If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may have noticed that my posting dwindled over the past few months. This has been due to a combination of growth in my professional practice and a new project that I am working on with Revolver Yoga Studio. I’ll tell you more about this special project in a few weeks. For the sake of personal sanity, I took a blogging break.
But this morning, I became inspired after seeing a comment spread on an NPR article that I shared on Facebook. The article is entitled: Best Not to Sweat the Small Stuff, Because It Could Kill You. Click on the link to read the full NPR article. The gist of our Facebook discussion revolved around, yes, we know stress is bad, but how, just how do you overcome it?
There are many ways we can relieve ourselves of unnecessary stress, but life is inherently stressful with both good and bad stress. I think the goal for most of us is to both unburden ourselves from unnecessary stressors and to regain control of our stress response for the stress of life that we have no control over.
First of all, let me explain part of the stress response. What makes the difference between the person in rush hour gridlock getting frantic or experiencing road rage and another person in the same gridlock that takes the opportunity to enjoy the unexpected downtime in their car?
The main difference between these two people is not just a magical ability to find perspective in the case of the calm, relaxed individual, but a complex milieu of nervous system tone and biochemistry. Maybe you’ve even noticed that you can be both of these people depending on how your week is going.
The NPR article touted exercise as the key to overcoming the stress response, but I find many of us need to also address blood sugar, retrain our brains, and look at whether or not someone has developed a condition called adrenal fatigue. And if anyone has ever told you to ‘relax, it is all just a matter of changing your perspective,’ please know that being stuck in the stress response is much more complicated than just choosing to think differently.
5 Ways You Can Regain Control of Your Response to Stress
1) Retrain Your Brain
Chronic stress rewires the way your nervous system behaves. It causes your body to develop sympathetic nervous system tone– meaning your body automatically chooses the sympathetic or fight or flight nervous system to respond to all stressors, even the small stressors. For example, a long line at your favorite morning cafe will put you into a reactive state. Instead of calmly waiting in line, or deciding to skip the caffeine boost, your neck tightens, you breath more shallowly and a series of aggravated thoughts run through your brain. Give yourself some kindness here. If you have developed sympathetic nervous system tone (which many people have in our current culture), your body’s response to simple stressors is to increase heart rate plus pumped blood volume, divert blood from your digestive system to your muscles, increase shallow breathing, and basically prepare to fight a grizzly bear.
To reboot the way your nervous system responds to things, and get it back to having parasympathetic or the rest and relax nervous system tone, then meditation or breathwork is a huge component. I know, you may have been told a million times to meditate, or meditation makes you think of some very interesting stereotypes. But here’s the deal, breathwork or meditation or mindfulness exercises are a training program for your brain or central nervous system. The best way to overcome fight or flight nervous system tone is to train your brain. One of my mentors explained meditation as similar to housebreaking a new puppy. Would you let your puppy wee all over the house? Or will you take on the effort of housebreaking your puppy? Moral of the story: don’t let your stressed out mind wee all over you and your life.
Like any good training program, meditation is challenging. I think we often overlook it because it seems boring or hard to sit. But when you retrain your brain via breathwork or meditation, you train your brain to more frequently live in the rest and relax nervous system, so that small stressors actually aren’t stressors anymore. I truly find that developing a breathwork or meditation practice is hugely successful for individuals stuck in a reactive stressful state. It is also the hardest for people to do.
If you are not convinced yet, here are some studies.
Immediate effect of sukha pranayama on cardiovascular variables in patients of hypertension. Don’t let the sanskrit in the title scare you away from this study. Sukha pranayama is a practice of slow breathwork with an equal inhale to exhale at a rate of about 6 breaths per minute. That breaks down to a five second inhale and a five second exhalation. This study demonstrates that just five minutes of this breathwork practice lowers blood pressure and slowed down the heart rate in hypertensive patients.
Influence of Alternate Nostril Breathing On Heart Rate Variability in Non-Practitioners of Yogic Breathing. This study basically shows that practicing alternate nostril breathing also improves the parasympathetic (rest and relax) nervous system tone. It compares the above style of breath, inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling for 5 seconds, to alternate nostril breathing in beginners of a breathwork practice and saw no real difference. If you do not want to deal with a more complicated breathwork practice, than just adopt the equal inhale and exhale practice. But if you need an extra item to focus on to help settle your racing mind in meditation, then try alternate nostril breathing.
I looked for a third study that I read during my Master’s program in 2010, I could not find it in a timely fashion for this blogpost, but I will keep looking. The study followed individuals with mild to moderate hypertension. It compared a control group that did nothing to change their daily routine to a test group that did 10 minutes of alternate nostril breathing for three months. Various methods were employed to measure their heart rate, blood volume output from the heart, and other markers to assess parasympathetic versus sympathetic nervous system tone. After three months, significant reduction in hypertension was found in the alternate breathing group. This is the first study that really convinced me of the clinical evidence for meditation and breathwork. When I find a link, I’ll update the blog post.
If you want to learn how to do alternate nostril breathing, please click on this link: Alternate Nostril Breathing 101
2) Eat Regular Meals like Eating is Sacred
When chronic stress is messing with your nervous system, skipping meals or slashing your calories will essentially pour fuel on the fire of stress. Eating is a sacred act of self care. Keeping your blood sugar stable throughout the daily will do wonders at building emotional stability, and as an added bonus it will help your focus and efficiency at work.
Eat breakfast. Eat an AM snack. Eat Lunch. Eat an afternoon snack. Eat dinner. Try to eat every 2-3 hours leading up to dinner. Having a little something with regularity will keep your blood sugar stable and will help keep your mood stable.
The types of snacks and foods do play a big role in managing blood sugar. We are all individuals and have individual nutrition needs. But is is safe to say that prioritizing protein at breakfast with some veggies or a fruit smoothy with some healthy fats and protein powder will do wonders at starting your day out right. Make sure to eat plenty of vegetables during the day. Snack on healthy items and avoid refined sugar. Save the sugary treats for special occasions, not your regular snacktime.
Just as the NPR article says, exercise for 30 minutes a day, every day does wonders for your biochemistry. I’m not going to harp on this topic. I find many of us exercise regularly, feel the endorphin awesomeness, and still end up feeling reactive. The exercise is definitely helping you, but you may need a better combo of nutrition, breathwork, and possibly some external help to break the stress cycle. If you are not exercising 3-5 x a week, give it a try! It is amazing!
4) Assess your life
Oh uh, this sounds scary. I’ll be honest, I love my work and I can easily take on too many projects because they sound super exciting. I regularly have to employ a check in time. This is simply looking at what in your life is causing unnecessary stress. Are you, yourself putting unrealistic deadlines or creating impossible to-do lists every day? A to-do list can be very helpful, but if everyday you create an unrealistic to-do list for yourself it just becomes demoralizing.
Simply check in on what you have control over that is bringing stress into your life. Is there anything you can change? Can you change some deadlines or prioritize workloads differently? You may have more ability to change these stressors than you realize. But if you do not, then I encourage you to really work on the other four items on this list to make sure your biochemistry is as supportive as humanly possible for the external stress of your worklife.
5) Consider Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine
If you seem to be doing everything right: eating regularly, adding breathwork/meditation, sleeping well, and exercising, yet still feel stuck in the fight or flight nervous system, then getting some external help to break the cycle may be necessary.
Acupuncture can help in three specific ways. 1) Acupuncture helps to build parasympathetic tone in most people. The act of receiving acupuncture stimulates a shift in your nervous system into the rest and relax nervous system. Getting a series of treatments will build on each other and in turn build parasympathetic nervous system tone, meaning it frees you from the chains of fight or flight reactivity. Check out the study below.
2) An acupuncturist will look at many aspects of your health to identify the pattern in your body that is the underlying cause of getting stuck in the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. This can relate to different organ systems that in turn relate to different dietary tweaks to help you get back on track. Chinese medical nutrition can work wonders on soothing your reactive nerves, but is based on the idea that we are all individuals. No two people are alike, and so one stressed out person’s meal plan may look completely different from another’s. These are often simple tweaks to a diet that our western concept of nutrition doesn’t account for.
3) You may need a Chinese herbal formula to more quickly rebalance your nervous system. Chinese herbal medicine has been around longer than acupuncture and is a sophisticated combination of herbs, prepared individually for a patient to take daily. Today we still use formulas that have been around and improved upon for hundreds of years.