5 TIPS TO REDUCE STRESS LEVELS
& Activate Your Relaxation Response

By Lauren Munday 

Honest Voice – Managing Stress

We’ve all uttered the words “I feel stressed!” at some point in our lives.  It might have been due to an important deadline, financial difficulties, ill health or any number of other reasons.  The Mental Health Foundation defines stress as “the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable”  (1).

It’s inevitable in life that we’ll face stressful situations, but by understanding more about the physiological changes in the body we call “stress” and how to manage them it’s possible to build resilience to better cope with stressful events when they occur.

In order to understand stress, we first need to understand how our nervous system works and recognise that stress isn’t a necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it’s a survival strategy designed to keep us safe in times of danger.  

Our autonomic nervous system, the part that’s responsible for nerve supply to our internal organs, is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  These two parts work together in harmony and are controlled by the brain, usually without our conscious awareness.

The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for keeping us “ticking over”.  Some of its functions include:

  • slowing the heart rate when we’re resting;
  • controlling the secretion of digestive juices; and
  • controlling peristaltic waves in the intestines and emptying of the bladder, thereby allowing us to digest food and eliminate waste.

The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for physical or mental activity:  it increases our heart rate and blood pressure in response to physical activity; supplies nerves to our sweat glands; and diverts blood supply to the muscles.  It also reduces digestive function and urine output during exercise.

Most importantly for the understanding of stress, the sympathetic nervous system elicits the “fight or flight” response during times of danger or emotional stress.  This means that if we’re placed in a dangerous situation we’re able to think and act quickly: the heart rate increases; breathing quickens; and blood is diverted away from the gut and kidneys into the muscles so if necessary we can run away at speed.  In addition the pupils dilate, the mouth gets dry and our mood becomes fearful and anxious. This is a perfectly normal response if a bear is chasing us, we need to stop a car suddenly to avoid hitting someone, or we’ve just had some bad news. In a healthy, functioning nervous system, after the period of danger has passed the fight or flight response subsides and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks back in.

Problems occur when we’re exposed to long-term chronic stress and the body is unable to switch off the fight or flight response; the sympathetic nervous system becomes over-stimulated, resulting in exhaustion. Running away from that bear was tiring, doing it all day long is going to take a toll.

Because an overstressed body is unable to shut down the fight or flight response the parasympathetic nervous system can’t switch on and do its work processing food intake.  This leads to digestive disturbances such as IBS, constipation and diarrhoea. It also means our intestines can become inhibited, so even if we are eating the right foods our body can’t absorb nutrients from these foods.  An increased level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the blood stream causes appetite to increase and fat to build up in tissues, resulting in weight gain.

Tension headaches and sore muscles, particularly in the head and shoulders, are a result of prolonged periods of tension.  Too much adrenaline (another stress hormone) in the body can affect our ability to sleep even if we feel exhausted. It also increases blood pressure, causing damage to arteries and veins, and so increasing the likelihood of heart disease and strokes.

Prolonged periods of stress also inhibit the functioning of the immune system, increasing the chance of developing infections and making the body more susceptible to illness.  Changes to endocrine (hormone) levels can cause diabetes, sexual dysfunction and affect longevity of life. Stress is also a precursor to mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, and last year in the UK alone 12.5 million workdays were lost due to stress (2) so it’s a problem for businesses too.

All this is pretty worrying stuff, and as we’ve said it’s inevitable life is going to be stressful at times.  Why is it that some people are better able to handle stress than others? It’s pretty simple – they’ve learned how to activate their parasympathetic nervous system through relaxation.  Although this might sound complicated it’s something we can all learn to do, thereby reversing the negative effects above. This means we sleep better, we’re less likely to get sick, our cardiovascular health improves, as does our sex drive and digestion, overall making us healthier, happier versions of ourselves who are better able to focus and complete the tasks at hand.

Here are my top five tips for reducing stress levels and activating your relaxation response.

1 – Learn to Breathe Properly
The most important and simplest way to activate your relaxation response is through learning to regulate your breath.  Breathing is generally controlled automatically below our awareness but it’s unique in that it can also be controlled consciously.  Breathing influences our mental state and vice versa.

As we’ve already discovered the fight or flight response causes our breath to speed up as we struggle to take in more air, which left unchecked can result in a panic attack.  You can see for yourself if you start to take short, quick in-breaths; you will most likely start to feel yourself getting anxious.

These feelings can be countered by training the body to take longer, measured breaths with particular focus on the exhalation, which is normally shortened in times of stress.  It’s also important to make sure you breathe through your nose in order to balance the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood stream. Spend 5 to 10 minutes a day practicing one of the breathing exercises below.  You can do this at a set time every day such as first thing in the morning, or when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious.

Five-minute breathing exercise
Settling in
Begin by sitting up tall with your back straight.  If you’re sitting in a chair sit forward so your feet touch the floor.  If it’s comfortable close your eyes or look down so you aren’t distracted.  Feel into your body – your feet on the floor, your spine lengthening the crown of the head reaching up.

Breath awareness
Now bring awareness to the breath.  First, simply noting the movement of your breath; the flow of air in the nostrils; the rise and fall of the chest.  Start to notice your natural breathing tendencies. Without changing anything count the length of your inhale and the length of your exhale.  Notice the speed of the breath – is your inhale longer than the exhale or vice versa? Are you breathing through your mouth or nose?

If you’re breathing through the mouth try to switch to nasal breathing.  However be aware that if you are a habitual mouth breather this may not feel comfortable at first and training will be required to break the habit.

Continue this exercise in breath awareness until you are comfortable.  Add a count to the length of the inhale and the exhale. For example you may note that your inhale lasts a count of 3 while the exhale is a count of 2.

Balancing the breath
Now try to balance the length of your breath.  If your exhale is shorter try to lengthen it so it matches the count of the inhale.  This may be difficult at first. It’s important not to hold the breath or do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t struggle for breath.  If it becomes uncomfortable go back to simply observing the breath.

Lengthening the breath.
Once you are breathing with ease start to think about lengthening the breath.  Start by taking a slower exhale, see if that allows you to take a fuller inhale.  Keep the count going in your head so that the inhale is balanced with the exhale. Remember not to strain, stay within the limits of what feels comfortable to you.   Once you have developed a steady rhythm to your breath you may also want to play around with taking a longer exhale and see if this invokes deeper feelings of relaxation.

To finish
Gradually come back to your normal breathing pattern.   Note any changes to your mood, note your feelings and emotions or any sensations in the body.

2 – Practice Yoga
As a yoga teacher and therapist I’m an advocate for the benefits of yoga. A regular postural yoga practice that combines movement with breath reinforces positive breathing habits, calming the nervous system and lowering the blood pressure.  Learning to coordinate breath with movement stretches and strengthens the body thereby improving posture, digestion and sleep patterns. Yoga trains the body to sit with sometimes-uncomfortable sensations whilst continuing to maintain a slow measured breath, therefore training us to become more resilient to stress.

3 – Spend time in nature
Spending time in nature helps us to become more connected to our natural environment, increases vitamin D intake and has been scientifically proven to reduce stress levels.  In Japan they have something called forest-bathing or Shinrin-yoku and have conducted a number of scientific studies investigating its benefits. One such study found that walking in a forested area reduced physical markers of stress, lowered blood pressure, and reduced concentrations of cortisol compared to participants who did the same amount of walking in the city. (3).  Even if you live in a city spend some time walking in your local park or green space and when you’re feeling adventurous explore somewhere further afield.

4 – Take a hot bath
The heat relaxes your muscles and sends a message to the brain that shuts down sympathetic nervous system activity.  According to Rick Hansen Ph.D “Relaxed muscles send messages to the alarm centres in the brain that nothing is alerting the body to a threat” (4). Using Epsom salts in the bath soothes tired muscles and reduces inflammation.

5 – Cultivate a positive attitude
Thinking positively makes us less prone to fearful states of mind and anxiety so our body is less likely to move into flight or fight response.  This might be easier said than done at first, but it’s made possible by learning to stay with the present moment and training ourselves not to get caught in negative thought patterns.  

Our brain continuously changes interconnections, forming new pathways constantly; so, with practice, how we think and feel can be changed.  This is called neuroplasticity; recurring unhelpful thought patterns can be replaced with positive affirmations. In yoga we call these positive affirmations “Sankalpa”, and by framing them in the present moment as though they are happening already we can gradually form new thinking pathways.  A regular mediation or yoga nidra practice, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, all help to cultivate a positive attitude.

Whether you’re feeling stressed or not right now it’s a good idea to incorporate these practices into your life so that you learn to switch off and relax when you need to.

Most importantly, learn to observe your breath; notice when it becomes disrupted, and learn to come back to a calm, measured breath.  Practice the breathing exercises every day and, depending on how much time you have, incorporate one or two of the other activities into your weekly schedule.  Try different things out and see what you enjoy. Take some time for you and do something that nourishes your soul!

References
1) Mental Health Foundation
https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stress
2) Health and Safety Executive (2016/17 data)
http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/dayslost.htm
3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793346/
4) Rick Hanson, Ph.D.  “Relaxed and Contented: Activating the Parasympathetic Wing of Your Nervous System” 2007.

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Ashtanga Yoga Mysore
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