The Power in the way we Think

Posts tagged ‘relaxation response’

Manage stress simply

manage stress simply

We’re almost at the end of the month so today I wanted to discuss how you manage your stress. If there is one thing I have learned as I make mistake after mistake in managing my own stress, it’s that simple is always better. Follow the KISS principle (keep it super simple), and you won’t ever go too far wrong.

So let’s do this.

  1. In previous posts we have discussed how effective breathing is to down-regulate the stress response. You might remember Linda’s post on the role of breathing. There are many different breathing techniques available if you wanted to google it, or even search for suitable apps (I’ll leave you to find these on your own). But with all of them the basic principle is to use your diaphragm and get some good quality oxygen into your lungs and brain, so you can calm the stress response and re-engage your thinking brain (neocortex).
  2. Take time out to do things you love. If you remember my post on the alpha and beta brainwaves, you’ll know that engaging the alpha state will help to down-regulate the stress response. And while breathing is still the most effective way to do this, engaging in activities that ignite your passion will help you focus and put your brain into the alpha state. As an added bonus, things will feel like they are flowing easily and without much effort.
  3. Prioritise the things in your life that are important to you and leave the rest. When you’re in the middle of doing something stressful, stop and ask yourself whether it’s absolutely essential. Try doing an audit on your daily or weekly activities and consider letting some of them go. When you do this, keep your values firmly in your mind – those ideals and concepts that mean a lot to you. For example, if family relationships are big for you, try allowing yourself to take time to play with the kids or spend time with your partner, and allowing the carpet to remain unvacuumed for an extra day.
  4. Do activities that make you feel relaxed and free. For example, listening to music that you love, dancing around the lounge and so on.
  5. Incorporate some gentle movement. Get out into the fresh air and go for a short walk. Play with the dog (or other pet) and allow yourself to be a kid for a while. Check out our post on stress and movement for a reminder on what intense exercise can do to your stress levels. Sometimes it’s better to ditch the run and wander aimlessly around the local markets instead.
  6. Spend some time in nature. Visit a lookout and watch the view. Sit under a tree and lean back against it. Walk around on the grass with bare feet. Ground yourself.
  7. Laugh! Our post on stress and laughter will tell you how this helps lower stress. So try watching a funny movie or being silly with the kids.
  8. Start small. If you’re used to running around from one thing to the next to the next all day, if you attempt to sit still for 2 hours your brain will strongly object! It will likely stress you more to sit still than it already does just going through your day! Instead, just take 30 seconds to stop, sit, and do some of that belly breathing we all know and love. If you persist in doing those little things regularly, pretty soon you’ll be able to stop for longer periods.
  9. Create a routine that works for you and your lifestyle. Don’t allow anyone else (including me) to tell you what you need to do. Trust your own gut and go with what will work for you. My suggestion to begin managing your stress is to simply incorporate the belly breathing (even 30 seconds each time) morning and night. Try doing it before you get out of bed in the morning, and right before you go to sleep at night. The theory is that doing it first thing will set you up for the day and at night it will get your brain ready for sleep. As I said though, these are suggestions. Always trust your own instincts and incorporate the techniques in a way that will work for your unique body, brain and lifestyle. You are the best expert in your own life.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. If you have any techniques that you have found work for you, we’d love to hear about them below! Someone else may be inspired to try something a little left of centre!

Simple is always best

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Stress and Laughter

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I want to discuss laughter and how it’s related to the stress response. Can we use it as a tool to manage our stress?

We’ve already discussed a lot of stuff about how the brain and body are impacted by stress. We have learned about the activation of the stress response and how our heart rate, breathing and blood pressure become elevated. We learned about an increase in anxiety and about how our muscles become tense.

And then we learned about the relaxation response and how engaging it calms everything associated with the stress response. We’ve learned about brainwaves and how, if we can engage our alpha state, this will promote creativity whilst down-regulating the stress response.

So what about laughter? What does it do to, or with, stress?

Let me ask you a question …

Have you ever tried to get up out of a chair while you are simultaneously rolling around on the floor laughing?

While I haven’t tried it from the floor, I have tried it from the couch. And I haven’t been able to do it.

Why?

Because my muscles literally have no strength to hold me up.

Why is this important? Well, when you laugh, your muscles relax.

It’s that simple. Muscle relaxation assists in the down-regulation of stress. The states of muscle tension and relaxation are opposite. One cannot exist with the other. That is, when your muscles are relaxed, they cannot be tense, and vice versa.

When you relax your muscles, you relax the tension, you lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and as you laugh, more oxygen is forced into your lungs, thereby lowering your breathing rate.

And therefore, you simultaneously engage the relaxation response and down-regulate the stress response.

Win-win, right?

So what’s the moral of this story?

Allow yourself to play, and Laugh freely and loud! 🙂

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Stress, alpha and beta

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With only 4 days left of November, we’re on the downhill sprint of this NaBloPoMo challenge and our focus on stress. It’s been an exciting ride!

I want to finish off the month with a few posts that will help you all to integrate everything we’ve discussed over the month, and our final post will celebrate it all.

So as we bring things to a close I want to talk with you all about brainwaves. If we hooked our brains up to an EEG machine and measured the waves during the various states we experience, we’d probably be quite surprised.

There are 4 or 5 different types of brain waves (depending on who you’re talking with), of which I’d like to concentrate on 2, as these are the ones most associated with stress.

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The first of these is the beta waves. These occur when we are awake, alert and learning. Beta waves are associated with stress, anger, irritability, moodiness, anxiety and depression. When we are in this state our thoughts often feel chaotic and we could generally feel out of control. Next time you feel like you’re running around like a headless chicken, you’re probably in the beta state.

Alpha waves on the other hand, occur when we are relaxed and in a meditative state. We feel peaceful and calm, our habits and fears seem to melt away, and we are in a prime state to learn new things. It is in this state that our creativity is at its best. Have you ever been in a state where everything seems to go right for you and things flow effortlessly? This is when you’re brain reflects the alpha state. This also reflects the relaxation response, which we have discussed previously.

The other two states, theta and delta, most often occur during sleep. Theta is light sleep, like when you’re in that place between wakefulness and proper sleep, while you’re still aware of what’s happening around you. Delta occurs during deep, restorative sleep, which Linda talked about during her series of posts on stress and sleep.

Since the beta and alpha states are the waves we want to focus on here, let’s do that.

As we’ve already established, beta waves occur during times of stress and are associated with anxiety, depression, moodiness and anger. We’ve all been there, right? And I’m sure you can recognise from some of our early posts this month that this is what stress often feels like.

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If the alpha state is one of relaxation, creativity and flow, wouldn’t this be much more preferable to being in the beta state? It would be for me, that’s for sure!

So how do we get ourselves from beta to alpha?

By breathing. Using the deep belly breaths we’ve spoken about before, where we concentrate on using our diaphragm to fill up the lungs and allowing them to empty naturally before we take the next breath.

When we become nice and relaxed by using this method, things become easier to achieve. And when we then engage in activities that fill our hearts with passion, it brings forth our creativity and promotes an environment that supports us living our dreams.

And isn’t that what we all ultimately want on some level?

Stress and Movement

Movement.

Moving your body.

Do you do it? How often and what kind do you do? What kinds of movement are there?

In no particular order, let’s list just a few things as they come into my head …

Walking, running, sex, yoga, tai chi, weight lifting, boxing, self-defense, dancing, gardening, swimming, ball games, playing chasey, creating a snow angel.

Do you do any of these activities? Any different ones? Do you have a favourite?

Let’s talk about hormones again for a moment. You might remember some information about cortisol, one of the major hormones the body creates in response to stress. It’s the job of cortisol to calm the inflammation caused by stress. So in effect, to calm the stress response and help bring us out of it.

Many people find it helpful to go for a run when they feel antsy. Physical exercise helps burn off the energy caused by adrenalin. It reduces the urge to run away or fight, and helps us to relax. It can also help us to feel centred and to improve our mental wellbeing. It can lift our mood and reduce depression and anxiety.

However, we need to be careful. Exercise causes inflammation. The main job of cortisol is to reduce inflammation. So as you do more exercise, you produce more cortisol, which ultimately impacts your body’s ability to heal and reduce stress.

This cortisol production also leads to weight gain, particularly around the belly, face and neck. Now most of us, when we gain weight, tend to lean toward more exercise to reduce it, right? Can you see a pattern?

When you are already highly stressed, this will lead to a vicious cycle:

Intense exercise = cortisol production = weight gain = more exercise.

See the cycle?

For those of you who already struggle with your weight and believe the best thing you can do to drop it is to push your body to its limits, check out this video blog from a very well respected personal trainer who has experience with neuroscience and several other areas. Let me introduce you to Emma. I’ve been working with her for a couple of years and I trust her implicitly. She gets it. She knows what she is talking about.

So, when you are super stressed the best thing you can do is to go easy on the exercise. At least the exercise that is intense and of long duration. Let me be clear here. I’m not suggesting that you ditch your training. Nor am I suggesting that you become a couch potato. As someone who has been there, I can attest to the fact that the couch potato status can be just as stressful as the intense training.

There are types of movement that will support your body reaching the state of balance/homeostasis that Emma refers to.

Gentle movements such as tai chi, yoga or simple stretching will help. As will combining your movement with play. Have fun running around the yard with the kids. Throw a Frisbee together. Play hide and seek. Laugh together.

Relax.

I’ve already talked about engaging the relaxation response to reduce stress. When Emma talks about taking her clients through a meditation activity at the end of her training sessions, she elicits this response, while at the same time, helping the brain to lock in new neural networks that reinforce the learning you’ve just done in training.

Ok. So now we’ve covered all that, let’s talk about how you can tell which type of movement you need to be doing.

Your body will tell you. So listen to the signals it gives you. Do you know what it’s saying?

Go with the urges that you get. If you have a feeling of deep down fatigue and the thought of getting out to exercise hard fills you with dread, it’s likely that your body is telling you it needs something different. If you feel the urge to get up and go hard, then by all means listen to that and take action to give your body what it needs. If you feel like dancing around your lounge with music at full volume, go for it!

Bottom line is this. Nobody can make up the rules for you. In any given moment your body will need different things to create and maintain that balance. Sometimes that means going full out and other times it means pulling back and resting. If you can learn the signals your body gives out, you will know what to do. How do you learn those signs? By listening to and connecting with your body.

Keep an eye out for a post on this soon.

As always, I’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to share your thoughts or questions below!

The relaxation response

In this series you’ve heard a lot about the stress response. We’ve talked about it so much that you’re all probably sick of hearing about it! It’s incredibly important that you understand how it works because this knowledge will assist you in managing your stress in a way that works for you. If you’ve been hiding under a rock these past 19 days and haven’t read anything about it, you can find it in this post and this one. The impacts of stress on our systems are so huge and it’s really important that we are able to combat them. Our health and wellbeing depend on it.

So how do we begin that process?

I’m glad you asked!

The body being the incredible machine it is, created a system that can naturally support us to tackle all this stress. And it’s all part of the autonomic nervous system. Since I’m slightly lazy, I’m just going to call it the nervous system.

A little technical information for you on the nervous system. It’s divided into 2 parts – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for getting the body ready for action. So when the amygdala does its job by making the assessment that you’re at risk, the signals that get sent to the brain stem to raise your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and so on, engage the SNS to make those things happen.

The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. It calms everything down. It returns your heart rate to normal. It lowers your blood pressure and blood sugar. So when you’re in the stress response, the PNS helps to bring you out of it.

As a demonstration of how these systems work together, think about body temperature. When it gets hot or cold outside our body temperature will either rise or lower. This is the role of the SNS. And the PNS will jump in to try to balance things out. It will make us sweat when we get too hot and will give us goosebumps when we’re too cold. You see, our body likes balance. Being out of balance is not our natural state of being. We function optimally when everything is balanced and this is called homeostasis. And we thrive on it.

So, when we’re stressed, the PNS will do everything in its power to reinstate homeostasis. And we can help it along. If we can regularly put ourselves into what is called the relaxation response, we support the PNS to bring our body and mind back into homeostasis.

Essentially, the relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. When we are stressed, everything is activated, or switched on. We are ready for action. Alert. Aware. Vigilant. And our body is jumping and ready to hit the ground running.

On the other hand, the relaxation response is just that; relaxed. This is kind of like when you are laying in bed on the way to sleep. You’re still aware of the things happening around you, but your mind and body are at rest.

So, how do we switch off the stress response and switch on the relaxation response?

We’re probably talking about this part a lot too, so brace yourself…

Breathing.

Yep. You got it. Breathing.

breathe

Linda talked about belly breathing in her post on stress and the role of breathing. She talked about practising by placing your hands on your chest and belly, and working on making the hand on your belly rise and fall as you breathe, pretending that you’re inflating a balloon. You may like to re-read her article to refresh your memory.

I found another article about activating the relaxation response. It talks about closing your eyes and taking deep breaths for 10 minutes while you focus on a chosen word, such as “peace” or “calm”.

If I were practicing this I would look at combining the two techniques – breathing for 10 minutes while I focused on the deep belly breaths Linda talks about. I’d love for you to give it a try and see how you go. Share your experiences in the comments below!

Remember what I said before about homeostasis? When we are chronically stressed our system gets used to it and the highly stressed state becomes our new “balance” point. So when we then try to counteract that by practicing these breathing techniques, our mind will kick in and try to stop us. It perceives this new state of calm as being out of balance, so it will do whatever it can to prevent you from focusing. You’ll have some pretty random thoughts pop into your head, you’ll find it difficult to concentrate, you’ll feel like you want to get up and run away because you’re so used to being in that “action” state.

So, here is my tip to work with this… persist. Practice. Be kind to yourself. Your brain is simply doing its job by trying to stay balanced. Gently refocus on your objective (the focus word of your choice or your hand rising and falling on your belly). Say to yourself something like, “thanks mind for doing your job, I’ll give you a chance to play soon, but for right now I’m focusing on this breathing”.

And if you do find yourself continually distracted, that’s fine. Go with it. Just start with the breathing for 30 seconds. For some people this is enough to begin with. And then gradually build it up in 30 second increments. Pretty soon you’ll be able to focus for 10 minutes like a pro!

If 10 minutes seems like forever (which it will if you’re just starting out), try using an alarm so you don’t have to think about how long you’ve been practicing. However, a loud ringing at the end of the time will likely put you right back into the stress response! So try a gentle sound such as a soft tinkle or wind chime effect.

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