Let’s finish off this month by looking at how you can manage stress. Now that you know why our body gets stressed and what the consequences of chronic stress are, I want to help you find ways to properly deal with it. Since we can’t avoid every source of stress in our lives, our best bet is to make friends with it!
During my own journey in search for an answer, I was fortunate to come across a series of books (more on that next month!) that offer some helpful clues.
One of the most important books along this journey was “Exercised” by Daniel Lieberman. Although perhaps most famous for pointing out that we are not designed to exercise from an evolutionary point of view (we’re designed to “move”), Lieberman’s book introduced me to the concept of “evolutionary mismatch” and how it ties together much of what we discussed in the first two blogs in this series.
The ‘evolutionary mismatch’ occurs because we are still equipped with mechanisms which were supposed to help with survival in the past but are now no longer valid due to rapid changes in our environment. In short, our lives have evolved much faster than our bodies and we are overloading our primitive system with modern stimuli.
As we have become more sedentary, our sources of stress have shifted from mostly physical (running away from danger) to mental (not making a deadline at work). Unfortunately, this has led to a situation where our body doesn’t always know when the ‘stress’ ends. When you run away from a potentially dangerous animal, your heart rate is elevated and you start breathing heavy. When the danger is over, you stop running, your heart rate returns to normal and your breathing will slow down. Now, this mechanism is not the same anymore when you are sitting at your desk and your project is due in ten minutes and you know you can’t finish it. We have all the same stress-responses but we have no ‘off-switch’ anymore to tell our bodies that the danger is over. This is what leads to an unfinished 'stress response-loop' and sets off chronic stress which we discussed in the last blog.
The key to closing the ‘stress response-loop’ is to actively send a signal to our body which lets it know that we are safe. The only way to do that is to use diaphragmatic-breathing (basically, breathe into your diaphragm!) - thereby overwriting the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) system. Here are three of the most effective ways you can do this:
1) You can simply just take a few minutes and consciously apply belly-breathing techniques. As mentioned by James Nestor in “Breathe”, this breathing-technique is even more beneficial to our bodies if we keep our mouths closed and only breathe through our noses. Doing so helps compensate for another “evolutionary-mismatch". Over time, we started breathing through our mouths - thereby altering (and entirely neglecting) a number of important functions. This alteration the way we breathe even led to a physical change in our faces due to the underuse of our nose and sinuses. Breathing through the nose not only purifies the air we breath in, it also warms it up and helps bind and circulate more oxygen through our bodies. You can do a quick test right now to see if you are relaxed or not. Ideally, when your parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system is active, you are breathing more dominantly through your left nostril.
My favourite way to achieve balance, and shift to a more relaxed mode, is to practice alternate nostril breathing (which also helps connect the right and the left brain).
To try this technique, close your eyes and close off your right nostril with your thumb, breathing in through your left. Now close off your left nostril with your index finger and breathe out through your right. Then, inhale through your right, still closing off the left. Breathe out through your left, closing off the right nostril. Continue for about three- to five minutes, trying to make your exhales and inhales longer and slower each time.
2) In “The Nature Fix”, Florence Williams highlights the many positive effects of nature on our bodies. We seem to have an innate connection with nature that helps slow our heart rate down, regulates our breathing, and makes us happier. However, most of us live in cities - another “evolutionary mismatch”. In order to reap the benefits highlighted by Williams, we just need to spend some time in nature (the benefits of which can sometimes last for a few weeks). This can be done by taking weekend trips to go hiking or walking daily in a nearby park for a couple of hours. “Forest Bathing” by Dr. Qing Li takes this concept even further and invites you to really use all your senses when mindfully walking through a forest. Even the smell of certain trees has a calming effect on our body, as do patterns in nature (called fractals) that seem to be easy on our eyes and promote relaxation.
3) Do what evolution intended us to do - exercise and simulate a ‘physical stressor’ situation. For example, if you’re stressed at work, get up, leave your desk, run up two flights of stairs as you would if a tiger was chasing you - and then stop after a few minutes to catch your breath. You should now be breathing deeply into your diaphragm. Sounds too simple to be true, but it works! By simulating this ‘physical stressor’ situation your body can now connect the dots between your high-stress levels and your body’s response. Don’t worry if your colleagues see you and think you have gone mad - just point them to this blog and they will soon be doing the same thing!
All of these methods will take a bit of time because you are literally re-wiring your brain. Practice deep belly breathing often - every day, if possible. Even (in fact, especially) when you are not stressed - this is what prepares you for stressful situations. The goal is not to be perfect. The goal is to be able to recognize when stress is not helpful anymore and counteract before it becomes chronic.
To sum up all three blog posts, here is a roadmap on how to deal with stress:
Step 1: Identify your specific stressors, be it a situation at work, a difficult family issue, food issues, a recent loss, a self-esteem issue, etc.
Step 2: Identify any symptoms you are experiencing right now such as headaches, high blood pressure, anxiety, sleep issues, etc.
Step 3: Connect the dots - see if you can find a connection between the stressor and the symptom. For example - Stressor: every time your boss calls. - Symptom: you get an anxiety attack.
Step 4: In every stressful situation you have three choices - leave, change or accept the situation. Once you have dealt with the stressor, you have to deal with the stress itself and actively let your body know that it is safe now.
Step 5: Breathe - deeply, preferably in nature, until you feel more calm - no matter what you chose to do in Step 4. There are many ways to close the 'stress response-loop', such as utilizing different breathing techniques, walking in nature and exercising (as mentioned above) as well as hugging, crying, writing, laughter, etc. Fundamentally, they all have the same effect on your body - they require you to actively do something which leads to a change in your breathing-rhythm. This process will help you snap out of ‘fight-or-flight’ mode and finally offer some peace for you and your body.
The books which stood out to me most were:
“Exercised” by Daniel Lieberman
“Forest Bathing” by Dr. Qing Li
“The Nature Fix” by Florence Williams
“Breath” by James Nestor
“Rushing Woman’s Syndrome” by Dr. Libby Weaver
(For this blog post, I will only point out the most relevant information, stay tuned for more detailed reviews on each of the books)
Health and Fitness have always played an important role in my life.