God created our brains to help us survive in our world. Whether it’s a real threat (a bear outside your tent on a camping trip) or a perceived one (a board member or boss who acts like a bear), a part of our nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), engages the stress response. It’s that fight-flight feeling. Essentially, the body prepares to fight or flee the source of danger by shutting down or slowing non-essential body functions to send blood and energy to vital parts of our body. In this post I explain a science-based practice that can help reduce the effects of stress on your body.
A simple practice that reduces stress
The stress response also activates other body responses. It releases chemicals in your body and brain to provide extra energy and focus if you need to fight or flee, slows digestion and saliva production, increases heart rate, dilates our eyes, and sends blood to our muscles.
Aside from running away from the bear or shooting it (you’d need a permit in most places), what can we do to quiet this stress response in our day-to-day experience?
Deep breathing from your diaphragm helps.
It has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, decrease lactic acid buildup in your muscles (which causes cramping and fatigue), and make us calmer.
From a body perspective, deep breathing activates a nerve called the vagal nerve that travels from the back of your brain to your belly, tongue, heart, lungs and intestines. It’s an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the SNS’s counterpart. In contrast to fight-flight, it’s rest-digest and controls the relaxation response.
Think of the SNS as a car’s accelerator and the PNS as a car’s brake.
When you activate your vagal nerve, it releases feel-good neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine and dampens the stress response. So, when you’re stressed, you want your brain to release those chemicals. Here’s how deep breathing can engage your vagal nerve and dampen your stress response.
- Know your body. Look for signals that it’s under stress. Some people get a dry mouth. Shoulders tighten for others. For some, their hands shake. Others experience stomach problems. Some breath faster and from their chest. Listen to your body on a regular basis to ‘catch’ your stress.
- Remember that breathing from your diaphragm is key. It’s called belly breathing. You can put one hand on your chest and one on your belly to experience the difference. If you are breathing from your diaphragm, your belly should move more than your upper chest, although your chest will also expand some.
- When you know you are under stress, get away to a quiet private place and sit down if you can. In a pinch, a bathroom stall even works. The Bible often talks about the value of stillness and quietness (see Psalm 46.10).
- Breathe in deeply through your nose while you count to 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Breath out through your mouth with a whooshing sound as you count to 8.
- Repeat the 4-7-8 breathing 4 times. You’ll find that this takes only a minute.
- Practice this every day, not just when you feel stressed.
Stress does not have to control you. You can control it with this simple breathing technique. Your body and brain will be glad you did.
What has helped you deal with stress?