Why ‘Work Hard, Play Hard’ Is Hurting You

You complain that you are stressed-out, that you are tired, that you need to relax, but these proclamations are rhetorical. The person next to you probably agrees that they are, too. You share stories and commiserate with friends on the fact that you don’t get enough sleep and that you are exhausted. The people you talk to may rotate, depending on the day, but the script is the same. And everyone agrees: your hairdresser, coworker, neighbor, best friend. But now I am putting you on notice: you’ve been saying the same things for months, even years. Time to address it.

So how much stress is, in fact, brought on by you? How much does stress actually drive you? Are you one of those people who did best in school by cramming and writing papers the night before? Do you feel pride in getting more done today than yesterday? If so, then you do have some of the stress addict in you, and if you’re succumbing to another one of the common ailments that have to do with stress (e.g., acid reflux, trouble sleeping, fatigue, and anxiety), you may want to reevaluate your perceptions of stress so you will be able to make some real changes.

THE ULTIMATE NATURAL CURE FOR STRESS

You don’t have to take a meditation class in India or undergo long-term psychoanalytic therapy in order to learn to live in the now and be content. Short “active meditation” breathing techniques can lower your blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels when practiced a few minutes a day, allowing you to “turn off” so that your immune system can recharge.

RECOVERY BREATH

(AND MEDITATION FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN’T MEDITATE)

Recovery Breath is a two-part breathing exercise that helps reset your body after undergoing a grueling day at work, a disagreement with your spouse, a test or competition — any taxing or demanding situation.

Initially, you will aim for two minutes; later you may graduate to three or four. To begin, set a gentle alarm to signal after two minutes or find a song that you can have playing in the background for that time period.

RECOVERY BREATH: PART ONE

Start with the two-part breath, which is really two inhales. The first inhale fills your belly, the second, the top of your lungs. There’s a very distinct division between the first and the second inhale, and each one should sound slightly different.

1. Lying on your back, with nothing under your head, put one hand on your belly and one hand on the top of your chest, by your collarbones.

2. Breathe through your mouth. It is a bigger orifice than your nostrils, and the point of this exercise is to get more oxygen into your body and accustom yourself to breathing this way. It may feel peculiar at first, but you will get used to it after the second or third time.

3. The first inhale should make your belly rise; your top hand (on your chest) should not move. Now, without exhaling, take another inhale and fill the top of your lungs. This time, your top hand should move. To help you “learn” the breath, you can move your shoulders back slightly. Be sure that you are not just transferring air from the bottom to the top.

4. There should be two distinct inhales, even if the second one is small. It is not one long breath. Your belly should remain full as you add the second “top” breath. The first few times you inhale this way may feel odd. It should; you’ve never breathed like this before.

5. Exhale enthusiastically; it should take the amount of time the two inhales took, not longer. Exhale in one breath, feeling your chest and belly contract.

This first part in Recovery Breath should be hard; it is exercise for your breathing muscles. Note that the second inhale will feel smaller, even more constricted. You will probably feel pressure around your collarbones or armpits as you try to fill up this second breath. Some people even experience a “stitch” in their back as they try this new breathing, others a tightness in their necks. The general rule is to try to relax that place and continue inhaling.

There are three things to remember during part one of this exercise:

1. Keep breathing through your mouth for the entire first part. You may switch to your nose for the second part.

2. Find a rhythm that suits you, and stick to it. You should be able to find or “drop down” into this rhythm with more ease each time.

3. No matter what happens, just encourage yourself calmly and firmly to continue breathing. Any peculiar or uncomfortable sensations will lessen each time you practice, and the benefits are priceless.

Understand that you may hit a wall. Some people hit it after twenty breaths, others significantly later. In fact, the first few times you practice this active meditation you will hit the same kind of wall that you do when you work out. You will hear yourself make excuses about why you want to stop. Treat this feeling just as you do any other time you don’t want to continue doing something but you have to. If you feel a little tingling, that’s okay! Just encourage yourself to keep going, and remind yourself you are doing well and are almost done. Believe that there will be a moment when you get “to the other side,” and just keep moving to the pace of your breath. It won’t be like trudging uphill anymore.

RECOVERY BREATH: PART TWO

Now you are going to switch to a big, gentle inhale and a big, gentle exhale.

1. Move your hands away from your body. Put your arms at your sides, palms up. Point your toes outward. You may keep breathing through your mouth or switch to your nose. Relax your lips, your face, your palate (the roof of your mouth). Let your tongue get heavy. Very important:

Let your jaw relax. All of your body takes cues from your jaw. Pay attention to your cheeks, ears, and neck, relaxing them with each exhale. Relax your shoulders and your whole body — all the way to the tips of your fingers.

2. Continue doing mental body scans from time to time to make sure you are not holding tension anywhere. You may be surprised to discover that you may have a place that is always tensed, so much so that you have become accustomed to it. Be aware that with each inhale you are letting yourself float a little higher, and with each exhale you are letting yourself sink a little deeper. Try to move your mind away from thinking; simply keep your attention on your physical sensations. By “keep your attention on” I mean observe your body breathe as if you were watching another person. Recovery Breath is pithy, involves active participation, and is immediately rewarding. It is a “two-for the price-of one” bargain: a brief but highly effective exercise that helps you recover from one day to the next, a form of active meditation for people who “can’t meditate.” Relaxing your body so that stress hormones and blood pressure decrease recharges your battery within minutes and encourages mindfulness. It protects you against the effects of prolonged stress by giving your body the oxygen and relaxation it needs to recover. In addition, Recovery Breath is a breathing exercise you can taper to meet your needs and level of enthusiasm.

In sum, Recovery Breath is a “reset” that will give your immune system a boost, keep your cortisol and blood pressure down, and oxygenate your body so that oxidative stress doesn’t age you before your time. Do it as often as possible, ideally every day.

Copyright © 2016 by Belisa Vranich and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.

Dr. Belisa Vranich is a renowned clinical psychologist, public speaker, and the author of BREATHE.

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