When I originally started writing this post I noticed it was quickly and unintentionally turning into a physiology lesson. I tend to get pretty excited when I start learning about new ways to understand old problems however the content was getting more and more nerdier as I went along. So, I decided to scrap it and start over. When I take a step back and look at the common theme of the day today it all comes down to self care.
The Surgeon General has reported that of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States, 7 could be greatly reduced if the following lifestyle habits were modified: poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol use and maladaptive response to stress and tension. For the most part that is not surprising. What was surprising is out of all of those risk factors stress seemed to be the strongest predictor of heart disease. It has been estimated that 75-90% of visits to primary care doctors are secondary to stress. That seems a little high but it depends on how you look at it. The migraine you are having… commonly related to stress. Your irritable bowel symptoms… exacerbated by stress. That cold you came down with… likely from a weakened immune system secondary to, you guessed it, stress.
I am the first to admit that life can be pretty stressful these days and just telling someone to “reduce your stress” isn’t always practical information. Although you can’t eliminate all stress (and some stress is even beneficial) you can change how you handle stress. Hans Selye, who is considered a pioneer in understanding the stress response, defines stress as a state one experiences when there is a mismatch between perceived demands and our perceived ability to cope. What this tells us is that if we can change our perception we can change the way stress effects our bodies.
There are lots of things you can do to relive stress and instead of giving you a long laundry list I am going to teach you something you can do anytime, anywhere that can decrease the stress response right in its tracks. It is called the 4-7-8 breath and it was taught to me by Dr. Andrew Weil. To start, place your tongue just behind your top front teeth and keep it there for the duration of the exercise. Next, take a deep breath in through your nose over the count of 4 and hold it for a count of 7. Then, exhale through your mouth for a count of 8 and focus on getting as much air out of your lungs as possible. Complete a total of 3-4 cycles and you will likely be surprised how your “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous systems calms down and your “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system takes over. The more you practice this exercise the stronger its potential effect will be.
Give it a try and let me know how it works in the comments below