Fight Off Stress and Anxiety
If you’re having recurring headaches, frequent panic attacks, and difficulty breathing, you may wonder if you are getting sick. There’s a good possibility, however, that you are experiencing the most common symptoms of stress.
Dr. Tara Swart Bieber, a neuroscientist and medical doctor, says that intense anxiety activates the sympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that prepares the body for the “fight-or-flight” response, an automatic physiological reaction to a perceived threat or other dangerous situation. This reaction can make your heart pound, muscles tense, and cause shortness of breath. You may even start sweating.
Stress can wreak so much havoc on your body that you may believe you are developing a chronic health condition, especially when you routinely experience chest pain, fatigue, upset stomach, and other symptoms.
Not only can stress harm your body, but it can also affect your mood by causing you to feel overwhelmed, angry, irritable, restless, sad, or depressed. Health experts say some people cope with stress by turning to drug or alcohol use, smoking, overeating, or undereating.
The good news is that there are several healthy ways to manage stress and get your nervous system back on track.
In an article written for CNBC’s Make It, Dr. Bieber, author of The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain, says she uses three exercises to feel calm again, and it only takes a few minutes to do them.
1. The Mindful Sigh
We sigh numerous times a day without even realizing it. We may not realize that the long, deep, audible breath we take can effectively relieve stress if we are mindful when we do it. To perform the “mindful sigh,” Dr. Bieber says to:
• Make sure you are sitting comfortably.
• Take a long, deep inhale through your nose for five seconds and hold.
• Take another quick inhale for one second and hold for three seconds.
• Sigh a slow, long exhale through your mouth for six seconds.
• Repeat the cycle three times.
The air sacs in the lungs collapse after you inhale. The quick second inhale causes the air sacs to reinflate with air. When this happens, the surface area in the lungs increases and releases carbon dioxide from the body more efficiently. This helps to relax the body. Long exhales cause a slight increase in pressure to the receptors in the heart, signaling the brain to slow down the heart rate.
2. The Half-Salamander
A salamander is an amphibian that looks somewhat like a lizard. Dr. Bieber recommends a technique called the “half-salamander.” The technique is given this name because your eyes are moving while your head remains still, similar to the actions of a salamander.
• Sit or stand in a comfortable position with your head facing forward.
• Shift your eyes to the right without turning your head.
• Tilt your head towards your right shoulder and hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
• Bring your head back to its neutral position and shift your eyes to look forward again.
• Repeat the same steps on the left side.
This technique stimulates the vagus nerves, which control your heart rate, and triggers a relaxation response in your body.
3. The Full Salamander
This exercise is best tried at home because this requires having to get on all fours, like a salamander.
• Kneel on all fours, with your head facing down.
• Look to the left without turning your head.
• Tilt your head to the left.
• Let your left spine twist with the head tilted to the left. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
• Bring your head and spine to the center to straighten out.
• Repeat the same steps on the right side.
In addition to relaxation techniques, there are other steps you can take to manage stress, such as:
• Getting regular physical activity
• Maintaining a healthy diet
• Getting enough sleep
• Keeping a sense of humor
• Staying connected to family and friends
• Getting involved in social activities, such as those offered at senior centers, libraries, and other places in your local community
• Setting aside time to enjoy hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music
• Practicing time management. To do this requires prioritizing your time, setting realistic goals, and making a schedule that works for you. Prioritizing what is really important to you can help you feel as if you are taking more control of your life, and this will help reduce stress and anxiety.
One of the most critical steps to take in managing stress is identifying its source. Is it work-related? Family-related? Financial? Understanding the root cause of your stress can help you develop strategies to manage it.
Once you identify the source of your stress, step away, if possible. For example, you may need to take a vacation, a long walk, or a mental health day.
After identifying the source, you may discover that meeting with a professional counselor may be helpful. Remember that stress is a normal part of life, but if it becomes chronic and affects your daily life, it’s essential to take steps to manage it. By using the above strategies, including relaxation techniques, you can improve your overall well-being and reduce stress in your life.