest expand and contract, and focus on the feelings of the breath.
3As you inhale, pay attention to how the air feels as it passes through your nose — is it cool, is it warm? What sensations to you notice as the air flows through your nose?
4Imagine guiding the breath in through your nose, passing by your heart and providing nourishment to your heart, as it continues down to your belly expanding your belly gently and comfortably.
5As you exhale, follow the breath pattern once again; from the belly, through the space around the heart, and out through your nose. Each time you let go of your breath, imagine letting go just a bit more of any tension you feel in your body. Letting go of any worries in your mind for just a few moments.
After a few of these mindful breaths, you may want to enhance the relaxation effect by starting to repeat a word or phrase that is calming or nurturing to you. I call these “focus phrases”, but they’re basically personal mantras that you use to focus your attention on what matter most to you in the moment. You may just want to count numbers in and out, slowly counting to 4 or 5 on both the inhale and exhale (studies show that a breath rate of 5.5–6 breaths per minute is ideal, or about 4–5 seconds in, 4–5 seconds out).
Or you may want to repeat a word like peace, calm, ease, love, or Om as you breathe in and out. My personal favorite method is to repeat an encouraging phrase, like “I have enough” on the inhale, taking in new, energizing oxygen, and “I am enough” on the exhale, letting go of pressure, worry, and tension.
Techniques to Enhance Your Breathing Practice
People who are stress sensitive or have experienced trauma may actually find deep breathing stressful, especially if it feels forced. (Note: This is my personal experience as someone with sensitivity and an anxiety condition called vasovagal syndrome). In this case, using a technique that naturally shifts the breath rate can be a better bet. A few of my favorites include music, movement and mirth (aka humor).
Music has been shown to bypass the logical, analytical part of the brain to quickly shift emotional states. As a result, physiological patterns like breath rate and heart rate begin to line up or “entrain” with the rhythm of sound. (Similarly, when we move our body in a rhythmic way our breathing will naturally adjust as well. In addition to facilitating deeper breathing, physical activity also triggers the release of positive chemicals like serotonin in the brain and body that make us feel happy and more calm.
While intense aerobic exercise is one of the best ways to induce relaxation and boost resilience, even just walking, stretching or gently yoga can improve circulation and blood flow, decreasing the negative effects of stress hormones like cortisol that otherwise become stagnant and toxic.
Unfortunately, when people experience stress they are less likely to get exercise, perhaps due to feeling time stretched or fatigued. This is just when they need it most. Focusing on simple steps, not needing to do intense exercise but rather just walking more, may help get break away from feeling stuck.
Finally, humor is an underutilized strategy for shifting stress for good. Most people know laughter is great medicine, and that when we laugh we get a physical benefit similar to physical exercise. But what you may not realize it just finding something funny, whether you chuckle or not, can radically reduce stress and tension. Studies show that when our brain interprets something as funny there is a chemistry shift similar to when we experience gratitude, curiosity or joy. What’s been called “the kick of the discovery” happens when we see the irony, or in-congruency of something we think is funny. Neural expansion results, reducing tension and supporting creativity and flexibility.
For more information on the power of breathing for stress reduction and other ways to initiate the relaxation response, check out my interviews at the upcoming Global Stress Summit (free and online April 23–17, 2018) with OmniBreath founder Rabia Hayek and the godfather of mind-body medicine, Dr. Herbert Benson, who first discovered the relaxation response in the same lab where Walter Cannon helped to discover the stress response.