Worries about the pandemic, finances, work, family, politics, and health can increase stress levels at an unsustainable rate. After yet another stressful day, we turn to our comforts. For some it’s junk food and binge-watching Netflix, or perhaps it’s scrolling through social media. Nonetheless, what we may not realize is that these stress-coping behaviours can prevent us from making beneficial lifestyle changes. There are however healthy and effective ways to cope with these stresses.
Coping With Stress
Our nervous system has two states: parasympathetic and sympathetic. They have evolved to keep us alive, both alert and well-rested. Our parasympathetic nervous system is our ‘rest and digest’ state. On the contrary, our sympathetic nervous system is our ‘fight, flight, freeze’ state. Historically, humans have spent most of their lives in a state of centered rest with momentary events of hyper-alertness and sympathetic responses. Whether it was hunting prey or fighting an enemy, these sympathetic responses were short lived. After these bursts of excitement, stress or fear, our parasympathetic state would take over. Thus, our breathing would return to normal, our blood pressure would drop, and we would return to a state of calm.
However, our daily lives have changed, and many of us are chronically in a sympathetic state. We are pushing our nervous systems to the brink by being constantly alert, ready to fight, flee or freeze. When we are anxious, our bodies are in an almost constant sympathetic state of hyper alertness and tension. For some, past traumas have strengthened those fight, flight, and freeze pathways, making them a default state. It is critical to our overall health that we find ways to override this and trigger a parasympathetic state. Luckily, there are lots of tried and tested ways to achieve this. As past events can strengthen stress pathways, we can strengthen our parasympathetic rest and digest pathways. The idea is to use our physiology to tell our nervous systems that we are safe, and it is okay to slow down and rest.
How to Relax After a Stressful Day: Breathe
A scientifically proven way to switch from a stressed state into a calm one is to simply breathe. How we breathe sends a message to our nervous system on what our current environment is like. The short, shallow breathes of stress and anxiety send signals to our bodies to be ready, alert and prepared for action. However, the slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths tell our systems that we are safe and relaxed. By using controlled breathing, we have the keys to almost switch our state of stress instantly.
There are many well-researched, well-developed breath-work practices that can be used to trigger a relaxed state. A recent study found that taking 6 deep breaths in 30 seconds can significantly reduce blood pressure and heart rate, triggering a parasympathetic response.
Another simple and easy-to-remember breath control practice is box breathing. Imagine your breath in the shape of a square box. Up one side is a slow 4-second inhale, across the top is a 4-second breath hold, down the other side is a 4-second exhale and across the bottom is another 4-second breath hold. Repeat this box four times and feel your stressed state dissolve.
Mind Refreshing: Meditate
It’s no secret that meditation is an effective practice to reduce stress, but why is it so hard? A regular meditation practice can:
- Reduce stress
- Lower anxiety and blood pressure
- Improve sleep
- Reduce pain, and more
However, those of us operating in our fight flight or freeze state find it difficult to sit calm. When particularly stressed, sitting and thinking over what is causing stress can feel counter-productive. Nonetheless, we need to allow ourselves to process stress and anxiety. By letting these thoughts surface, acknowledging them, and allowing them to pass through our minds, we can let them go. With practice it gets easier.
Where to start with meditation? There are many different styles, gurus, programs, and apps available that approach meditating differently. Apps like Calm or Headspace are helpful when getting started. Once you can develop a practice that works, choose your favourite stress-free music, and tune out the world. By scheduling a regular time in your day to practice meditating, you’re more likely to keep up the practice and be able to de-stress when you need it most.
Unplug from Social Media: Spend Time in Nature
Spending time in nature allows us to reconnect with our innate attraction to the natural world, calming our nervous systems. After all, humans have spent majority of our existence as a species living in nature. It’s not surprising that our nervous systems crave and attune in natural surroundings. A 2017 study on the health benefits associated with the immersion in nature found widespread benefits on immune system function. Additionally, it found that doing this benefits our cardiovascular and respiratory systems, depression and anxiety, and mental relaxation. If you are stressed after a challenging day at work, go for a walk in a park or trail.
There are countless challenges in our modern lives, and our nervous systems are responding as they are designed to. We have the ability, the tools, and strategies to control our responses and to use our nervous systems to de-stress after a long day. Make these three simple practices part or your daily routine and you’ll notice improvements in your mental and physical health!
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