How to Deal With Stress Using Scientifically-Based Relaxation Techniques
Stress is a basic fact of life, but armed with the right relaxation techniques and stress reduction exercises it can largely be kept at bay.
This article explains how to deal with stress by employing scientifically-based relaxation and stress management techniques. First, we define stress and explain its damaging effects. Then, we present several techniques and exercises that can be practiced to prevent and recover from stress.
What is Stress?
Stress is the body’s response to internal or external threats that upset the body’s natural state of homeostasis or equilibrium. When a person senses a threat in their physical environment—such as a dangerous animal or oncoming traffic—or within their own body or mind, such as worry or anxiety, it causes a cascade of physical reactions to unfold in the body.
During a stress response, a number of physical changes occur in the brain and body. The sympathetic nervous system, which handles the “fight or flight” response, kicks into action. The hypothalamus, which is located at the base of the brain, becomes engaged. This in turn activates the pituitary and adrenal glands, which secrete stress hormones such as cortisol that prepare the body to receive the incoming threat.
Other physiological changes that happen during fight or flight include: elevated heart rate, increased breathing a reduction, a reduction in appetite, and suppressed immune function. Also, the liver releases glucose into the bloodstream, which supplies the body a temporary burst of energy.
What are the health effects of long-term stress?
In the short term, the stress response is helpful for fending off a dangerous threat. But over the long term, stress wreaks tremendous havoc on the body, causing deterioration in every major system of the body.
According to Forbes, approximately sixty percent of human illness is directly traceable or correlated to physical and mental stress, and nearly ninety percent of doctor visits are for stress, pain, or anxiety-related ailments. In the US alone, nearly $300 billion is spent on stress-related health care costs and lost productivity.
Low-grade daily stress takes a tremendous physical and mental health toll—and often quickly. Heart rate, blood pressure and general cardiovascular health are all negatively impacted by stress. Even minor repetitive stresses cause damaging stress hormones to be released throughout the body, adding to such symptoms as inflammation and weight gain. Stress makes it harder to focus and remember things, and studies have linked it to dementia and brain atrophy. Finally, there is even strong evidence that prolonged stress activates disease-causing genes. In sum, the brain, heart, lungs, bones and muscles—even our genes—are all recipients of our daily stress.
So, what are the most effective ways to combat stress?
Exercise, Meditation, and Mindfulness
The most common prescription for stress—exercise—is a very effective one. Cardiovascular activity, weight training, and yoga all produce positive changes in the body that diminish stress and increase the body’s ability to handle intermittent periods of stress.
In addition, regular meditation and mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress through its calming effects on the brain and promotion of deep, cellular-level relaxation in the body.
While these options are great, not everybody is willing, or able, to exercise daily or maintain a serious meditation practice.
Body Alignment to Reduce Stress and Inflammation
One of the biggest causes of physical stress is poor body alignment, which creates global inflammation in the body and exerts pressure on all the body’s systems.
When the body is not aligned properly, none of the body’s systems—nervous, respiratory, endocrine, digestive, etc.—are functioning at their full capacity. Stress gets trapped at various points in our body, most commonly the neck and shoulders, chest, hips, knees, ankles, and feet.
Poor body alignment also places unnecessary pressure on our joints. Over time, such wear and tear elevates levels of inflammation and stress throughout our bodies.
Simply by making minor adjustments to body posture, we can greatly increase energy levels and improve our overall health.
The Relaxation Response and Deep Breathing
One of the simplest and most effective stress reduction techniques is to use deep breathing to elicit the “relaxation response.” The relaxation response is shorthand for a chain of physical reactions that occurs as the body shifts from fight or flight back into the normal functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Research helps explain how controlled breathing, and initiation of slow breathing, can lead to a state of relaxation.
New groundbreaking neuroscience research from Stanford University, published in March 2017 in Science, reveals that deliberate, diaphragmatic breathing affects the neuroanatomic circuitry in a way that leads to initiation of the relaxation response and provides the attendant benefits of lower heart rate, reduced blood pressure, and a feeling of peace and tranquility.
Eliciting a regular relaxation response in the body through deep breathing is deeply effective not just in dissolving stress in the moment, but in building resilience against stress over time.
Taking just a few minutes each day to relax starts a systemic improvement in gene de-activation and leads to reduced inflammation, improved brain function, and decreased vulnerability to all types of disease.
Measurable results appear after two months of practice and improve dramatically thereafter.
Breathing Exercises for Relaxation and Stress Reduction
Exercise One: 4-7-8 BREATHING PATTERN
The 4-7-8 Breathing Pattern is a powerful stress-reduction exercise that activates the relaxation response and clears the mind. Here is how to do it:
Inhale deeply through the nose for a count of four, expanding your belly as you inhale
Hold your breath for a count of 7
Exhale through your mouth, making a swishing sound, for a count of eight
The pace of the breathing is not important, just the ratio of parts: making the exhale twice as long as the inhale triggers the relaxation response in your body.
Exercise Two: MINDFUL BALANCED BREATHING
An effective way to remove stressful thoughts or emotions from the brain is to eliminate them completely, if even for only a couple minutes, with a time-tested technique where you put all of your focus on the act of paying attention to the sensation of air passing in and out of your nostrils.
This basic form of mindful breathing inhibits the firing and wiring of stressed neural networks by momentarily stopping the process of stressful thinking, and refreshes your brain and body chemistry.
Sit with comfortable posture, back straight and hands on knees. You will breathe only through the nose.
Shoulders back, neck extended, create enough space in the abdominal area for your belly to expand and contract.
Now, try to push any remaining air out through your nose as you contract your belly.
Once there is no more air to expel, inhale for a six count and only focus on the feeling of air entering the nostrils.
Now exhale for a six count, again slow and quiet, and only focused on the sensation of air exiting the nostrils.
Repeat this 6in-6out pattern several times, always focused on mindful awareness of the air passing in and out
Conclusion: Living a Lower Stress Life Is an Option for EveryoneLife involves stress. Our biggest stressors—work, money, family, illness—can often not be eliminated. But we can address habitual stress effectively through regular exercise, meditation and mindfulness, and by consciously activating the relaxation response through deep breathing techniques.
As we learn more about stress and its antidotes, evidence suggests that adopting deliberate breathing and stress reduction techniques can be a powerful tool to fight the ravages of stress on the body and brain. Further, reducing stress can help with disease management, whether you’re recovering from cancer, surgery, or immune related diseases.