We all know that moving your body is a great way to manage stress. But if you’re anything like me, exercise can be a challenge to get started and to stay motivated. I have to admit, I love how I feel while I’m exercising, but to even get to that point of actually doing it is hard sometimes.
Just keepin’ it real.
So when your body isn’t in a position to move (literally and figuratively), how can you keep the “feel good” endorphins that help you manage stress on a day-to-day basis going? It’s really easy, but before I let you in on the easy-breezy, lemon squeezy tip (which is so easy, you’ll want to slap yourself on the forehead), let me tell you a bit more about stress and how it affects your overall health and wellbeing.
Let me start by saying that stress is a natural physical & mental reaction to both good and bad experiences that can actually be beneficial to your health and safety. So if you’re alive, you’re gonna have stress on one level or the other. It’s the chronic (ongoing) stress that can cause a variety of symptoms that will affect your overall health in a negative way.
For the sake of time (and your attention).
I won’t go into deep detail regarding the various body systems and the effect stress has on them, but since I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist, I do want to talk about how stress affects your digestive system, in particular.
When you’re stressed, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. The unused blood sugar is reabsorbed by the body. But when you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge, which can put you at risk for other health problems such as metabolic syndrome (insulin sensitivity). Also, chronic unmanaged stress slows down your digestive system, causing you to not digest your food properly, resulting is possible heartburn or acid reflux. This, my friend, can lead to ulcers down the line if not put in check ASAP.
So what’s the easiest way to manage stress on a daily basis, especially when you can’t make exercise a regular part of your routine (YET!)?
Okay, I know the advice to “just breathe” when you’re stressed may sound totally cliché, but it doesn’t make it untrue by any means. This is an evidence-based tool proven by research to work, but of course it doesn’t work if you don’t do it.
Breathing is a funny thing. It’s a bodily function that’s both involuntary and voluntary, unlike digestion, for example, which occurs without conscious influence.
And since you’re breathing all the time, it’s a good chance that you haven’t even considered your breath as a tool for stress management, but let me tell you…it’s a very powerful tool!
Here are 5 science-based reasons to pay more attention to the one thing you’ll always have with you, no matter where you go (unlike your gym sneakers or yoga mat):
- Stress Management: Controlled breathing could possibly be the most potent tool you have to keep your brain out of a constant state of stress, preventing subsequent stress-related health problems.
- Anxiety Management: Controlled breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, stimulating the vagus nerve. This is the nerve responsible for controlling your heart rate, among other things. Stimulation of the vagus nerve has been shown to play a role in treating depression. Helpful if you don’t want to take (or can’t take) anti-depressant meds.
- Lowers Blood Pressure & Heart Rate: When practiced consistently, controlled breathing results in a lower blood pressure and heart rate. This results in less wear and tear on your heart and blood vessels.
- Sparks Brain Growth: Who doesn’t want a bigger brain? Controlled breathing (when used to facilitate meditation) has been shown to increase brain size. The brain experiences growth in areas associated with attention span and sensory input. Go ‘head, smarty pants!
- Change in Gene Expression: Controlled breathing can alter the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion.
That should be enough reason to pique your curiosity to get on board with using your breath in a more conscious way. But the key is how you control your breath and the consistency in which you do it over time.
Here’s what you can do for just 5 minutes daily (and anytime the stress-monster hits!):
(1)Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of 6, making sure your abdomen expands completely. (2) Hold your breath for 4 counts. (3) Exhale slowly and completely through both your nose and mouth for another 6-8 counts.
That’s it! Practice this on a regular basis and you’ll have more energy when you need it, feel more relaxed when it’s time to slow it down, and give your brain a bit of a growth spurt to boot!
Now it’s your turn: In the comments below, tell me how you manage stress on a daily basis. Can’t wait to hear from you!