The research is clear — chronic stress damages our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
One of the most interesting lines of study, including research that was released just this week, reveal how feelings of stress, anxiety or depression are linked to inflammation and metabolic changes in the body. To put it simply, those thoughts and feelings trigger reactions in the body that increase inflammation, raise blood sugar, and turn energy into fat. It appears that our high stress culture is making us fatter and sicker!
Given that metabolic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (which is a combination of risk factors including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol and abdominal fat) are on the rise, it is critical that we find effective ways to address them.
One of the simplest ways is to have a regular relaxation practice.
I'm not talking about sitting on the couch, watching Netflix while enjoying snacks and an adult beverage of your choice (although that has its place).
A relaxation practice is one that intentionally stimulates the calming part of your nervous system (i.e. the parasympathetic nervous system) and activates what has been called "The Relaxation Response". The relaxation response counters the "fight-or-flight" reaction that is all-too-frequently stimulated in our busy world. Because this response lowers heart rate and blood pressure and allows the digestive system to function more effectively, the parasympathetic nervous system has also been called the "rest and digest" system.
Stimulating the relaxation response effectively can be done a number of ways, but the simplest and easiest way is simply to breathe deeply.
While that may sound too good to be true, there is a powerful reason that deep breathing is so effective. Breathing activates the vagus nerve, the center of the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve affects nearly all of the major organs in our bodies, and activating it affects a host of mind-body processes.
Here are three simple breathing exercises that you can do anywhere to counteract the stress in your life.
- Slow Deep Belly Breaths — Breathe in and out slowly and evenly- counting to five for the inhalation and five for the exhalation. Breathe in through your nose, allowing your belly to expand, and out through pursed lips. This simple practice can be done anywhere, and is a great "in-the-moment" practice when you encounter a stressful situation (like being stuck in traffic).
- Humming Breaths — Breathe in slowly, then breathe out while humming, making your exhalation longer than your inhalation. Because your vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords, the vibration from the humming activates it.
- Breath Prayers — With each deep breath say or think a short phrase that creates a pleasant emotion. Examples could be a phrase like "Grant us peace", "Thank you", or "May we be well" - or even a single word like "One" or "Om". Research has found that rhythmic prayers such as reciting the rosary or yoga mantras stimulate the vagus nerve. A landmark study in 2013 found that people who practiced lovingkindness meditation also increased vagal tone. While it isn't exactly clear how this works yet, it is exciting that these spiritual practices have a measurable physiological effect. Breath prayers combine the power of breath with the power of positive emotion.
To learn more about the vagus nerve and its role in mind-body connection, check out this video by Berkeley psychologist, Dacher Keltner:
What about you? Which of these ancient practices are you using to reduce stress, and what have you learned? Please share your wisdom in the comments below.
And remember to BREATHE! (Your metabolism will thank you...)
For more ways to reduce inflammation in your body, check out this article: Five Ways to Turn down the Heat