This article is a follow up to last week’s piece on how stress impacts the body and assessing your level of stress.
You’re sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting, experiencing pain, or re-hashing in your mind a difficult conversation you had earlier and you feel “stressed”. The hypothalamus in your brain, shouts out the command: Bring on the stress hormones! These stress hormones trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles get ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly….think running away from a charging moose. But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day because of non physical threats, like worries and frustrations, this can wreak physical and emotional havoc on us.
To try and cope, we often tell ourselves not to worry so much, or “let it go” but unfortunately many of us don’t know how to do it. Some of the strategies that we turn to for help, actually cause us more problems…over or under eating, avoiding through distractions (think cell phone/computers), suppressing feelings etc. Yet the latest discoveries in neuroscience show that we can train our brain towards calmness and positivity. That is, if we engage in certain practices, we are capable of rewiring our brains so that we minimize the amount of time we spend negatively reacting to stress.
BREATHING FOR HEALTH AND RELAXATION:
Breathing from the belly is one way that we are able to move our bodies out of a stress response. Typically, when we are under stress, we breathe very shallow and our breath tends to be rapid. When we are relaxed, our breath becomes deeper and slower. It is almost impossible for the body to breathe naturally and deeply while being engaged in the stress response.
We are social beings. What that means is that we thrive in connection and whither in isolation. And being social is a two way street. Getting support from the right person, in the right way, at the right time, is amazingly helpful in reducing stress. Additionally, giving social support also makes us feel better. That is, doing acts of kindness has been found to increase our own feelings of happiness, lower blood pressure and may even help us live longer!
When people hear the word “meditation” they often think of gurus sitting crossed legged on mountain tops. What you should know about mindfulness meditation however is that it is not only for gurus on mountain tops, but great for all of us. People who practice mindful meditation may experience less anxiety, increased feelings of happiness, decreased cortical levels (the stress hormone), stronger immune function, quicker recovery from stress, decreased emotional reactivity, better relationships and improved cognitive functioning among other things. Clearly, learning how to cultivate mindful attention, through meditation, has enormous benefits for our physical and emotional well being.
Sensory imagery refers to the perceptions that we get from our senses. That is, from the things we see, hear, smell, taste and feel. Interestingly enough, our body doesn’t differentiate between sensory images that we create in our imagination and what we refer to as “reality”. Sensory images don’t have the same strength or force that reality does, but we feel an essence of reality with them. Very much like an echo …it is not the same as the original sound, but it holds its essence. We can purposely make healthful images in our mind and our bodies will respond as if those images are real. The result, positive changes in physical and emotional health.
What you put into your body can make you feel better or make you feel worse. Your diet influences your biochemistry and this effects how your brain works and your body feels.
Simply put, what you put into your mouth can either calm you down, or make you feel more anxious. For example, foods that have a lot of sugar or white flour can leave you feeling nervous or tense. Likewise, foods that have fiber and the important vitamins and minerals can help elicit feelings of calmness.
Exercise results in immediate treatment for the physical and emotional symptoms of stress. Exercising breaks the stress cycle and tells your brain that your body isn’t stressed and it’s safe to relax. Aerobic exercise reduces the flow of adrenaline and as a result helps you feel calmer. It takes only 5 minutes of exercise to start producing anti-anxiety effects!
There’s a two way street between what you think and how you feel. For example, if you are feeling anxious, it’s likely that you will have thoughts that feed your anxiety, causing further unease. Challenging anxiety provoking thoughts with more accurate beliefs is called cognitive restructuring and can help change your mood and the level of stress you are experiencing.
Feelings of gratitude have been shown to have a positive effect on health. Sadly, we have a built in negativity bias that makes us more likely to see things that are going wrong than going right. Yet even with this built in negativity bias, we can grow gratitude and this is a powerful way to change our bodies and our brains.
Rewiring your brain so that it responds differently to stress will take a certain amount of effort. There is a saying in neuroscience, that “neurons that fire together, wire together”. That means, to make new neuronal connections in your brain, you have to repeatedly engage in new behaviors, new habits, even when you don’t feel like doing it. Once neuronal connections are created, it becomes easier, more automatic. The take away here is that the more you practice the skills and strategies in this article, the more you will change your brain towards calmness and health.
There are many more positive strategies to reduce stress that are not mentioned in this article, such as biofeedback, creative endeavors, spiritual practices and others. To get ideas that might work best for you, look online or talk with your physician or a mental health provider.