March 16, 2011

Knock Knock, Stress is at your Door. ~ Alexandra Simpson


Stress greets us in many different forms, and it doesn’t necessarily wipe its feet off at the front door.

An exam might be stressful for a student, but once the test is over, the student is a free man. A public speech might be stressful for a speaker; the pressure might linger for weeks. A woman loses her job, and this kind of stress could last longer than six months in today’s economy.

The American Academy of Family Physicians explains that stress’ causes emerge from “the body’s instinct to defend itself.”  While stress is subjective, often described and triggered by a plethora of emotions, circumstances and situations, there are physical signs a stressed-out body reveals:

I know when I become stressed, I clench my jaw and then become stunted with a day-long headache that is rarely soothed with medicine—probably because my jaw is still clenched, defending itself against the stress that pain killers don’t cure.

Certainly, long-term stress can damage the body.  Evidence is widely-distributed across many renown and reliable sources: Web MD, for example, says “over time, stress can affect your immune system, heart [such as high blood pressure], stomach [such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome], reproductive organs, lungs, and skin.”  Quite the list, I know.

Stress is something that is hard to conquer, too. It’s a natural reaction to difficult situations or even smaller tasks that simply add up or amount to stress. It shows up and can stick around for too long. Not only does it infect our physical body, but it shows its presence at night when we are trying to sleep, on our dinner plate when we just can’t seem to take a bite; it shows up in our voice, in our personality, in our thoughts and thus, can impact relationships with ourselves, family, and friends. I’m irritable because I’m stressed. I’m sorry, I’m just stressed out. I can’t help you right now, I’m too stressed out. We can get a little punchy.

It’s important to take a break from the busy day to collect and rejuvenate ourselves. Everyone has their go-to’s at the end of a stressful day—a good book, a hot bath, a quick run, a piece of chocolate cake. These tricks work to make some feel better. However, these temporary fixes don’t always help to make people healthier.  Someone’s body may feel strong after a run, but their mind might still be on the racetrack. Likewise, a good book might put someone in some fairytale trance, but their body might still feel exhausted. The optimal solution for stress-related problems is to broaden the scope of healing one’s whole self: body, mind, and spirit. One natural way to help relieve stress is to focus on your breath and practice what’s called, deep breathing.


Studies show that breathing properly is crucial to an individua’ls health. In fact, how you breathe may explain your mental state. For example, quick, shallow breaths may indicate one feels anxious or stressed. Most often, people don’t think about how they breathe, though it is a constant activity. Many breathe inefficiently; people breathe through their mouths, using their chests rather than their diaphragms. However, if attentive, people can become aware of the natural medical benefits of thoughtful breath. Pranayama is a breathing exercise used in the ancient practice of yoga that promotes proper breathing; it is most commonly translated as “the science of the breath.” One can transcend the physical and psychological challenges of stress and hypertension by integrating controlled, deep breathing into one’s daily routine.

Consider respiration. Respiration is one of the most important functions of the body—that should come as no surprise. Oxygen plays a key role in metabolism. Without it, bodies cannot efficiently burn food or generate energy. Thus, the rhythm and rate of breathing not only reflects one’s physical condition but will also help to create a better physical condition.

Breathing is also a unique physiological function as it is both a voluntary and automatic act. By modifying one’s breathing, taking slower, deeper breaths one has an ability to help control the nervous system. Ultimately, breathing slowly can induce a state of calmness. By using one’s chest when breathing, breaths become shallow and rapid. Chest breathing doesn’t fully expand the lungs and leaves static air in parts of the lungs. Expanding only parts of the lungs increases the likelihood of poor blood circulation, which impairs the functioning of organs.

The cardiovascular system is closely related to how efficiently one breathes. Essential hypertension (high blood pressure of unknown cause) has been shown to respond favorably to a daily regimen of diaphragmatic breathing. Other problems such as headaches and migraines will also benefit from deep breathing. Although breathing from one’s diaphragm is easy to do, the habit of doing it must be consciously cultivated before it can become automatic.

With this in mind, try to help your stress. It might leave mud tracks around the entire house and while you can ignore the dirt for days, it will be there, and it will return. Cultivate equanimity with the calming force of your breath.

How to do Pranayama

  1. On the floor, sit in a comfortable position. Often, people will sit with cross legs. You might even sit on a few blankets for padding. To adjust your posture, you want to sit up straight, as if a cord is pulling you up from the crown of your head. Your spine should be erect, as straight as it can be. The back of your head should be just over your spinal alignment. Place your hands on your knees and relax.
  2. Close your eyes and try to feel your body in this new position. Relax your breath and listen to it.
  3. Lengthen your inhalation and exhalation so that is smooth and continuous.
  4. It’s important to know how to breathe properly. When you breathe, it is important to use your diaphragm.
  5. Inhale through the nose and use your abdomen to bring air into your lungs. As you inhale, your abdomen should expand out as your diaphragm moves down, and then let your chest expand.
  6. Retain air. This is when you deliberately stop your flow of air in the lungs. Pause and try not to move your lungs or any other part of your body.
  7. Exhale through your mouth, relaxing your abdomen or gently pulling it in and then letting your chest fall naturally.

Alexandra Simpson is a writer/editor for Saagara, a digital health and wellness company located in Ann Arbor, MI.  You may read her blog at saagara.com/blog.

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