Breathwork for stress relief

Deep breathing is the easiest and most effective way to reduce stress.

Stress begins in the mind and has ramifications throughout the body. The stress response increases heart rate and blood pressure, releases hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol), diverts blood flow from nonessential functions (like digestion) to the muscles to prepare for “fight or flight,” and makes breathing rapid and shallow. We may not be able to directly control heart rate, blood pressure, hormone release, or where our blood is channeled. But we can control our breathing. It’s the only function we do either completely consciously or completely unconsciously. It’s the one area of overlap, because two different sets of muscles and nerves control voluntary and involuntary breathing.

The mind and the body are connected. How we breathe both reflects the state of the nervous system and influences the state of the nervous system. It is impossible to feel stressed when your breathing is regular and slow. Deep breathing is the easiest and most effective way to reduce stress.

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The Relaxation Response

The stress response protects us; it is a physiological chain of events that prepares us to either run or fight in the face of danger. It activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases respiration, heart rate, serum cholesterol, blood pressure, blood flow to the muscles, and metabolism. However, there is a problem: lifestyles today present almost constant hassles that trigger the stress response, but the fight or flight options are no longer appropriate in many situations. Can you run from or fight with a deadline at work? Or a few hundred emails? Or a hectic family schedule? We get little or no time to relax and restore ourselves.

Over the long term, chronic low level stress is harmful. In fact, Lazarus, DeLongis and other researchers determined that life’s everyday hassles do more harm than major life changes. The stress response seems to have backfired.

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Stress – is it all in your head?

Stress can affect your mind, your body, your emotions, and your spirit. But it starts in your head. It starts with the perception of a threat. That perception may be conscious or unconscious; the threat may be real or imagined, large or small. But the event (called the stressor) triggers a cascade of events known as the stress response (commonly called the “fight-or-flight” response).

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The Signs and Syptoms of Stress

The “fight-or-flight” reaction to stress results in easily recognized physical responses: a faster heart beat; rapid, shallow breathing; increased perspiration. However, the signs of chronic, long-term stress are more subtle and harder to recognize. Stress affects us systemically – which is to say, all over. So, over time, effects may found in any part of the body. Each person has his own level of stress that can be tolerated and once that threshold is reached, continuing stress may cause a breakdown in body functioning.

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Just What is Stress, Anyway?

Estimates vary, but somewhere between 75 and 90% of all visits to primary care physicians in America are due to stress-related conditions. Stress has been implicated as a factor in stroke, heart attack, heart disease, and a host of other problems.

Even so, the “experts” have no clear, agreed-upon definition of stress. That’s because stress is a highly personal thing. Some people can take more of it than others; some people even seem to thrive on it! And stress is important in our lives, not only as a signal of possible impending danger but also because it’s stress that provides excitement and joy in living. There is bad stress (distress) and there is good stress (eustress). So  you don’t want to  rid yourself of stress – you want to manage it.

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