We ended our last post with an understanding that the escape of stress is not a reality nor is it our goal. Our goal is to manage stress and learn how to deal with the challenges (both concrete and abstract) life presents us without allowing them to control us and/or fleeing responsibility.
Our souls are in fact connected to our physical bodies. Hence this blog’s tagline. And an undying love for Death Cab. Because our spiritual selves are interwined with our physical selves, it’s tricky business splitting stress management into physical and spiritual categories. There is much overlap and grey area but I think grouping the two will help us understand what stress management looks like . . . as long as you understand that physical stress management and spiritual stress management are often, very often, connected.
We are going to tackle physical stress management first. It can manifest itself in a myriad of ways ranging from butterflies in your stomach, increased heart rate/blood pressure, tension headache/neck ache to stomach aches, constipation and everything between. Now. What I am about to recommend below (please remember I do not claim to be a doctor or professional in any sense) isn’t a guarantee, “one-size fits all” approach. These are remedies . . . not cures. These are reccommendations, not sure fire perscriptions. These treat the SYMPTOMS not the root cause. We will tackle the root in due time. Until then, here is (what I believe to be) the pivatol foundation to dealing with the physical manifestations of stress. Everyone carries stress differently. It is your job to tune into your body and learn to listen. After you identify your body’s “stress signal,” take a breath.
No really, take a breath! When you inhale, does your stomach grow smaller or bigger? Do you suck in or or breathe in? See (very tiny) photo below.
There are 3 types of breathing; clavicle, chest and abdominal.
1. Clavicle breathing is conducted through the collar bone and shoulders. It is a short, shallow breath associated with panic or anxiety. Your belly (trunk) moves very little.
2. Chest breathing is the most common type of breathing. it takes place within the center of the chest and while it may be a tad deeper than a clavicle breath, it still doesn’t cut it. This type of breathing sucks your belly in (figure above on the right) Your body needs, wants and is designed for more.
3. Abdominal breathing is where it’s at. See figure above on the left. This is a deep breath from deep within. The abdominal muscles do all the work causing the lungs to expand and the diaphragm to contract. In doing so, our intestines (mainly the stomach) are kept in place. Did you know your intestines can be in the wrong place? A shallow breath pulls the stomach in and up. This in turn, pulls its neighboring organs in and up. That’s not good. That’s bad. It leads to a myriad of issues we don’t have time to jump into today. A relaxed, strong and nourishing breath slowly (a lot more slowly than you think. Be a little dramatic when you practice this slow breath) fills you lungs, expands your ribs and rounds your belly. There should be a natural pause between the inhale and exhale. Don’t analyze or count this pause, feel this pause and slowly (again, overemphasize the slow-ness) release your breath.
What in the world does this have to do with managing stress? Enter, anatomy lesson! Today’s anatomy lesson will cover the oh-so-important, yet totally neglected Vagus Nerve. See below.
I know the photo above is totally small, I do apologize. Luckily the nerve in question is highlighted in lime green, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find. Remember how we discussed the gut-brain connection? Not only do your gut and brain originate from the same tissue during fetal development, they are also connected by the largest cranial nerve, the Vagus nerve. This is no accident, my friend! The gut and brain are intricately related for a reason. The Vagus nerve runs from the brain to the gut. It comes from the Latin word meaning “wander” because it isn’t a straight shot. This nerve “wanders” from the vocal chords, heart, lungs and even receives sensation from the outer ear before finally reaching the gut. Let’s think for a moment how the Vagus nerve might be connected to stress . . . Lungs = shallow breathing. Heart = increased rate. Vocal Chords = raising your voice. Outer ear = raised voices directed at you. Could any of these physical realities be connected to stress? Of course they are! BUT the Vagus nerve gets even cooler! You have two nervous systems, “sympathetic” and “parasympathetic.” The first is in charge of getting your body ready to fight back or flee trouble. This is the “stress” response. The latter (parasympathetic) is in charge of telling your body to chill out. This is the “relax” response. The Vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system. It sends the nuerotransmitter “acetylcholine” to your brain. This is like an instant message telling the body to take a chill pill and to end fight/flight mode.
The Vagus nerve is in charge of relaxation. It’s like Yoda . . . quiet, still and wise. I’m not sure if it’s green. That’s a weird analogy and I probably lost you. . .
Breathing is THE way to stimulate your Vagus nerve. When you breathe with your abdominals instead of your shoulders or chest, you are telling your Vagus nerve to get to work . . . sending peaceful neurotransmitters to your brain, reducing inflammation and sending more oxygen to your muscles which in turn releases endorphins. Not only are you telling your body to chill you, you’re telling your body to feel good.
My doctor had me start by practicing 10 breaths when I woke up and 10 breaths before I fell asleep. It’s taken me much longer than I anticipated to learn this “skill” but now I can use it properly and regularly. For me, physical stress is often manifested through my stomach. I can tell when I am carrying stress by how my belly feels. I used to find myself having to stop a lot to #1 relax my shoulders, #2 breath with my abdominals, #3 freaking relax! I’m not sure why I rush myself so much! Anyways, over time I have been able to do this without really thinking about it. It is slowly (I’m talking 6 months here guys. This is a skill, it doesn’t happen overnight) becoming second nature.
That’s great for me but how does this help you?
#1. Listen to your body and identify your unique, physical manifestations of stress. This could be anything. Look for patterns. Your body is always talking to you, it’s a matter of whether or not you are listening. Remember, stress isn’t simply an emotional issue. Your physical health is greatly compromised.
#2. Sharpen your abdominal breathing skills through regular practice (you don’t have to carve out extra time to do this. I do it while I read, while I’m in the shower, etc)
#3. Now that you know how to listen to your body, put your practice into practice! Utilize your abdominal breathing to stimulate your Vagus nerve and calm your body down. It’s such a gift and yet so underrated!