We all know that stress is bad. It has been linked to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression as well as physical ones like diabetes or high blood pressure. But what does it really mean to be under stress? The causes of stress are different for everyone, but almost every human body will respond in the same way when it is stressed. That’s because the “stress response” is a normal physiologic reaction. It is the modern-day version of the fight or flight reaction, which prepares us to either face danger and fight it off, or turn and run for safety.
Once the brain recognizes danger, a cascade of events occurs, involving multiple hormones and nerve signals. The end result is that the adrenal glands are triggered to release stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. This takes only milliseconds to occur, and the body immediately prepares to handle the danger. The heart rate and blood pressure rise, to more effectively pump blood to the muscles. Blood sugar is elevated to provide more fuel, and respiratory rate increases to provide more oxygen. The brain goes on high alert, scanning the entire area for any threat. Non-essential systems are temporarily downgraded. For example, the digestive tract doesn’t need to be working when we are fighting or fleeing, so it slows down. The same with the reproductive system. Once the threat has passed, the hormones are decreased and the body returns to a normal resting state.
In ancient times, threats were things like dangerous animals or enemy tribes. People addressed the threat, then returned to normal life, if they survived. In modern times, threats are things like traffic jams when we’re late, deadlines at work, or constant emails demanding our attention. Today, threats aren’t as likely to be truly life-threatening. The trouble is, our bodies don’t know the difference. A yelling boss or a charging tiger, the stress response is the same. The other problem is, modern stress never seems to go away. We are on constant alert, so the stress hormones stay elevated more of the time, leaving the heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar elevated. Our brains keep looking for danger, and we are left anxious and unable to focus or sleep restfully. Our digestive and reproductive systems are slowed down, causing constipation and lack of libido. This is your body on stress.
Luckily, the body comes equipped with the antidote to stress. It’s called the relaxation response, and it is basically the opposite of fight or flight. The body naturally returns to this state when stress has passed, or we can induce it ourselves. It’s as close as our own breath. In fact, simply closing the eyes and paying focused attention to your breath will begin to calm the body and the mind. Taking it one step further, count the length of your inhale and exhale, and gently make them equal in length. Take several of these equal breaths, then slowly begin to lengthen the exhale. For example, if you inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 5 for a few breaths. Then, keeping the inhale the same, expand the exhale to a count of 6. Continue to gently and easily lengthen the exhale until it is up to twice as long as the inhale. Maintain this 2:1 breath for 5-8 breaths, if it feels comfortable. Keep in mind that this exercise should always feel easy and relaxed. If you become short of breath or light-headed, stop immediately and return to a normal breath. Practice this exercise every day, then see how helpful it can be any time you feel anxious or stressed.
In this day and age, when stress is constant, we must frequently remind the body that our level of threat is not life-threatening. The best way to do this is to regularly practice some form of relaxation. My favorites are yoga, meditation and breathing exercises, like the one above. Look for restorative or gentle yoga classes, then you know your goals for relaxation will fit with the style of yoga being taught in class. Multiple styles of meditation have been shown to reduce stress and induce the relaxation response, including iRest, mindfulness, and TM. Consider enrolling in a series of classes or workshops so you can get really comfortable with any technique, because benefits come with regular practice. Over time, stress will have less of an impact on the body and the mind, and we can return more often to our natural state of relaxation.