Research shows stress is one of the six things we have control over that predict roughly 80% of the chronic illnesses we will face in life. Stress is a healthy, normal response intended to keep us safe in dangerous situations. It causes a cascade of hormonal changes that enable us to move fast and protect ourselves, like, when, say a saber-toothed tiger is chasing us through the bush. But it’s not supposed to be a sustained state, which is, unfortunately, how many people live now.
When we experience chronic stress, our body is constantly overwhelmed with high levels of the hormone cortisol, which changes our neurochemistry, increasing our risk of depression and anxiety. And—over the long term—it puts us at greater risk for heart attacks and strokes. It also lowers our ability to cope with stress, which just perpetuates the cycle.
How to break the stress cycle
Using simple techniques that tap into our parasympathetic nervous system (our rest and digest system) and relax our sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response), we can lower our stress level all the way down to the cellular level. Our heart rate decreases, our cholesterol level lowers, even the chemistry in our gut normalizes, helping us better digest food, and we can rest.
Here’s out to help your body breathe a sigh of relief and know that, everything is okay.
- Focus on your breath. When we get stressed, the first thing we do is breathe shallowly and quickly, decreasing the amount of oxygen available to our body. When you are able to take deeper, slower breaths, you allow more oxygen to flow to your brain and turn on your parasympathetic nervous system. Best of all it’s easy and available to us at any time.
Start with one of these three techniques. Start with a repetition of 10 and build from there.
- ~Belly breathing. Put your hand on your belly and feel it fill up as you breathe in and then empty as you breathe out.
- ~Equal breathing. Focus on making your inhale the same length as your exhale. You can do this by counting and work on lengthening your breaths over time.
- ~4-7-8 breathing. When you have mastered the first two and are ready for a challenge, try breathing in for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of seven, and then exhaling for eight.
- Get outside. While getting outdoors seems like a no-brainer when it comes to making you feel better, researchers in 2018, found that being in the wilderness (as opposed to city park) was the most effective in lowering stress.
The researchers measured the levels of two biomarkers for stress in the saliva of participants before and after they did an activity in a wilderness setting, an outdoor urban setting (like a park) or a built environment (city). The participants who had the greatest drop in their stress markers were those who went to the most natural environments, followed by those who were in a park, waterfront or greenway. The folks stuck in the city didn’t see much change.
There are all kinds of theories on why natural environments lower our stress including the “attention restoration theory,” which suggests that nature resets our ability to focus, to evolutionary theories that posit we relax when we can see things that are key to our survival, such as water and open spaces.
- Tune into what is happening right now. Mindfulness is a hot new buzz word, but an ancient, simple practice. It just means paying attention to whatever is happening right now, without judgment. Research shows that practicing mindfulness meditation can reduce chronic pain, be as effective in treating depression as medication, and, yes, substantially lower our stress levels.
The things that cause our stress are rarely happening at the exact moment we are feeling the stress. Usually, our anxiety and stress is focused on replaying events that have already happened or making stories about what could happen in the future. But, usually, in the present moment, we are safe and not at risk. Mindfulness teaches you how to find yourself there.
The most studied Western approach is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, an eight-week course created by Jon Kabat-Zinn and taught around the world. But there are also plenty of apps and online courses—such as Headspace, Insight Timer, and Ten Percent Happier—that offer guided meditations and courses right on your phone.
- Work it out. Movement is the original stress reliever, because the chemicals you release during stress are intended to get you moving. When you move, you’re giving your body the stress workout it’s begging for.
To get the most stress-relieving bang for your buck combine one or more of these and practice your meditation, breathing, or exercise outside.