Whether through burnout or emerging as cardiovascular or other health issues, chronic stress takes a toll on the body. Recently, we've been focusing on the importance of balancing activity with rest and relaxation for sustaining maximum energy and efficiency. R&R is also essential for combating the negative effects of stress. Today we'll be giving you a "quick fix" through a breathing exercise to help you shift quickly from stress mode to "rest and relax" mode.
The Relationship Between Stress and the Nervous System
As you may remember, central to the topic of stress versus rest is the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of our nervous system that controls involuntary actions like breathing, digestion, the heartbeat, etc. The ANS has two complementary halves, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which control stress and relaxation in our bodies.
The SNS responds to challenge or threat with the classic "fight or flight" response, giving us the extra energy we need to meet life's demands. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the half of the ANS that tells our bodies all is well and it's now safe to rest, relax, recuperate and heal.
Under ideal conditions, our SNS would quickly mobilize in response to a threat, and as soon as the danger had passed, the PNS would calm us down, enabling us to let go of worry, so we could fully give ourselves over to rest, relax, recuperate and heal.
Unfortunately, stress has become so pervasive and unrelenting in our lives that many, if not most of us, are chronically "stressed out," and unable to sink into the rest our body craves. In its 2020 report, the American Psychological Association called our current situation a "national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come."
Stress and Disease
Some stress is fine, but a great imbalance between stress mode and rest mode is not. Too much stress is a common risk factor for 75-90% of all human diseases, and excessive and chronic stress has many negative effects on the body including:
- Increased pain and inflammation
- Rapid breathing, triggering asthma or panic attacks in susceptible people
- Depression and anxiety
- Sleep disorders
- Weight gain
- Lowered Immunity
- Increased problems with allergies and food intolerances
- Impaired healing
- Increased risk of high blood pressure, oxidized cholesterol and heart attack
- Commonly causes erectile dysfunction and/or loss of libido
- Potential loss of menstruation
- The liver produces extra glucose, which can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes in some people
- Muscle tension. Chronic stress leads to shoulder and neck pain as well as headaches.
- Can cause indigestion, nausea, diarrhea/constipation; can lead to ulcers or severe gastrointestinal pain
- Cognitive problems, including difficulty concentrating or poor memory
- Weakens the part of the brain associated with self-control
Breathing Exercises as "First Aid" for Stress
While the best long-term solution lies in developing a lifestyle that balances stressful activity with plenty of opportunities for rest and renewal, this option isn't always practical or available. Sometimes "first aid" would be helpful.
Recently, while listening to a webinar presentation by former Optimal Health Practitioner Jason Prall, I learned a simple breathing technique called The Relaxing Breath that shifts me from sympathetic (stress) mode into parasympathetic (rest) mode in less than two minutes, and has led to some remarkable results.
I used it lying in the emergency room of my local hospital with spasms of gripping pain in my abdomen, later diagnosed and treated as a bowel obstruction. Before any treatment, however, I remembered to do The Relaxing Breath and was amazed when the spasms ceased on a dime, never to return!
My blood pressure becomes high under stress, so I wasn't surprised when I got home from the hospital and found that it was indeed quite high. I did The Relaxing Breath and it immediately dropped 20 points (systolic) into a normal range.
Doing The Relaxing Breath also helps me to fall asleep faster when I go to bed at night. I told a friend who has constipation problems about the breathing technique, and she has used it to good effect. It hasn't always worked, but there have been times when it has worked remarkably well.
So, what is The Relaxing Breath, also called 4-7-8 breathing?
- Inhale through your nose with your mouth closed for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale completely through your mouth for eight seconds. As you exhale, you should make a "whoosh" sound. Fully exhale, so your navel draws in toward your spine.
Repeat the sequence for five rounds (the total takes less than two minutes). The exercise is OK to do up to five minutes.
Doing the exercise frequently and repetitively over time has a cumulative, beneficial effect.
It's also helpful to do it after sunset to wind down from the day and before meals to help with digestion.
Since breath is both a voluntary and involuntary activity, it appears to be a way for us to talk to our ANS. It's not surprising that many spiritual practices have used breathing practices to center and calm the body-mind.