Stress … It’s Doing My Head In

Stress ... It's doing my head in

Feeling a bit like you’ve just got too much going on at once?  Too much pressure?  Too many people making demands on your time or your peace of mind?  And feeling like you just can’t think straight, get perspective, work out where to start?

And possibly, as a result of this feeling, saying and doing things that ‘aren’t you’.  Maybe you’re normally relatively calm and organised, but at times you just feel like all this stress is ‘doing your head in’.

Well, maybe it’s not just about you.  Maybe you’re not ‘losing it’, going crazy or whatever.  In fact this is just what our brains do when we end up in the ‘stress response’ (also often known as the fight-flight response).

I personally find it quite reassuring to understand what happens when our brains flick into these particular unhelpful patterns when we are stressed.  Partly I find it helpful because I can remind myself I’m not going crazy, this is exactly how my brain is designed to operate under stress.  And that thought reminds me that focussing on actions that will help my physiology shift from ‘stressed out / freaking out’ to ‘relaxed and focussed’ is the most useful thing to do.  But I’m running ahead … first, here are some ideas that help to explain in simple terms why our minds do what they do when we are stressed.

We’re not as ‘modern’ as we think

In the same way that it is a natural reflex for our bodies to flick into ‘fight-flight’ physiology any time we perceive we are facing a threat (whether that is a real physical threat or a perceived threat, perhaps something that has us feel that our security or wellbeing is under threat) our mind can flick automatically into a ‘fight-flight’ style of thinking.   The ‘fight-flight’ reflex is a very primitive reflex which we have in common with even the most ancient animals.

Unfortunately our minds and bodies are not great at telling the difference between real, physical threats and everyday worries or anxieties.  So most of us flick into the fight-flight response without even knowing we are doing it.  We are then caught in a physiology that would equip us well for a brawl, or to survive in a dangerous world, as if we were surrounded by sabre-tooth tigers.

The ‘logical’ brain goes off-line and ‘emotion brain’ jumps into the driver’s seat

Ironically, the more ‘modern’ or highly evolved, rational, problem-solving part of our brain (the neo-cortex) is less activated when we switch into the fight-flight response, and instead the more ancient ‘emotion brain’ (limbic system) takes over the ‘driver’s seat’.  So when we are facing stressors and most need our problem-solving ability, we have least access to it if the ‘fight-flight’ response has been activated.  And you may have noticed evidence that the ‘emotion brain’ is more activated in times of greater stress – you may find yourself feeling more emotional than usual, perhaps more prone to tearfulness or more ‘short-fused’ than you would normally be, and you may find that you take things more personally than usual.

In addition, the limbic system responds in a very fast, very ‘black or white’, or ‘all or nothing’ way.   You might find that when you are feeling particularly stressed that you find yourself saying things to yourself like “This is a disaster” (as opposed to “This is quite a big setback”),  or using ‘all or nothing language’ such as “I will never be able to …”, or  “They always do this to me”.

And when I say that we see things as very ‘black or white’ I guess I’m really saying we see things as very black – we are not in a state to notice what is going well or the many good things in our lives.  We are in a negative mind-set because of the fight-flight response.  This leads to us to a bit of a ‘siege mentality’ – we can feel that we are surrounded by people who are mean and/or stupid.

Looking out for danger

When we are in ‘stress physiology’ we become ‘hypervigilant – we are on the look-out for what is wrong or what could go wrong.  This makes perfect sense given that your body and mind are acting as if you are living in a very dangerous world.  In a genuinely dangerous world, we need to be on the look-out for danger.  But our tendency to flick into this stress physiology, and the hypervigilance that goes with it when faced with every-day ongoing stress, is very unhelpful.

As you can see, we are hard-wired to think negatively when we are caught in the fight-flight response.  Another way of describing ‘hypervigilance would be to say that we are in a hyper ‘judging’ mode – we are filtering for whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and mostly when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology we are only able to see the ‘bad’) and we are paying particular attention to the size of the gap between how we perceive things to be and how we perceive they ‘should’ be or we wish they would be.

The ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ Physiology

This is the opposite to the ‘fight-flight’ physiology.  When we are relaxed, we much more easily and automatically notice the good things in our lives.  In this physiology we don’t have to give ourselves a ‘pep talk’ to think positively, we are naturally aware of the good things in our lives.  We are also much more compassionate, and much less likely to judge – either others or ourselves.  In this physiology we also have full access to our pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that can problem-solve, be rational, be creative, and get perspective on life.  Our concentration is better and our memory works better.  All-in-all this physiology has a lot going for it!

Adopting a ‘bottom up’ approach

There is growing acceptance within psychology today that we can’t easily ‘think’ or ‘work’ our way out of this dynamic.  For many people trying to be ‘rational’ in our thinking when we are caught in stress and anxiety, and trying to be ‘positive’ doesn’t work when we are trying to get out of this nasty cycle. In fact, we can end up feeling worse because we think we ‘should’ be able to ‘just be rational’ or ‘just be positive’ and try as we might, this ability eludes us.  And this leads to more self-judgment and more of that nasty vicious cycle.

Instead of trying harder to think our way out of this physiology, a more effective approach is to ‘use our bodies to change our minds’.  It is helpful to recognise that we are in the stress physiology, remind ourselves that we are hard-wired to think in this negative way when we are in the ‘stress’ physiology, and then choose to take action to change our physiology.  So give yourself a break.  Trying to stop yourself thinking in this negative way when you are in the ‘stress’ physiology is like trying to rake water up hill.  Once we take action which moves us into a more ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology, then we can ‘go upstairs’ and change the way we are thinking.

‘Bridges’ into the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology

There are many ‘bridges’ that help us to move from ‘stressed brain’ to ‘relaxed and focused brain’.    Physical exercise is really helpful, as is spending time with people who care about us or whose company helps to uplift us.  Spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation, or being in nature can also be very helpful, as can music, art or other creative activities. Play is very potent also.

But perhaps the most direct and powerful is diaphragmatic breathing.

Learning to gain greater control over your physiology through diaphragmatic breathing will pay dividends.  Imagine how much more calm, enjoyable and productive life would be if you could easily access the ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ physiology, where your brain is more efficient and you can easily get things into perspective.  So if you haven’t already, do explore the simple but powerful process of diaphragmatic breathing.  And make sure you use it as often as you need it to, to help you keep things in perspective and to prevent you from visiting that ‘it’s doing my head in’ territory that detracts so significantly from our quality of life.

Just breathe … diaphragmatically. It can change your life.

A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you): I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences:  Please add your comment/s below.

Can you relate to any of this – have you noticed some of these thought patterns when you’ve been stressed.  And have you been annoyed with yourself for being ‘so negative’ or ‘so grumpy’ but not been able to get out of that frame of mind.  Or maybe you’ve had friends who’ve given you that oh so helpful (not) advice ‘Don’t be so negative’.  I’d love to hear about your experiences of this ‘stress dynamic’.

Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.

 

 

 

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7 Ways The Fight-flight Physiology Is Detrimental To Your Health

7 Ways The Fight-flight Physiology Is Detrimental To Your Health

Understand the Fight-flight physiology and its effect on our heart rate and health

Nothing is likely to improve your quality of life more than understanding how the ‘fight-flight’ response affects your physiology, your brain and how you think and behave.  This is ‘news you can use’.

So firstly, what is the fight-flight response?

This is a very ancient response that we have in common with even the simplest animals.  It is a response that is designed to help save our lives in physically life-threatening situations.  How does it do this?  By ramping up our heart-rate, blood pressure and breathing pattern to ensure enough oxygenated blood flows to our arms and legs so we can run like crazy or fight like crazy, and live to tell the tale.  Along with these three physiological changes there are many other large and small changes that contribute to our survival. This response is designed as a very short-lived response to cope with real, life-threatening situations.  Unfortunately this response is activated whenever we sense a ‘threat’ –– whether it is a physical threat or just a worry about whatever issues are going on in our lives.  And because there are nearly always issues we can get worried about, many of us are living in a constant low, or even high- grade ‘fight-flight’ physiology.

7 Ways The ‘Fight-flight’ Physiology Is Detrimental To Your Health

Our bodies are not designed to cope with prolonged periods of ‘fight-flight’ physiological arousal.  When left unchecked, we can end up experiencing the following:

1.  When we are in an already higher than normal state of arousal in terms of the fight-flight response, with our hearts beating faster than normal, our blood-pressure elevated and our breathing faster and shallower than normal, it only takes relatively small additional stressors to lead us to feeling panicky or overwhelmed.  And potentially, when the stress level gets to a certain level we can be triggered into a full-blown panic attack, perhaps ending up in the Emergency department at the hospital feeling like we are having a heart attack or can’t breathe.

2.       When we are in the fight-flight response, a more ancient part of the brain, the Limbic system or Emotion brain becomes more highly activated and the logical, rational, creative, perspective-giving, problem-solving part of the brain becomes less activated.  Why?  We survive best in emergencies if we don’t stop to ponder, strategise or philosophise.  Instead our impulse to run or fight kicks in and takes over.  Which is perfect when we are in a physical emergency situation, but not so great when in a conflict with our boss or partner, for example.  So if you have noticed that you can’t think very clearly, or that you become more emotional than usual when you are stressed, now you know why!   And when ‘Emotion Brain’ is in the driver’s seat of our lives, we tend to make poor health choices – to grab that chocolate bar or alcohol to drown our sorrows, or to decide ‘to heck with it, why should I bother going to the gym’.

3.       Bodily functions that are not immediately needed for our survival partially close down.  This includes our digestive systems.  You don’t need to digest your most recent meal to fight the tiger.  In modern times, this may help to explain why there is a very high incidence of digestive system disorders such as heartburn or reflux and irritable bowel syndrome.  Of course things like not eating enough natural healthy foods and not getting enough exercise are also a part of this – and often these things occur because we feel too busy or stressed to fit in exercise and cook healthy meals.

4.       Our immune systems also undergo significant change during the fight-flight response.  To begin with, they become ‘ramped up’ which puts us in a good position if we were wounded in the process of fighting and fleeing.  But when we remain in the fight-flight physiology for longer periods of time than is healthy, our immune system then becomes less effective, leading to a diverse range of problems which suggest an underactive immune system (eg getting every cold or flu that is going around) or an overactive immune system (e.g. hayfever or other allergies).

5.       Our muscles tighten, ready for action when we are in the fight-flight physiology.  Whether it’s our arms and shoulders tensing, preparing us for a fight, or whether we are ‘bracing’ our core muscles, it is not good for us!  The fight-flight response is designed to be of short duration.  Our bodies are not designed to stay in this ‘stress mode’ for longer periods of time.  People often notice this effect as tight or even rock-hard shoulder muscles.  This can lead to shoulder, neck, and back pain, and in particular, to headaches.  And if you do a job that requires repetitive arm or hand movements, this creates the perfect situation to develop Occupational Overuse Syndrome.

6.       Our eyes focus in a way that changes the rate of our blinking.  This can lead to eye discomfort.

7.       And perhaps one of the most important physical effects of being chronically caught in fight-flight physiology, with high levels of circulating stress chemicals (e.g. adrenalin and cortisol), a racing heart and fast breathing is that it is very difficult to get good quality, refreshing sleep.  And poor quality sleep makes every aspect of life harder to cope with, which increases our stress, which makes it harder to sleep …  And given that sleep is when healing occurs – both physical healing and refreshing our brains – this further impacts on our health.

And these are just the most obvious physical affects.  The affects of the fight-flight response on our mood and thinking patterns also take a heavy toll.

If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have looked after myself better…

You may be thinking, well, I know I’m stressed, but none of these apply to me.  YET.  I would suggest that if you experience a relatively high level of stress and have done so for a relatively long period, and do not have effective ways of lowering your base-line of arousal or stress each day, then it is a matter of YET.  Our bodies are a bit like Planet Earth.  For decades the human occupants have been burning fossil fuels, pouring toxic waste into the air or soil, felling large forests, over-fishing and de-spoiling the oceans and waterways etc.  And for a long time we had almost no awareness of the consequences of this.  Until relatively recently.  And now we are so far down that path that saving our planet is not going to be an easy task.  Our bodies are like that.  We can be, without realizing it, swimming in a sea of stress chemicals, until, perhaps in our forties or fifties, or sometimes sooner with some symptoms, we find that we have some ‘disorders’’ or ‘syndromes’ that are having a significant effect on our quality of life.
So, whatever your age, now is a good time to gain mastery over your stress physiology.

The sooner the better.  And a good place to start is to learn Diaphragmatic Breathing.

 

A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you): 

I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences:  Please add your comment/s below.  

Am I being a bit over-dramatic here?  Or do you think there is some truth in my ‘doomsday’ comment that if you are in a constant state of stress and are not experiencing any symptoms yet, it is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ unless you make some changes?  If you’ve already heard your own ‘wake-up call’ what was that defining moment, or insight or stress symptom that moved you to action?  If you’ve helped some-one else make important changes related to reducing their stress, what do you think convinced them to start on their journey of change?  (Please respect their confidentiality and do not include any details of their situation, just what the ‘light-bulb moment’ was for them, the key thing that helped them to start making some changes).

Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.

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Just Breathe … Diaphragmatically

Create that sense of freedom and spaciousness through diaphragmatic breathing

Just Breathe … Diaphragmatically – It’s Life Changing

In my opinion, diaphragmatic breathing is the number one, must learn, must-do strategy for dealing with stress and anxiety.  Just breathing diaphragmatically is life changing.

Why Is Diaphragmatic Breathing So Powerful For Stress Management?

There are many physiological changes that occur in our bodies when we go into the ‘fight-flight’ or stress response, and most of them occur automatically, completely outside of our conscious control.  But breathing is one of the few that we can consciously regulate.  We can’t tell our heart-rate to slow down or our blood pressure to reduce (unless we are deeply experienced in self-hypnosis or meditation), but we can choose to change our breathing pattern.  And if we can start to breathe as if we are deeply relaxed, this can be like the beginning of a domino effect – it can trigger changes in all the other aspects of our physiology, for example slowing down our heart rate, blood pressure and slowing down our racing mind.

When we are caught in the fight-flight response our breathing is fast and shallow.  Why?  Because this is the breathing pattern required to get the maximum amount of oxygen into our blood stream to give our arms and legs more power for fighting or running.  And the muscles that make this type of breathing happen are our upper chest muscles rather than our diaphragm.

The fight-flight response is controlled through the sympathetic nervous system.  To reverse all the changes that occur when we go into the fight-flight response, and move from fight-flight physiology to the preferable ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology, we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.  And this is what initiates the ‘domino effect’ resulting in reduced heart-rate, worst-case scenario thinking, panic etc.

Just Take Some Deep Breaths … – Or Not!

Firstly to dispel a very common myth – taking big breaths does not help in calming ourselves down – in fact it can have exactly the opposite effect.  Instead we want to take ‘‘lower’ breaths – tummy breaths.  So if we think of taking deep breaths as taking big breaths, this is not helpful.  However if you think of ‘deep’ as being like ‘deep in the ocean’ or diving your breath deep down, low in your tummy, this is helpful.  The aim is to breathe with our diaphragms not with our chest muscles.  When we are doing this correctly, when we breathe in, our tummies expand, and when we breathe out our tummies contract.

A good way to tell what is happening with your breathing is to find a way to notice whether your tummy expands when you breathe in.  See this youtube link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmi6sNG9ttM)  for a simple demonstration of the tummy clearly rising on the in-breath.  Another way to observe whether you are getting correct tummy movement is, with very loose arm and shoulder muscles, to very lightly hold your hands on your tummy with your finger-tips just touching when you are at the end of the out breath.  When you breathe in you will see your finger-tips part.

I strongly recommend getting some training from a health professional if you have trouble breathing with your diaphragm in this way, or if you find that your tummy sucks in when you breathe in.  Some physiotherapists specialize in breathing retraining, and this coaching is a very worthwhile investment.  In New Zealand this help may be available free through your local DHB – ask your G.P. for a referral.

Four Key Pointers

To breathe in a way that helps to calm our nervous system and move us out of a sympathetic nervous system dominated physiology there are four main things we are aiming for

1)      To breathe with our diaphragms, low in our tummies, as already mentioned

2)      To have our exhale being approximately twice as long as our inhale.  One way to achieve this is to breathe out through slightly pursed lips, as if we are cooling a cup of coffee – this reduces the gap for the air to escape from our lungs so slows down the exhale.  Or we can count, aiming for an exhale approximately twice as long as the inhale.  Do not force the breath out.  Imagine that you are letting the breath fall out of you, and that it is a real ‘letting go’ kind of breath.

3)      We aim to slow down our breathing rate, to 5 or 6 breaths per minute.  The chances are, you will slow down your overall breathing rate when you begin to focus on slowing down your exhale.  Slowing the exhale tends to lead to a feeling of ‘letting go’’ of stress, and as we start to feel this feeling, we tend to slow down our breathing rate overall.  Don’t aim for this breathing rate of 5 -6 breaths per minute first off, just gradually slow your breathing down a little by a little, and it will happen more naturally.

4)      It is important to breathe in through your nose.  Sensors in our nostrils help to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system.  Also breathing in through the nose results in filtering and moisturizing the air going into our lungs.  If you have a very congested nose, experiment with breathing in with stretched lips (aka a smile).  That often seems to open space in spite of the congestion.  Unfortunately there is a catch 22 with regard to congestion – the more stressed we are, the more likely we are to suffer from sinus and hayfever and hence be congested.  It is important to find a way to break this cycle, and diaphragmatic breathing is an important weapon in your arsenal so don’t give up too easily on the nose breathing challenge.

Proving The Link Between Breathing and The Stress Response

If you have any doubt that breathing style is directly associated with feeling stressed, anxious or panicked, you could prove the link to yourself once and for all by deliberately hyperventilating, and by doing this you will be able to induce a full-blown panic attack.  I do not recommend this!  However, it is a strategy that is often suggested as part of treatment for Panic Attacks to help patients understand that panic attacks are within their conscious control.  In other words, fast, high, shallow breathing is not just a symptom of stress, anxiety and panic attacks.  It can also be a cause.  This is a vicious cycle that you can learn to interrupt, simply by learning calm, healthy diaphragmatic breathing.

Three Ways To Use Diaphragmatic Breathing

1.       As First Aid, or a sticking plaster, to deal with acute symptoms of stress when they arise, or in preparation for a particular stressful event such as a public speaking engagement or a difficult meeting.  This would involve spending several minutes deliberately engaging in low, slow diaphragmatic breathing to settle down your nervous system when you are aware that you are experiencing stress symptoms.

2.       As a preventive treatment, kind of like taking Vitamin C regularly to prevent getting a cold.  This would involve spending 10 – 20 minutes once or twice a day deliberately practicing low, slow diaphragmatic breathing –– in the same way that one might spend 10 – 20 minutes a day meditating to help calm and regulate the nervous system.

When we are in a chronic state of fight-flight physiology, our ‘base-line’ arousal level is likely to creep up and up, over time, bringing with it more severe signs and symptoms of stress.  On top of our normal ‘base-line’ of arousal, we also inevitably experience various ‘stress peaks’’ that are a normal part of everyday modern life, whether it is a difficult situation at work, an argument with a partner, an unexpected bill etc.  If we start the day from a high base-line of stress, the additional stressors of day can push us into a zone of unhelpful stress, overwhelm or anxiety.

By regularly practicing diaphragmatic breathing we can gradually lower our ‘base-line’ and with it reduce the signs and symptoms of stress.

3.       As your default breathing pattern.  This is the overall goal.  During relatively sedentary activities e.g. desk work, reading, watching T.V., cooking a meal at home, having a conversation with a friend etc. it is ideal to aim for about 12 – 16 breaths per minute.  This is faster than what you might aim for when you are practicing diaphragmatic breathing specifically to calm down your nervous system.

So, Remember – Just Breathe

Regularly check-in with yourself.  How am I breathing right now?  Am I breathing with my chest or diaphragm?  Am I breathing in through my nose?  Is my out-breath longer than my in-breath.  Pause and take a moment to get centred and get breathing … diaphragmatically.  The benefits of doing this are immense.

 

A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you): 

I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences:  Please add your comment/s below.

Do you have personal experience of the difference that breathing diaphragmatically can make.  If so, how did you come to discover this?  How and when do you use diaphragmatic breathing?  Do you still find you fall back into unhealthy breathing patterns from time-to-time and have to refocus on re-establishing a good diaphragmatic breath pattern?  (Confession time – I do.)  Do you know of any good youtube clips or web resources on diaphragmatic breathing that others might find helpful – if so, please share.

Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.

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