If there’s one word that can be used to describe the times in which we live, it would probably be “stress”. Stress seems to characterize everything we do. Even a trip to the store has us encountering fast traffic, grouchy pedestrians, impatient sales clerks, toxic fumes of every sort, and any number of other anxiety-inducing insults on our emotions and our bodies. God forbid our thoughts drift to work, taxes, bills to pay, kids in trouble at school. We simply did not evolve to be in an environment with this much stress.
Our adrenals, the glands which handle stress by releasing hormones like cortisol, bear the brunt of our stressful lives. It’s no surprise that our stressed-out environment has lead to an estimated 90% of us in the Western world suffering from some level of adrenal fatigue or exhaustion; the end result of chronic stress. The typical picture is someone who absolutely needs coffee in the morning, generally skips breakfast, has a sense of fatigue that doesn’t seem to be relieved by sleep, may have pycho-emotional issues, and suffers from infections that are difficult to get rid of.
High levels of cortisol, the hormone used for handling stress, over long periods of time leads to the kinds of side-effects you see in extended cortisone therapy (osteoporosis, digestive problems, difficulty concentrating, memory issues). Adrenal fatigue is also associated with allergies, obesity, autoimmune disorders, chronic fatigue, IBS, depression and PMS, among others.
So what’s a stressed-out person to do? Usually holistic health articles will list the usual suspects in dealing with stress: ditching the stimulants; getting a massage; trying tai chi or yoga; exercising; meditation. And then usually tucked in toward the end of the list is “deep breathing”. But what does this mean, exactly? I breathe everyday and it doesn’t exactly seem to be helping my stress levels.
Believe it or not, science is continually reinforcing the fact that regular, intentional breath-work can actually have a remarkable affect on our stress levels. You’ve probably heard of the two sides of our autonomic nervous system known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic. If you haven’t heard of these, you’ve probably heard of the more commonly used reference to these two modes – “fight or flight” mode versus “rest and digest” mode. While both modes are important for our functioning and survival, the modern Western human spends way too much time in sympathetic mode (fight or flight) and not nearly enough time in parasympathetic (rest and digest), the mode we should be in for the almost the entirety of our day, but one that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar!
The key to breathing for stress relief is the vagus nerve, a long nerve that travels from the brain, down either side of the neck, through the chest to the abdomen. It connects to the majority of the body’s organs and communicates sensory information from those organs back to the brain. The good news for us is that stimulation of the vagus nerve actually turns you from sympathetic mode (fight or flight) to parasympathetic mode (rest and digest). It’s like flipping the off switch for stress. Sounds handy, no?
So how can we flip this switch? What’s the magic button? There are a few ways of doing it. There are certain exercises and movements referred to as “vagal manoeuvres” which stimulate the vagus nerve. Sticking your face into ice cold water, holding your breath, coughing, tensing your stomach muscles – these are all actions that stimulate the vagus nerve. Alternatively, there is a small device, similar to a pacemaker, which can be implanted on one side of the vagus nerve, right around the collar bone, which will stimulate the nerve (or one side of it, anyway). This is done in order to control seizures in certain cases of epilepsy and has just been approved for certain depressed patients who are unresponsive to medication.
But, if you’re looking for something a little cheaper than $10,000 surgery, and something a little more structured and practical than sticking your face in a sink full of ice cubes, breathing exercises, when done correctly, will directly stimulate the vagus nerve. This is the key to the off switch for stress!
Breathing with the aim of stimulating the vagus nerve directly activates the parasympathetic nervous system, releasing relaxation hormones and counteracting chronic stress. Oxytocin, sometimes called “the cuddle hormone” encourages social interaction, bonding, altruism, empathy and attachment (in a good way), all things that are absent in a person who is stressed. Regular practice of breathing exercises, thereby regularly stimulating the vagus nerve, leads to higher levels of GABA (Gama-Aminobutyic Acid) and serotonin, lowering incidence of depression and leading to a happy, relaxed, positive outlook.
One of the best breathing exercises for stress relief is called “Pipe Breathing”. This involves constricting the glottis muscle at the top of the throat, consciously restricting the breath on the inhalation, exhalation and the hold between breaths. You can see instruction on how to do it here. It’s a really handy exercise in that can be used anytime you’re in an acutely stressful situation. Give it a try the next time your boss is on your back, your kid brings home a failing grade or a customer decides you’re the target for all his pent up frustration.