So many things in our modern urban lifestyle contribute to stress and tension that it can actually increase our stress levels by just thinking about what we need to do – in addition to already overfull schedules – in order to maintain our health and a reasonable quality of life. Stress is a part of life, even necessary for a healthy life. Without some stress we would not build strong bone, and we would very likely be bored with a life of no challenges or goals. And yet, for most Americans today, the high levels of stress that is meant to help us meet emergencies is remaining at chronically high levels, where we never really return to normal, and abnormally high levels of the stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine persist until our body begins to break down.
In 2010 The American Psychological Association released a survey which found that nearly 75% of Americans have stress levels that are high enough for long enough that they believe that the stress they are experiencing is making them unhealthy.
Unfortunately, they are not imagining the threat to health. Long-term stress, even at relatively low-levels, can lead to health risks such as high blood pressure, elevated heart rate and muscle tension.
As a massage therapist, I find that the two most common complaints that I am asked to address are low back pain and pain across the neck, shoulders and upper back. Both of these tension patterns can be a result of stress. Pain and tension are involved with the upper back muscles, which are the classic “fight or flight” muscles and are receptors for stress hormones. Low back pain is often a result in tension in the gluteal muscles which along with the abdominal and core muscles support the low back. Again, the gluteal muscles are “fight or flight” receptors for stress hormones. Pain is a significant stressor, with the accompanying elevation of stress hormones. The elevated pain level simply contributes to yet higher levels of stress.
Medical researchers tell us that most people are breathing very shallow, using only a small portion of the lungs and failing to fully oxygenate our body. Typically, most of us are taking very small sips of air and getting a minimum of oxygen in our body. Just what is it that are we doing during the course of the day, such that we develop a habit of shallow breathing?
A major contributor to developing the habit of shallow breathing is a sedentary lifestyle where we spend the day sitting with bad posture. Our body tends to follow our eyes, so while driving or working at a computer, we will tend to increasingly lean forward, craning the neck at an unnatural angle with the head extended from the shoulders.
Tension in the neck, shoulders and back causes the shoulders to round forward and hunch up, constricting the upper chest muscles and using intercostal muscles of the ribs to breathe, instead of the diaphragm. As a result, the diaphragm becomes weakened, which further compounds the problem. The unnatural head angle strains the neck muscles, leading to pain from chronic tension. Together, the effect is to compress the upper torso and interfere with deep breathing.
What we now have is a classic self-perpetuating cycle of stress, tension, shallow breathing and pain leading to yet more stress. This is what scientists call a positive feedback mechanism. In order to escape the downward spiral, we need to get at the cause, not merely mask the symptoms.
We know that stress can lead to shallow breathing, or even hyperventilation. But the opposite mechanism also occurs, which gives us a clue as to how to break the cycle. How does shallow breathing contribute to elevated stress levels? The oxygen deprivation heightens the stress response, further adding to the cascade of anxiety, tension and pain. Each part of the chain of events increases the total effect, which then continues in a chronic cycle of escalating stress levels. When a critical threshold is reached, the individual may experience a panic attack.
There are any number of triggers to consider in order to eliminate the causes of chronic elevated stress response. A stress response may be triggered by toxins in the environment, poor nutrition from a diet of industrial foods, Trans fats, allergies, refined flour and sugar, and/or too much caffeinated drinks (including soft drinks, which have the double whammy of caffeine and lots of sugar). Lack of sleep or an overloaded schedule are stressors, as are performance pressures and relationship problems.
My teacher always reviews lifestyle choices with her clients that she treats for stress, anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome and other autoimmune disorders. For many, cognitive therapy has been a great help in making better choices in order to reduce unreasonable stress that leads to anxiety and depression.
In addition, there is a simple way to address stress on a daily basis. It is very easy, and involves doing something that we have to do any way – breathe. My favorite remedy is so simple and costs nothing. We simply practice any of several exercises that strengthen our breathing while at the same time reducing stress levels. These simple breathing exercises are one of the best ways to deal with stress; they can be done anywhere and anytime, and are completely safe. I frequently suggest these simple breathing exercises to my clients who suffer from stress and pain from muscle tension.
Breathing is something that we are going to do anyway; might as well do it right! Here are a few exercises on how to breathe to relax and reduce stress. The first exercise that we may want to consider is called Belly Breathing. We learned this in Qi Gong practice, breathing deeply from the abdomen to invigorate the whole body and strengthen the breathing
A favorite practice that I like and recommend to my clients for relaxation: three breathing exercises recommended by Dr. Anthony Weil. The Bellows Breathing is very similar to Belly Breathing; the Breath Counting practice is very much like what your Grandmother may have recommended – the classic “count to ten” & breathe if you are upset by someone’s behavior.
I especially like Dr. Weil’s “Relaxing Breath” exercise, or what he calls the 4-7-8 exercise. There is a good demonstration of this exercise on Dr. Weil’s website here.
To summarize, here are the “fantastic four” that I recommend as a path to avoid going overboard with stress:
First: Eliminate stressful (non)foods and rethink your lifestyle choices.
Second: Are you being reasonable and fair to yourself as to what you expect? Are you spending your life energy chasing wants that are driven by advertising and social norms, or are you meeting your true needs?
Third: Correct your posture; if you aren’t already, invest in yourself by keeping physically fit so your body has good circulation and you can work off the day’s tensions. A daily walk in nature does the trick; it needn’t be a hard gym workout if that isn’t your thing.
This article is about what has worked for me, but I’d love to hear from you! What works best for you to help relax and beat stress? I would love to hear from you in the Comments section below.
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