Last post we defined stress and described the fight-flight response and how it leads to disease. Now that we know how stress affects the body, what can we do about it? Let’s talk more about the initiation of the stress response and how we can prevent it or and stop it in its tracks. Just to review… stress is simply the response of the body to any demand put upon it.
DEMANDS: It is important to understand that the body does not differentiate whether the demand is past or present, real or imagined, or positive or negative. For example, if you have history of past trauma and continue to re-live that trauma, the body still has the same physiologic response. If you imagine something might happen and live with that fear, the body has the same physiologic stress response. Even positive stress such as birth of a child or marriage is a stressful event and the body’s response is the same.
The demands can be broken up into 2 components:
• Circumstances: Examples of circumstances include financial problems, job stress, divorce, a dysfunctional relationship, or death of a family member. Whether we admit it or not, we often have more control over our circumstances than we wish to admit. Obviously, we don’t have control over all circumstances (ex: death of a family member) but many of them we can control. Many financial problems stem from our propensity to live outside of our means. Solving financial problems may require some big decisions such as down-sizing a home, selling “toys” or eliminating non-essentials (such as cable or smart phone services), changing jobs, etc… Solving job stressors may require having a difficult talk with a boss or changing jobs.. Some circumstances we can’t change and the key to controlling stress in these situations is to work on our attitude (see thoughts and emotions below). This quote says it better than I can say it…
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” ~Maya Angelou
• Other People: the sooner we accept the fact that we can’t change other people, the sooner we will eliminate, or at least reduce, the stress that comes from other people. Let’s face it, we interact with people who are manipulative, negative, rude, mean, or even abusive. Take a look at the people around you. Surround yourself with people who are positive and build you up. And more importantly, make sure that you are positive and build other people up. Sometimes that is enough to change their attitudes.
The response can also be broken down into 2 components:
• Our thoughts and emotions: This is the major underlying factor when it comes to stress. The connection between thoughts and emotion is a complicated one. For the purpose of this blog and the stress response, we will simplify it. Consider your thoughts the words that go through your mind in relation to the world, the self-talk that goes on in your head. Every thought is usually linked to an emotion or a feeling. Feelings lead to a physiological response that starts in in the brain then affects the rest of the body. Interestingly, certain emotions have been linked to specific diseases, for example:
• Anger – hypertension/heart disease
• Unforgiveness/resentment – Autoimmune disease
• Anxiety – Irritable bowel syndrome, panic attacks, mitral valve prolapse
• Repressed anger – headaches, chronic back pain, TMJ
I don’t think this is such a surprise if feelings cause a change in brain chemicals and the brain controls the endocrine system which controls various systems of the body. So how can we control our feelings… simply by changing our thoughts. Although I say this is simple, I did not say it is easy. More about thoughts in the next blog.
• The body’s physiologic response: we went into detail about the specifics of the fight-flight response in the last blog (How stress is killing us). So do we have any control over the physiologic response besides through thoughts and emotions? Most of the fight-flight response is not under conscious control; however, there is one link to the autonomic response. What is the only automatic body function that we have conscious control over….? Although we don’t have to think in order to breathe, we do have conscious control over it. For example, we can hold our breath for a limited amount of time and change our rate or depth of breathing. Breath is a powerful way to control the stress response.
Doing this exercise regularly can reduce the physiologic effects of stress.
The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise
This exercise is simple, takes very little time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.