The other day I was at an acupuncture appointment and was struck by how good it felt to simply lie down on the table, to just stop and let my body relax. It made such a difference and the acupuncturist hadn't even begun my session! Again and again, I'm amazed by our culture's obsession with how much we can do, and how quickly we can get it all done. It's not only stressing us out, but it's affecting our health on every level. From heart disease and hypothyroidism to Type 2 diabetes and plain old fatigue, stress can play a huge role in disease.
More and more healthcare practitioners are encouraging patients to slow down, hit the "pause" button, or to have a little fun because these breaks are essential to good health. Taking a moment to pause can change heart rhythms, relax muscles, and improve immunity, to name a few benefits. What I find so amazing is that the body can and will respond favorably to the moments we find in life to pause. Taking a deep breath, stopping to listen to a favorite song, or just lying flat on the floor to check in with your body are all ways to send your mind and body the message to restore. And I promise these moments will pay off for your health and wellness.
The Health Implications Of Stress
I'm pleased that science is now supporting the idea that stress is at the root of many health issues. Along with poor nutrition and environmental toxins, our own perceived stress can set off a cascade of events in the body. Perceived stress begins in the brain. When a potential threat is identified, two regions of the brain known as the amygdala and the cerebral cortex can send a message to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus that it is time to mobilize energy for action. The hypothalamus acts on the pituitary gland through something called the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis to ready the body for "fight or flight." Here is where our muscles begin to tense, our heart rate goes up, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and two tiny glands, known as the adrenal glands, begin to pump out stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in preparation for a crisis.
This system works well when we are in real physical danger, but we evolved to handle stress in small doses and to spend the rest of the time restoring. Our fast-paced modern lives seem to dole out stress from nine to five and beyond, which can eventually lead to real health consequences in the body. Here are a few of the health implications of chronic stress:
- Thyroid imbalance
- Damage to the hippocampus, which leads to learning and memory issues
- Insulin resistance and blood sugar imbalances
- Compromised immune system
- Hormonal imbalance
The good news is that we have the power to turn off our stress response. And when we do, the whole body responds positively. Our breathing becomes deeper, our blood is better oxygenated, our muscles are relaxed, our heart rate slows down, the immune system is more equipped to fight off infection, and the adrenal glands can tend to other responsibilities, like balancing blood sugar, regulating blood pressure and assisting in hormonal balance. (For more detailed information on the adrenal glands, please see my articles on adrenal health.) Taking those moments to pause in life has huge implications in the body -- and it's not as difficult as you might think.
Five Quick Tips For Moderating Stress
From what I've seen in my practice and learned in my own life, many of our patterns for stress stem from past relationships, family dynamics, and even genetics. It takes dedication to unwind these patterns, but as you work through the larger issues, take care of yourself by eating whole, fresh foods, getting regular exercise and checking in with your body daily by using some of the following techniques. These are all things you can do easily, and they don't cost you anything (except some of your precious time!):
- Breathe through your nose. Breathing through your nose engages the parasympathetic nervous system -- the part of our nervous system known to be active during "resting and digesting." Deep breathing into the abdomen causes negative pressure in the chest cavity, allowing the lungs to fill up with air, which then improves blood flow to the chest and heart, increases lymph flow, improves immunity and paves the way for relaxation throughout the body. Studies have shown us that practices that involve breath work like meditation and relaxation can be associated with lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, less stress and slower rates of aging.
- Put your hand on your heart. The nerve cells around the heart can become activated during stressful situations. The simple act of placing your hand gently on your heart sends a calming message to these cells. Take two minutes while doing this, and breathe in and then out slowly. Think about a person who loves you, a favorite place or a happy memory as you breathe slowly.
- Practice awareness. Try not to judge yourself or your actions. Simply become aware of what you are feeling and how those feelings change in different circumstances. Don't worry about changing or fixing things right away. Even though we know our lives are too chaotic and we need support, this can often elicit more stress.
- Spend time with friends. Research has shown us that people in loving, supportive social networks have much better health outcomes than those who feel isolated. Reach out to your friends who make you feel good and enjoy an afternoon or a night out connecting with that person.
- Listen to music. For many of us, music can be a great tool to help us calm down. Find some music that you like, and take at least five minutes to listen to it.
Take Your Time
I have a friend who rushes out to the mailbox to retrieve her mail and then rips it open impatiently. We laughed the other day about this and thought maybe she could walk slowly to the mailbox, breathe while getting there, maybe look at the trees and sky, too. It's not like the contents of the mail are going to change before she gets there! There is always reason to rush through things, always something to tend to in life, and we could work until the wee hours of the morning and still never get it all done. It took me years to understand that, but my life has changed profoundly since I have.
In the end, is anyone going to say, "I wish I'd worked more"? I honestly don't think so. Take time to breathe, to enjoy a laugh or a moment with friends and family and take in the beauty of nature and the richness of slowing down. Your body will thank you.
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