Lately, I have experienced heart-racing, stomach-turning signs of stress interrupting my day and ruining my ability to sleep through the night more times than I can count. I realised I needed to make a change in order to take back my life from the constant stressors. But I wasn't able to remove all of them — hectic workdays, budgeting crises, and disagreements with my significant other will inevitably happen!
I turned to SHIFT, a stress and anxiety workshop lead by Chris Swayne, psychotherapist and lead health coach at One Medical, to learn ways to manage my symptoms for when these moments arise. Along with mastering deep-breathing exercises, Chris taught me that understanding what is happening inside of my body during stress is an important step toward finding the right practice to alleviate stress symptoms once and for all.
Your Body on Stress
When you body perceives a threat — which may come in the form of moving to a new apartment, having a difficult conversation with your significant other, or tightening your budget — it springs into action. Our physiological stress response is also known as "fight or flight", which we humans have been preprogrammed with since our caveman days running from sabertooth tigers.
"During this [fight or flight] response, your body pumps itself with adrenaline and cortisol. You may experience changes to your breathing, tension in major muscle groups, such as your legs and shoulders, and digestive issues like a loss of appetite as your body prioritises blood flow to areas that mobilise," said Chris. "It can be understood as our biological impulse to survive."
While our fight or flight response can threaten to hijack our day, interventions such as deep breathing exercises and other self-care practices can give you a moment to pause, regulate your heart rate, and calm down.
Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which "is responsible for certain sensory activities and motor information for movement within the body," according to Medical News Today. "Essentially, it is part of a circuit that links the neck, heart, lungs, and the abdomen to the brain." The vagus nerve sends signals to your brain and body to remind you you're not in imminent danger so you can tackle your day.
While there are a variety of breathing exercises out there, you don't need anything to get started — just yourself. Take a few minutes right now and give it a try.
Deep Breathing Exercise
- Find a quiet space if it is available to you, otherwise sit tall in your chair (at work, at home, or wherever you may be reading this!) for a moment of stillness. "Bring awareness to your breathing as it is. Without judging or changing anything, first simply notice what's physically happening," Chris instructed.
- Bring your focus inward, giving awareness to your breath. "As this happens, continue to tether your awareness to noticing the air entering and leaving your body."
- Start breathing. "Allow yourself to take a full inhale, directing the breath all the way down to your low belly, and slowly, fully exhale," Chris advised. Bring mindfulness to your practice by gently placing your hands on your belly and chest to feel the rise and fall of your inhalations. Repeat three to five times, or until you begin to feel your stress ease. Don't get discouraged if this feels uncomfortable the first time; just try again once you're ready.
- For further grounding, shift your thoughts on pressing your feet to the floor (if sitting in a chair). As Chris put it, "Quite literally focus on your connection with the ground."
As with any practice, it takes time to discover the and technique that works best for you. I've found it helpful to set an alarm for 3 p.m. every day (the time I usually become most stressed or unfocused). I take a pause and a few deep breaths wherever I am at. While at first this might seem foreign, I promise, the more you practice your deep breathing, the more effective it will be.
Now get out there and conquer your day!