Take a Deep Breath…and Relax

I admit it! These articles on stress management have made me…well, STRESSED! Let me explain.

You recall over the last several months, I highlighted many of the Six Pillars of Lifestyle Medicine. Remember, Lifestyle medicine is the use of evidenced-based, lifestyle therapeutic approaches, such as a predominantly whole food, plant-based diet, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substance use and other non-drug modalities to treat, oftentimes, reverse and prevent lifestyle-related chronic diseases that are all too prevalent in society.

As a Lifestyle Medicine Health Coach, I’m well aware that managing stress can lead to improved health and productivity. However, unmanaged stress can lead to anxiety, depression, obesity, immune dysfunction and more. 

Over the course of my life, I have purposefully built-in evidence-based, stress management techniques that have worked for me. For example, I work-out religiously a minimum of 90 minutes each morning because this has been shown to reduce stress through-out the day. I’m on a regular sleep schedule, early to bed and early to rise (I’m still waiting for the wealthy and wise!). And, at the end of the day, I like to take a leisure walk and/or practice yoga poses (stretching) while on the floor with my two “Baby Angels” (my fur-babies) at my side. (Did you know that your pets help you to relax, de-stress and improve heart rate?)

I have my daily routine down to a science, but lately it hasn’t done the trick quite so well. Recently, I’ve been dealing with important issues that cause undue stress. Do you ever wait endlessly on the phone to speak to a real person? I’ve had this experience quite often lately, and these 45-60minute waits have been killing me. They are sending my stress levels up terribly. Picture this, waiting 45 minutes for a human voice to answer the line, only to be told that he/she cannot help you but will transfer you to another person. Of course, Murphy’s Law occurs during the transfer and you get disconnected, or you experience multiple transfers with more waiting time attached! In desperation to resolve the issue, you often must begin the process again. This has happened to me on multiple occasions these last few weeks and, admittedly, my stress levels have been in overdrive. 

Then there is technology! I acknowledge that I’m a Baby Boomer and was not born with a computer chip in my head or a smart phone in my hand. As a Boomer, I don’t know the ins and outs of technology like 99.9% of my Millennial counterparts. When I’m having technology issues in my home office, it is major stress. When it continues for weeks, it is much like a simmering volcano about to erupt.

Although in isolation these events may sound minor, repetitively, over time they can lead to frustration and stress. In order to better manage my stress levels, I am learning to recognize my elevated stress level and then identify and implement coping mechanisms. (And yes, I’ve apologized to my dear, sweet husband for having to listen to my rants).

Managing Stress

Stress management (SM) is not an “on-and-off switch” that is easy to flip. In my review of the stress management literature the need for practice, practice, practice is very clear and centers around three main categories of relaxation/SM techniques.  These techniques include deep breathing, meditation and visualization. You will notice that all of these techniques begin with deep breathing. Whenever possible, practice your deep breathing, for example, when you prepare your morning coffee or wash dishes. The more you practice the more proficient you will become at avoiding and managing stressful situations. 

Deep breathing: You may not have noticed, but when you get anxious or stressed, your breathing quickens. In the moment, you heart rate increases and muscles begin to tighten. When we practice deep breathing, our goal is relaxation. To begin, sit in a reclined position with your eyes closed. Inhale through your nose and fill your abdomen with air. Hold that position for several seconds and slowly exhale. Practice this 10-15 minutes each day.

There are several variations to deep breathing including: Box Breathing (a.k.a., Navy Seal/tactical breathing); 4-7-8 Breathing; Alternate-Nostril Breathing; and, Belly Breathing. Try all four of these deep breathing techniques and see which one is right for you. Practice on a daily basis and see how your stress and anxiety will soon melt away. For all of you who are tech-lovers, try the Paced Breathing app, which touts various breathing techniques for improved relaxation and sleep.

Meditation: Begin your meditative practice in a comfortable position, seated with your legs uncrossed and your eyes closed. Take a deep breath in (see previous deep breathing recommendations) and slowly exhale. When you exhale, say the word “one” (or another short mantra such as “uhm”) silently to yourself. Repeat this process for at least 10 minutes. If you find your mind wondering, go back to the word “one” and try to refocus your attention on your breathing. Meditation variations include: Basic Meditation; Focused Meditation; Activity-Oriented Meditation; Mindfulness Meditation; and, Spiritual Meditation. Visit Smiling Mind to learn about its mindfulness meditation app that is appropriate for children and adults. It also has activities that parents and children can do together. Its purpose to is achieve better mental health and balance.

Visualization: Also known as “going to your happy place,” visualization helps you to imagine a scene, place or situation that you regard as safe, restful and happy. Begin in a comfortable position; breath in gently through your nose with your eyes closed. Picture in your mind a place you enjoy, such as, the beach, mountains, or waterfalls. Practice your deep breathing technique and slowly visualize the surroundings. Use all of your senses and be mindful of your body releasing its tension. For example, if you visualize the beach, smell the aromas; feel the heat of the sun on your forehead; hear the sound of the waves crashing on the shore; and, feel the sand beneath your feet or the coolness of the ocean. See the puffy-white clouds floating in the sky and feel your body relax. There are several forms of guided visualization based on your personal goals. For all smart-phone lovers, try EnVision app for on-demand visualization assistance.

Our PhytoFit deep-dive into stress management has revealed the health consequences of ongoing chronic stress in “What Doesn’t Kill Us, Makes Us Stronger…Well, Maybe.” Today, we have read about three different techniques we need to practice to empower ourselves to better handle stress. Each of these begins with deep breathing—the first technique to master.

Is that it? Of course not! The next PhytoFit newsletter will provide you with delicious ways to “Eat to Beat Stress.”  Until then, take a deep breath and relax.