Do you feel as though you live most of your life in a state of stress or relaxation? Are your days filled with tension or ease? If you’re anything like the majority of us, you’ve probably felt some degree of stress in the last week, and perhaps even in the last hour. Statistics from the Mental Health Foundation show 74% of people in the UK have felt so stressed, they’ve been overwhelmed or unable to cope, and that as a result of stress, 51% of adults went on to feel depressed, and 61% reported feeling anxious. It’s no secret that stress is something that affects most of us, and it can have damaging knock-on effects, which is why arming yourself with the tools to help pull you out of stress and back into ease is so valuable today. In this blog, you’ll learn exactly what stress is, when it’s actually beneficial for us – and when it truly isn’t – and how to move from a stressed out state of fight or flight, to rest and digest.
What is stress?
Stress happens to us at every moment; simply living is a stress! Everything we experience puts a ‘stress’ upon the body; eating and exercising cause natural amounts of inflammation within the body; feeling cold or hot causes small amounts of stress, and when you’re required to step up to a challenge, this is a ‘stress’ too. Small amounts of stress are a natural part of life, and they’re actually beneficial for us. Research shows low doses of stress can help improve the immune response, improve cognitive function, build physical and mental resilience, whilst too little stress can even lead to boredom and low mood levels. Humans have evolved to deal with small, acute stresses on a daily basis, so why is stress causing us so much harm now?
Whilst we’ve evolved to deal with acute stressors, our bodies and brains aren’t necessarily designed to handle chronic stress, which is what causes the health issues we may face due to stress today. Chronic stress happens when our bodies continue to respond to a stress even when it has passed, or when we’re involved in a stressful situation for longer than our bodies and minds have evolved to be able to handle. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, sleep problems, hormonal imbalances, fertility challenges, Alzheimer’s, depression and even asthma, which just shows how powerful our nervous system is in affecting our overall health.
What are ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’?
You’ve probably felt the effects of stress for yourself; increased heartrate, rapid breathing, sweating, and feeling on-edge. These are all signs that your body is in the ‘fight or flight’ response (other signs include dilated pupils, tension, changes to your urination or elimination, and shifts in your cognitive function). The fight or flight response is activated when the sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system takes over, whereas the rest and digest response is activated when we’re in the parasympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system. When we were living as simple hunter-gatherers, our fight or flight response would have been activated when we needed to fight, run or hunt, and soon after the event, we would have moved back into our natural state of rest and digest. The rest and digest side of the nervous system is where healing, optimal hormone balance, good quality sleep, good digestion, repair, and healthy elimination take place – and it’s where we want to be for the majority of the time! Today however, constant work deadlines, financial worries, parenting demands, and even stressors such as loneliness and body image issues, can all place us firmly in the fight or flight response for far longer than is good for us.
So, now you know how stress affects us, and how unnatural it is to live in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’, here are five ways you can move yourself back to ‘rest and digest’:
The 4-7-8 Breath
The way we breathe has a direct impact upon our state of stress or relaxation. Running from the brainstem all the way to the gut is our vagus nerve, and along the way it connects to the heart, diaphragm and other organs. The vagus nerve is always sensing our current state, and relaying messages back to the brain. If the vagus nerve senses we’re breathing in a shallow, rapid way, it associates this with stress and signals the brain to encourage a release of stress hormones. If the vagus nerve senses slow, calm, diaphragmatic breathing however, it signals to the brain that everything is a-ok. To help yourself move from fight or flight to rest and digest, take a moment to pause and observe your breathing; is it fast or slow? Shallow or deep? Then, practice the 4-7-8 technique to quickly calm your nervous system; inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7 and exhale for a count of 8. The prolonged exhale is a great way to encourages a slower heartbeat, relaying those all-important calming messages to the brain. Repeat a maximum of 4 more times.
• Learn more powerful breathing techniques to calm your nervous system in Do Breathe by Michael Townsend Williams, or The Breathing Revolution by Yolanda Barker, and try practicing your breathing techniques on the Yogamatters Organic Cotton Pranayama Pillow, to open up the lungs for deeper breathing.
Humming Or Singing
Another way to encourage your vagus nerve to help activate a state of rest and digest is to hum or sing. The vagus nerve also connects to your throat and vocal cords, and when they’re being used to sing your favourite song or hum along to the radio, the body feels it is in a safe space. The next time you catch yourself feeling overly stressed, choose a song to sing or hum out loud – anything can help, but try to choose a song you enjoy, or a relaxing yogic mantra, such as the Buddhist chant ‘Om mane padme hum’. If you’re travelling to a stressful meeting or public speaking event, turn your music up high (if it’s appropriate to do so!) and sing along to reduce stress.
• Use the Mala Collective ‘I Am Love’ bracelet to guide your words as you chant; move your thumbs around the beads, counting one mantra per bead for a meditative way to use your voice
Move Your Body
Movement is a balm for the nervous system; it encourages the release of endorphins (happy hormones), and dopamine (a hormone involved in motivation), amongst other mood-boosting brain chemicals. Another reason movement is so powerful for shifting us out of a stressful state, is because by moving, we give our bodies the cue that we’re actively responding to and dealing with a stress. Imagine having a predator approaching you and only being able to sit at your workplace desk? Feeling helpless and unable to respond to a stress is a surefire way to keep us in the fight or flight response, whereas even a small amount of movement can help reduce the tension. Roll out your yoga mat for a few rounds of sun salutations, grab your skipping rope to sweat out the stress for a few minutes, or simply take a brisk walk around the block – you’re likely to feel a whole lot calmer afterwards.
• Use the Yogamatters Eco Flow yoga mat to support your body with unrivalled grip as you move. The more you sweat, the harder the 100% sustainable mat keeps you flowing!
• The Tangram skipping rope is an efficient way to help you get moving with minimal equipment. Together with the SmartRope app, you can track your jump count, calories burned, and time spent jumping.Speak your mind
Stress is a lot more difficult to deal with when we keep it locked in our minds, and feeling lonely or unable to speak to others about our stressful situation can even make things worse. When it comes to moving out of fight or flight and into rest and digest, it’s so important to express how you feel. Taking worries and stresses from the mind and putting them out into the world can help us observe them more objectively, and telling someone else about them can help us work through them with support.
Start by journaling about your stress. Simply write down what is on your mind without holding back. Next, practice voicing your stress out loud to yourself. This may seem silly, but techniques such as EFT or ‘tapping ‘ are incredibly effective for reducing stress and anxiety, and they all begin with voicing your concern out loud. Finally, choose someone you trust and speak to them. They may be able to offer help, or they may simply be able to provide emotional support, but knowing we have a community or a single good friend to turn to can make all the difference.
• Use the Five Minutes In The Morning Journal to help make journaling a regular, stress-relieving habit.
• Flip through the School of Life Calm Prompt Cards that offer perspective serenity in times of stress.
• If it’s been a while since you connected with friends, use the School of Life Meeting Friends Cards with 52 questions and exercises for deeper and more meaningful conversations with friends.Address Hidden Stressors
There are a few sneaky culprits when it comes to stress, and by addressing these, you could help shift yourself back into a state of rest and digest quickly. One of the most important causes of hidden stress is blood sugar imbalances, particularly low blood sugar, or episodes of hypoglycaemia. Low blood sugar can happen as a result of eating processed foods, of going too long without meals, not nourishing your body adequately, exercising on an empty stomach, or eating a high-sugar snack and experiencing the blood sugar ‘crash’ soon after. When the body senses blood sugar levels are very low, it pumps out excess cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’), and increases the heartrate to try and deliver enough nutrients and oxygen to the body. Glucose (sugar) is the body and brain’s preferred source of fuel, and when it runs low, the body panics and causes this cascade of stress responses. Doing this over and over again is incredibly stressful for the body, brain, hormones and nervous system, and could eventually lead to type 2 diabetes. To ensure your blood sugar stays balanced, aim to eat a breakfast high in protein within an hour of waking, snack if you need to, avoid processed foods, and try to combine your carbohydrates with proteins or fats, to slow the rate at which sugar enters the bloodstream.
• Be inspired by balanced recipes from The Ayurveda Kitchen by Anne Heigham, The Immunity Cookbook by Kate Llwellyn-Waters, and I Can Cook Vegan by Isa Chandra Moskowitz.
Which stress-busting tips will you try first to move out of fight or flight and into rest and digest?