It’s easy to get wrapped up in chronic stress and anxiety
Anxiety is an ongoing problem for me. I think with adult-hood came increased expectations for my life, with accompanying worries of how to fulfill those expectations. I actually went to the doctor a few years ago with chest pain, worried that I had some sort of premature heart issues (which was possibly reasonable to be concerned about considering the history of heart and cholesterol problems on both parents’ sides). I had an ECG done and the doctor said my heart was fine; it was probably digestive upset that was causing the pain.
I didn’t have enough self-awareness then, but I know now I had caused the pain by breathing too shallow and too infrequently for too long. I think it was from stress from having my first serious full time job at the time, and the work environment there. Granted there was likely some digestive upset too, because I was still eating gluten and processed foods then.
I don’t remember how at the time but I guess I managed to sort of overcome my stress response for the next two years or so, but then it returned about 6 months ago, along with more job and career-related stresses. It was way worse this time, culminating in a couple of near-panic-attacks on public transit on the way home from work. I would also get headaches and jaw tension. I think I also caused myself constipation which results from elevated cortisol. It makes sense evolutionarily that if we are being chased by a predator our body wouldn’t be spending energy on digestion and elimination, and wouldn’t be cueing us to stop for a bathroom break.
Recently with studying candida overgrowth and other side effects of poor digestion/elimination, I realized how absolutely critical it is to work on my mental game and stress response.
What is stress exactly?
Stress can be anything “real”, as in a tiger chasing you or sitting through a tough exam, or “imagined/perceived”, as in a worry that your partner will leave you, or feeling like you’re not good enough at your job.
Dealing with real immediate stress should go such that our sympathetic nervous system jumps into action, with responses such as a spike in cortisol, adrenaline, increased heart rate, vasodilation, dilation of the pupils etc so that we can escape the immediate threat. However chronic stress is what most of us deal with these days, and although it may be all too real with our “busy modern” lifestyles, we can choose to remediate the effects with how we mentally respond to the stress. This will control our physiological responses in turn.
Why it’s so important to control your stress response
The reason why stress can mess you up so badly is that it involves an all-encompassing mental and physical system of responses. When stress hormones are released, your body’s energy is devoted to immediate action, and taken away from vital “maintenance” activities like digestion, immunity, detoxifying, repair etc. These functions are needed every day to keep your body running cleanly and efficiently, kind of like your car getting an oil change. Normally these are completed during a restful downtime, however with the chronic stress response being a constant force, you may not ever give them the chance to work.
Stress wreaks havoc on all of your body’s tissues
In a normal immune response the immune cells incite a battle on the offending agent, and when the work is done cortisol comes and tells them when to slow down or stop to prevent damage to the body’s own tissues.
However during a chronic stress response, all body tissues are targets for damage because the immune system becomes down-regulated to sensing cortisol. It re-programs itself to the “new normal” of a higher level of cortisol. It no longer reads the cortisol and keeps waging a battle on “the enemy”, which could now be any of the body’s own tissues. This causes damage and inflammation which could manifest as any number of health problems.
Cellular-level low grade inflammation is now cited as the root cause for most serious conditions and diseases including obesity, cancer, diabetes, auto-immune diseases and heart disease. This is why chronic stress can cause so much trouble for the body. A similar inflammatory cascade resulting in cell death and loss of nerve transmission also happens in the brain itself.
How to deal with chronic stress and anxiety with short every day routines
This was a major working point for me, and still is, after working on it every day for about a month now. It’s definitely getting better but it’s really taken time! However take inspiration from this image (which I have as the lock screen on my phone):
And begin gradually I did, with lots of research.
When I was really panicked and almost hyperventilating, the first thing that helped me was to focus on breathing OUT. I read an article that explained that when you are anxious, you keep trying to breathe IN more because you feel like you can’t get a deep enough breath, when in reality you’re not making enough SPACE for your in-breath, because you’re not cleansing your body of carbon dioxide by not breathing OUT completely.
So, breathing STEP ONE:
Focus on breathing out, caving your abdomen in completely, pushing the air out noisily through your nose until your body is empty. Then relax and let your pelvis and belly and lower ribs fill naturally with fresh, oxygen-filled air. Keep your shoulders down and neck and jaw loose.
Do this as many times as you need to. It took probably a week of doing this, for several minutes, a few times a day for me to start calming my breath.
Breathing, STEP TWO:
Once you feel like you can get a deep breath again, expand your capacity and relaxation with this technique from Dr. Andrew Weil, one of the most respected experts in holistic health.
Do this technique at least twice per day. You can’t do it too often. Dr. Weil says it’s the single most effective preventive technique he’s ever discovered in all his years and travels.
Here is a link if you have trouble using with the iFrame viewer above.
Breathing, STEP THREE:
I learned this technique from Sadie Nardini’s yoga classes on Youtube. She calls it “Golden Flame Breathing”.
Envision a small golden flame the size of a match on your pelvic floor in the middle of the core of your body, between your hip bones. As you breathe in, the flame grows bigger and wider to widen out your pelvis and fill your core with heat and energy. As you breathe out, picture your pelvic floor and hip bones pinching and folding up to squeeze the flame up and out of your body, so that it shrinks to a little match again. Engage your pelvic floor as you do this (sort of like kegels, but that is out of the scope of this article. You can google pelvic floor engagement exercises!)
Sadie explains that this gets your core working to bring fresh air to all your tissues and fire up your energy, digestion, detox and shedding extra weight. I found the golden flame image really useful.
2. Baroque music
Baroque music has been said to calm the mind and as a result all those other responses like heart rate and hormonal signals. The tempo is often similar to that of your heart beat which naturally calms your breath and slows your stress response.
I went online and downloaded albums called “100 Best Baroque” and “The #1 Baroque Album”. Some of the artists include Bach, Vivaldi, Handel and Purcell. Here is a sample of a beautiful song I find very calming:
Here is a link in case you can’t use the above viewer.
I put on baroque music whenever I am walking somewhere, commuting or working. I try to make it an automatic because I do find that when it’s playing I remember to take more deep breaths and the beauty calms my mind.
3. Yoga in the bathroom
I’m talking about the bathroom at work, or wherever you might be spending your daytime hours and sitting still for long periods. Even 1 minute of a few quick poses with deep breathing can do wonders to re-centre your mind and get you breathing again. These would be standing poses of course. Please don’t get down on the floor in your office bathroom…
One of my favourites is the twisted chair pose, seen below. Since the pose is fairly uncomfortable it’s natural to hold your breath, but that is clearly not the point! I like to remember to force myself to breathe deep into the back of the body, keep the feet engaged, keep the spine long with the shoulders away from the ears, and try to lift the belly off the thigh.
The image is borrowed from blisstree.com
Here are a few other poses you can do in just a few minutes at your desk. They’re not even that awkward-looking so you shouldn’t get too many strange looks. I would seriously recommend printing this off because “out of sight out of mind” is all too true. Even if you might think “Oh, I should do some stretches”, if you have a little routine right in front of you, you are sooo much more likely to actually do it.
4. Herbs and Supplements
Ashwagandha is a known “adaptogen” herb that has been used for thousands of years. It has been shown to provide the relaxing and mood-lifting benefits of anti-depressant meds without any of the risks or side effects. Of course you should do your own thorough research first to check if this is right for you, especially if you take other medications.
The effects of ashwagandha take some time to build up so you could try one whole bottle and then evaluate. I got a bottle from my local natural foods store for about $18.00. I’ve been taking it for about a month and haven’t noticed any significant effects, but I honestly think I’ve just wound myself too tight to be able to appreciate this herb. I will continue taking it and hopefully as I work on my anxiety it will have more effect. I’ve read some great reviews/results online.
Magnesium is known to be one of the main factors lacking in our modern diet. It has a gentle calming effect. I take 300-600mg daily with dinner, or with a snack before bedtime. (Do your own research or check with a practitioner first).
B Complex Vitamins are known to help with brain and liver health, which can help with anxiety and detox. I take a low-dose B complex which has 25-50 mg of each type of B vitamin. Take these with food for best absorption.
5. Sleep and Eating
When you’re working on stress and anxiety, it’s important to show your animal, instinct-driven body that you are in a “time of plenty” not a famine or drought or under attack or anything.
Therefore getting quality sleep in a restful environment is important. I wear yellow-tinted glasses for an hour or 2 before bed to kickstart my melatonin production, and use f.lux on my computer screen to make it mellow-coloured. I also wear a soft comfortable black eye mask to bed for complete darkness. I usually do a quick session of yoga and breathing before bed – even 5 minutes can make a huge difference to ease tightness, get the breath slowed down and calm the mind.
I was beginning to experiment with intermittent fasting a couple of weeks ago, until I found research that said if you’re already dealing with stress or anxiety, fasting may trigger a greater stress response in the body. It’s important to show the body there is food available and prevent a stress response. So for now I am working on getting fat-adapted (fuelling the body with fat instead of carbs) and I may approach intermittent fasting again at a later time.
6. Holding Tension
This is an exercise of constant vigilance. Whenever you remember, check in with yourself and feel where you’re holding tension. For me this is my jaw and my neck/shoulders. Sometimes even when I’m “relaxed” on the couch or whatever, I’ll notice I’m clenching one hand, or some of my toes. I make a conscious effort to release this tension and take a few deep breaths. I also massage my face, jaw and neck sometimes while breathing deeply. Even if you’re not stressed or tense this feels amazing.
One final thing on this is I’ve noticed in many of the yoga sessions I’ve done, the instructor will mention “softening the eyes” or “keeping the gaze soft”. I think this is important especially with the amount of time looking at screens, and with our active, worried minds. Gazing softly helps calm your thoughts and soothe those creases from your forehead. I think it subconsciously makes you view the world in a more understanding, friendly frame as well.
I know a lot of this stuff seems inconvenient or time-consuming, but even if you remember twice per day to do a little bit of stretching and breathing, and put those supplements right on your countertop so you can’t forget. I put them in a little container every evening and put them with my lunch for work. Make it a reflex to play that baroque music during your commute, and make a point to truly appreciate the beautiful sound.
Simple things like taking a moment for yourself, breathing and listening to music can be the beginning of a meditation practice, which is still out of my reach at this point but after having tried the above techniques for about a month I can see that I will eventually be able to get there.
What do you do for stress relief or to stop the anxious mental chatter? Share below!