The Power in the way we Think

Posts tagged ‘stress response’

Celebrating Stress

Celebrations and stress are not usually words we see together. However today they are. Because today, we made it!

It is officially November 30, 2014. Which means that this is the final day of the NaBloPoMo challenge, and our series on stress.

And the National Blog Posting Month has definitely been a challenge! Probably not in the way most people would think, though. I had no trouble at all coming up with the post ideas and writing the material. Stress is such a huge topic that we could easily go for another month without too much trouble!

Instead, the challenge for me was finding the time to get it all done with the other responsibilities in my life. But I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to do it. The experience has stretched me to think about some things (including my own stress) in a different way.

It has drawn lots of new readers to our small corner of the internet and as they share their stories I find my passion for The Mindset Effect renewed. It’s people like you guys who keep me doing what I do. I love sharing my knowledge with the aim of supporting all of you to make positive, healthy changes in your life. At the end of this post, as a special something for all of you who have stuck with me throughout the month, I have a very special treat. I won’t tell you what it is right now (and no cheating by scrolling!); it will be waiting for you when you get to the end. 🙂

After such an intense month and 29 different articles on stress, I’d like to revisit some of the main concepts and bring it all together for you. I know that sometimes receiving so much information can be a little overwhelming and difficult to understand. So let’s see what we can do …

managing stress

We began the month with a few simple definitions of the different types of stress before we discussed the pretty grim impacts it has on our mind, body and emotions. With any type of force, strain or pressure, and the possibility of conditions such as weight gain, heart issues, diabetes and blood pressure, it becomes really important to be aware of your stress and to learn to manage it effectively.

I believe it’s equally important to understand how stress works. If you understand it, you’ll be armed with heaps of knowledge that supports you to implement the simple management strategies that we know really work. You’ll have the science behind why you do things like reach for the chocolate bar, cry for seemingly no reason or snap at your partner. And you’ll also have the reasons behind why you feel some pretty mean neck and shoulder tension or why you crash at the end of the day or week and can’t bring yourself to even get out of the chair.

The neurobiology behind stress is extremely complex. I won’t go into that here but you can go back and read any of those earlier posts on the Triune brain, trauma, hormones and the amygdala. Between them, they explain the workings of our inbuilt survival mechanism and why many of our reactions occur.

The stress response, or our fight/flight mechanism, is activated easily and frequently by all manner of life events, from watching someone you love draw their last breath, to dealing with screaming kids or seeing the bills pile up when you have a limited income. And with the buildup of hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, managing the fallout from these events becomes even more important.

Children are also impacted by stress in the same way we are, but their experience is different due to the development of their brains being incomplete. They need guidance in some of the same simple techniques we use.

Probably the most important and effective management strategy is the use of breathing. My friend and colleague, Linda, did a great job of explaining how to utilise belly breathing to down-regulate the stress response.

We’ve also explored sleep, movement, food and laughter and how these are all related to or impact our stress. And we learned how simple routines and small changes can make a big difference in the way we experience it.

With such a complex system and so many things feeding into the impacts we feel, it’s important that we are able to break it all down into bite size pieces and make the way we manage stress work for us in our day to day life. Learning to listen to our mind and body and understanding the meaning of the signals they give out, means we can become more aware of how we respond to stress and this assists us to figure out how to manage it.

As a special treat to you all for your support this past month I would like to provide you with a bonus. I know from first-hand experience that listening to those stress signals is not always easy. In fact, it can be a downright nightmare! Especially given how chaotic our minds can be when we are in the midst of it all. So I would like to provide for you an audio file with 2 of the simple techniques we have discussed previously. This is called guided imagery. I’ll first take you through a simple breathing strategy similar to the belly breathing Linda talked about. I’ll then extend on this and guide you through a body scan, which will help you listen to, connect with and become more aware of the signals your body gives you.

To prepare to listen, find a quiet place and make yourself comfortable, preferably lying flat on your back with your hands loosely by your sides.

calm scenery picnic point

I’d love to hear how you go with it when you try it! Please feel free to let me know below.

Before I close up this series, I’d like to thank a few people. Firstly to my friend and colleague Linda, for sharing her passion and skill in the articles she provided on sleep and the role of breathing. I’d like to thank my friend Libby, for helping me brainstorm for the post on listening to our bodies. I’d also like to thank Julia and Carlie who provided articles on their personal experiences with stress. Hearing personal stories can help us understand that other people feel the way we do. We aren’t alone in feeling stressed. Lastly, I’d like to thank all of you who read my words and stick around to read more! Without you, there would be no point me writing and sharing all the stuff in my brain.

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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

Stress and Laughter

Laughter-1

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! 🙂

Laughter-emoticon

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.

brain-states-BIG

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.

infinitypro_alpha

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!

Stress and emotions

We’ve already talked about the Limbic region in the brain and its function in regulating our emotions. And we’ve also discussed the role of the amygdala in assessing potential threatening situations.

You’ve probably gathered by now how the amygdala plays a key role in our survival. It helps us to recognise when our life is in danger and sets off a chain reaction to get us out of that situation. Our body is flooded with hormones to get us moving (either fighting or fleeing), and also to completely focus our attention on the threat so that we aren’t distracted from it, again in order to increase our chances of survival.

We have also learned that sometimes our amygdala makes the assessment that we are at threat when we really aren’t. If you recall, this is because our brains haven’t evolved enough to keep up with the huge advances in technology we have experienced over the years.

So we are activating the stress response for things like finances, screaming kids, work pressures, time pressures, physical illnesses or injuries, and so on. None of these are likely to threaten your survival.

When you think about the neurobiology behind the stress response, and our slower evolutionary processes, it makes sense that our brain responds in the way it does. But what happens to our emotions on the occasions where our life isn’t actually at risk?

Can you imagine how you’d feel if you had a lot of work deadlines to meet, were dealing with repeated issues with your children and also had some recent, pricy unexpected bills?

I’m guessing the experiences of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, dread and overwhelm would be high, amongst others.

And very likely they would come and go in unpredictable patterns, which could make those emotions worse and more intense.

And this would likely lead to behaviour that you’re probably not always going to be proud of. Irritability, snapping at your loved ones, yelling, uncharacteristic urges to run away and hide, not wanting to face the day, fatigue. And what about the arguments about irrelevant things?

The bottom line is that your emotions go haywire and they become unpredictable.

And this leaves you feeling unsure of yourself and wondering why the hell you can’t just keep it together and get through it like everyone else does. Am I right? I think if I had one dollar for every person who came into my counselling room asking, “why can’t I do this right? I should be able to cope better”, I would be well on the way to being a millionaire! Well, almost.

But as we’ve already discussed (several times), when you know the processes that the brain goes through, hopefully you’ll see that appearances can be deceiving. I don’t know anyone that could cope with all these things and still be “coping well”. On the outside it may look like they have it together, but it’s almost guaranteed that they feel just like you do on the inside.

That said, I need to acknowledge that each of us has a “coping capacity” that is different from anyone else on the planet. Yes, we all have the same processes occurring in the brain. However each of us has had different experiences throughout our lives, which has given us different memory systems and ultimately, different ways of coping.

This is why some of us love scaring ourselves silly with horror movies and others, like me, won’t go near them. It’s why some of us can’t wait to ride the scariest, most windy and daring rollercoasters, or jump out of perfectly good airplanes (why, I ask, would anyone choose to jump out of a fully functioning plane?!?!)

Remember too, that there are plenty of parents who absolutely thrive on having their house choc full of kids running amok. They thrive on the chaos and feed off the energy. And there are others (again, like me), who prefer peace and quiet after they get home.

2012-02-05-ALBERT-EINSTEIN-everybody-is-a-genius

These differences are natural based on our life experiences, family background and so on. So please, do yourselves a favour and stop comparing yourselves with the people around you.

And when you feel those emotions swirling around and bringing you down, try going back to our simple belly breathing technique that Linda talked about in her article on the role of breathing.

I have a challenge for you …

For the next 7 days, I want you to take time out each morning and evening to do 10 deep belly breaths, as described by Linda. Before you get out of bed and right before you go to sleep are perfect times. It only takes about 30 seconds, so no excuses!

At the end of the 7 days, report back here to let us know how you went. Have you noticed a difference in your day and your emotional state?

Stress and Children

Kids experience stress just as much as the rest of us.

And sometimes more intensely than the rest of us.

I hope you’re all wondering why this is, because I’m about to share it with you.

It all originates in the field of child development. Or more specifically, brain development. When I began this series on stress we talked about the Triune Brain. We discussed how the brain processes stress and a little bit about the ages at which the different parts of the brain develop.

I’d like to discuss these age differences in a little more detail.

When we are born the only part of the brain to be fully developed is the brain stem, which is responsible for our physiological responses such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. If this part of the brain is damaged in some way, your survival may be threatened and it is possible that you would be looking at support from machines to stay alive. The brain stem is also responsible for the physiological aspects of the stress response – elevating the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.

The limbic region is the next part of the brain to develop, usually completed at around 3-5 years of age. This controls our emotions. The amygdala lives in the limbic region and if you remember back to my previous post on this, its job is to make an assessment about whether your life is at threat. So when we perceive our life to be in danger, our emotions, such as fear and anxiety, are activated.

The final part of the brain to develop is the neocortex, which is responsible for our ability to think, reason and solve problems. This begins to develop properly in our teens but isn’t completely developed until we reach our mid 20’s. When our stress response is activated, the blood flow to the neocortex is reduced, and therefore our ability to think is impaired.

Here is a simple diagram that shows this relationship.

triune brain 4

Let’s think about these facts in relation to children. As adults, when we become stressed we can sometimes use our reasoning ability to calm this response and get back to our balanced state (homeostasis). Remember though, by the time we reach our mid 20’s, all 3 areas of the brain are fully developed. This means that the sizes of the limbic region and the neocortex are somewhat even, thereby making it easier to reason things out when we’re stressed.

Children, however, do not have this. Because of their brain development, their limbic region and neocortex are different sizes, which means that their emotions have much more control than their thinking and reasoning ability. So when their stress response is activated, they are unable to down-regulate, or calm the response. This is not only due to the size difference, but also because the blood flow to the neocortex is diminished. So they have all these emotions running through their mind and body, but are unable to use logic to bring themselves back to a place of balance.

I hope this makes sense, because it is an integral part of why children’s behaviour can become volatile at the smallest things.

Sometimes their parents or another adult is able to “talk them down”, particularly if they combine some simple breathing techniques with ‘loaning’ out some logic or reasoning power. But sometimes the stress response is engaged to such an extent that the only way to calm it is to allow it to burn itself out. In this way kids are able to burn off any adrenalin with physical activity. Most of the time you’ll probably find this happen with the use of some pretty intense tantrums, complete with throwing things, yelling, hitting and so on.

The key to helping your kids to manage their response comes by making them more aware of their body and the signals it gives out to indicate stress. Look for a post on this in the next few days. In the meantime, try reviewing an article I wrote back in August about some secret kids business. In it I discuss how kids can learn to manage their own self-care by creating a box in which to keep some special things to help them calm down.

A special note for children who have experienced trauma or abuse, particularly at an early age. Neurobiological research has found that these kids often have an amygdala that is enlarged. This means that it is much more easily activated. And this in turn means that there is a larger difference in size between the limbic region and the neocortex, making it even more difficult to regulate their emotions. For these kids (well, for all kids, but especially for these ones), the key is safety and security. More than anything else, they need to understand that they are safe. So the best thing you can do is to remain calm, firm and completely sure in your attempts to support them. As you work at calming their response, regulate your own breathing using the belly breathing techniques we have already discussed. We all know that children pick up on our energy and moods, so the calmer you become, the easier it will be to help regulate them. And please consider seeking psychological support for these kids. Not only can a professional teach them how to regulate their emotions, they can work with you on specific strategies to use with them.

mirror neurons

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.

Stress and Sleep, Part 2

Today Linda is back to cover part 2 of her 3 articles on stress and sleep. Today she will discuss why sleep is so important and its relationship with stress. Remember yesterday, she talked about the sleep cycle and some technical aspects of how the brain processes it. While this information is a little technical, it’s important stuff to know so that you can then learn how to regulate your sleep. If you have any questions or comments to share, I’m sure Linda would love to help me address them for you! Hope you enjoy. 

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Why do we need sleep?

As you saw in the explanation of the sleep stages above, the simplest way to think about why we need sleep is in terms of healing and repair. It’s almost as though getting a good night’s sleep is akin to regularly taking your car into the mechanic for servicing. While you are sleeping your brain becomes a mechanic, tinkering with processes that are important during your day-to-day functioning and require fine-tuning or repair.

For example, any damage to your heart or blood vessels is repaired while you are sleeping. Hormone production, metabolism, cognitive functioning and immune function are all processes that rely on a healthy night’s sleep, every night. Physical growth and the stimulation of new brain cells and neural networks take place while you sleep.

Sleep is actually a very involved process. If you are interested in understanding more about the sleep cycle I came across one of the most detailed and interesting descriptions here:

https://science.education.nih.gov/supplements/nih3/sleep/guide/info-sleep.htm

How does stress impact on sleep?

In an earlier post titled ‘Stress Hormones’ you learned about a very important part of your brain directly responsible for many of the processes in your body including your immune functioning, your mood levels and emotions, your digestion, your energy production and storage, your sexuality, and the stress response. This system is known as the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis. You may like to go back to this post and check out the diagram explaining the functioning of the HPA axis.

Sleep only occurs when the HPA axis is calm and inactive. So when the HPA axis is active, as is the case with stress, sleep will be affected. And conversely, when you don’t sleep well, the HPA axis becomes activated. And on it goes.

When the HPA axis has been activated through ongoing stress, you are also more likely to wake either through the night or first thing in the morning feeling anxious. I have met many people who have described waking in the middle of the night or early mornings with panic-attacks, and a disturbed sleep cycle could explain why.

So already we are beginning to see how disturbed sleep can trap you into a negative cycle: you don’t sleep well, you feel stressed. When you feel stressed, your biological clock becomes disrupted and you struggle to sleep well.

This process occurs in part because when we don’t get enough sleep (less than 6.5 hours) our body increases it’s production and release of the stress hormone cortisol. Remember from previous posts that when you are experiencing ongoing stress your body is already pumping out excessive levels of this toxic substance. Usually in the early evening cortisol is decreasing however with chronic sleep loss these levels will elevate resulting in a chain reaction including increased insulin resistance and decreased glucose tolerance.

Sleep is actually really important for regulating appetite and food intake. One of the hormones, letpin, which is responsible for appetite suppression, actually decreases with a lack of sleep. At the same time the body increases it’s production of ghrelin, a peptide that stimulates appetite. This means that when we experience disturbed sleep our appetite actually increases and we are more likely to eat larger amounts of food than what we would normally need to get through a day. We are also more likely to crave foods that are high in carbohydrates. Increased cortisol makes you store fat in your tummy, your neck and your face, so if you are eating more carbohydrates you are more likely to gain weight. A spare tire belly is a good indicator of stress, and for many of us it creates further stress as we begin worrying about our weight gain.

Sleep deprivation has also been related to impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance. If you find yourself waking between 1am and 3am, a common feature of stress, it may be because your body is not using glucose properly and is signaling that you need to re-fuel already. This is why having a snack prior to bed can be helpful.

Even if you are young and relatively healthy, these hormonal changes can leave you in a pre-diabetic state following less than one week of sleep deprivation. This is an alarmingly short time frame! At the moment we are seeing an increase in sleep deprivation, an increase in diabetes, and an increase in Alzhiemer’s disease, which in some research circles has been labeled diabetes type 3.

Disturbed sleep can also leave you with confusion, impaired memory, headaches, impaired judgment and decision making ability, increased irritability, clumsiness, hallucinations, seizures, and even mania.

With ongoing stress and sleep disturbance your adrenal functioning may become impaired and this can be a factor in conditions like fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, Cushing syndrome, arthritis, depression and premature menopause. Scary stuff! So what can you do about it?

Hang around and check out Tuesday’s blog post to learn how you can improve your sleep. As you can see, when you are stressed sleep is really the first step in attempting to help your system to down-regulate.

sleep deprivation

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Lindas bioLinda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.

Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brains potential.

You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.

Stress & the Role of Breathing

I’m calling on another of my friends and colleagues today to discuss the role of breathing in stress. Linda is a psychologist with 20+ years experience in supporting people who have been living with stress and trauma. I’d encourage you to check out her website below her post as she has some very informative and helpful articles to read!

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“A human being is only breath and shadow” – Sophocles

So breathing is one of those things we take completely for granted, and yet breath really is life, without it we are no more.

In today’s topic we are going to have a look at the importance of breathing in helping you to lower your stress levels or down-regulate your stress system. We will also provide an exercise at the end of the post that you can use to learn how to breathe with your diaphragm – a really important strategy in down-regulating the stress system.

In terms of stress you learned early on in the post titled ‘Down-regulating stress’ just how breathing is affected by the stress response. Remember how whenever your brain perceives a threat in your environment your amygdala (the warning system in your brain) becomes alerted and often very quickly sends a cascade of hormones (chemical messengers) through your body. These hormones, primarily cortisol and adrenalin, then tell your body to breathe shallowly and much faster to increase your intake of oxygen.

Unfortunately today many of us automatically breathe quite shallowly. If you watch a toddler wandering about and playing, you will notice that you can actually see their belly moving as they breathe. Toddlers are very relaxed, they have yet to learn to suck their belly in and begin breathing shallowly. As we age we learn to suck our stomach in, due both to tension and the desire to reduce the waistline, which makes it impossible to breathe from your belly.

Breathing shallowly actually increases the likelihood that you will automatically switch on your stress response. Because you don’t get enough oxygenated air into the bottom of your lungs you may feel as though you are struggling to breath and even feel anxious. Over time, just like any muscle, the diaphragm will become weakened if it is not used properly, potentially trapping you in shallow breathing.

The easiest way to check whether or not you are breathing from your chest or using your diaphragm is to place one hand palm down on your upper chest area and the other on your belly. Breathe normally and see if you can notice which hand is actually moving. The hand that is on your chest should be completely still and the hand on your belly rising and falling as you breathe.

Breathing actually starts with the diaphragm.

stress diaphragm

The diaphragm is a huge muscle sitting in your chest just below your lungs. The only time you probably pay any attention to it is when you get the hiccups, which happens because the diaphragm has become irritated and it then has a little involuntary spasm. When the diaphragm contracts it enlarges the space where the lungs sit, enabling air to enter our lungs. When the diaphragm muscle relaxes the air is forced from the lungs.

Breathing in allows us to take in important, life giving oxygen and breathing out enables us to release poisonous carbon dioxide. You may have heard the affirmation people repeat: “breathing in good, breathing out bad”.

Diaphragm breathing helps to stimulate the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that has links to the parasympathetic system in the rest of the body. Remember that the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the stress response and the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest, relaxation and repair.

When you stimulate your parasympathetic system through diaphragm breathing, it is essentially like putting on the brake, helping your body to stop the stress response. Whereas when you breathe from the chest you are stimulating the sympathetic system.

Diaphragm breathing also helps you to focus your mind on your body right now, rather than getting caught up and carried away by all of those unhelpful thoughts racing around in your mind.

So how can you strengthen this very important muscle and at the same time switch on the relaxation response within your body?

By learning diaphragm breathing, sometimes called abdominal breathing or belly breathing.

Diaphragm breathing is really easy once you get the hang of it, although it may take you a little practice to master.

To begin with you are best to practice lying down, either on your bed or on the floor.

Have your legs slightly bent at the knees so that your upper body is relaxed.

Place your hands, or even an object like a book or a soft toy, on your belly and concentrate on expanding the diaphragm as you breath in. Imagine as you are breathing in that you are inflating a large balloon in your belly.

Notice on the in-breath how the air moves first into the bottom of your belly, then up through the chest area, then fills you up almost to your shoulders.

As you breath out, imagine a deflating balloon, with the air first leaving from your shoulders, then your chest area, then right down into the bottom of your belly, until no air remains. Stay with that empty feeling for a moment and then notice as your belly automatically begins to rise for the next breathe.

After practicing diaphragm breathing lying down you will find it easier to practice standing, sitting and moving about throughout your day.

Breathing from your diaphragm is not something that you can just do in those moments when you feel stressed, yes it is helpful at that time, however you need to practice this type of breathing so that it becomes more natural.

Practicing every day will also ensure that you are turning on the relaxation response, helping to reduce anxiety and reduce stress.

Try making diaphragm breathing a regular part of your sleep routine. After you’ve climbed into bed take a few moments to practice 10 deep, belly breaths.

stress breathing

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Lindas bioLinda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.

Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brain’s potential.

You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.

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