The body responds to physical, mental, or emotional pressure by releasing stress hormones (such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) that increase blood pressure, speed heart rate, and raise blood sugar levels. These changes help a person act with greater strength and speed to escape a perceived threat.
Research has shown that people who experience intense and long-term (i.e., chronic) stress can have digestive problems, fertility problems, urinary problems, and a weakened immune system. People who experience chronic stress are also more prone to viral infections such as the flu or common cold and to have headaches, sleep trouble, depression, and anxiety.
The National Cancer Institute says that, while there is still no strong evidence that stress directly affects cancer outcomes, some data do suggest that patients can develop a sense of helplessness or hopelessness when stress becomes overwhelming. This response is associated with higher rates of death, although the mechanism for this outcome is unclear. It may be that people who feel helpless or hopeless do not seek treatment when they become ill, give up prematurely on or fail to adhere to potentially helpful therapy, engage in risky behaviors such as drug use, or do not maintain a healthy lifestyle, resulting in premature death.
How do we counteract the stress hormones? One way is through deep breathing.
Mladen Golubic, a physician in the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine, says that breathing can have a profound impact on our physiology and our health.
“You can influence asthma; you can influence chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; you can influence heart failure,” Golubic says. “There are studies that show that people who practice breathing exercises and have those conditions — they benefit.” (source: NPR 12/6/10)
-> Inhale diaphragmatically through your nose, with your glottis partially closed, like almost making a “Hhhhh” sound* for a count of 7
-> Hold your breath for a moment
-> Exhale through your nose (or you mouth), with your glottis partially closed, like almost making a “Hhhhh” sound for a count of 11
This is one breath cycle; go for 6 – 12 cycles and observe the results. (source: Eiriu-Eolas 6/21/13)
Practicing this breathing technique creates a habit of breathing in such a way that your vagus nerve is stimulated, which will slow your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure. (source: Psychology Today 2/2/13)
Some additional reading:
Wake Up Your Vagus Nerve and Heal Your Body
Breath Retraining, the Vagus Nerve, and Depression
Breathe Deeply to Activate Vagus Nerve
The Vagus Nerve – its many roles and functions
I will be posting about stress on Wednesdays, with at least one tip or tool each week. I’d love to hear from you about how the offerings are working for you!
* – It is that feeling you have in your throat while you exhale and make a “Hhhhh” sound in order to clean your glasses, but without actually making the sound. It also resembles the way you breathe when you are in the verge of sleep and you are about to snore a little bit.