How to Manage Stress Responses

Man sitting in chair doing yoga, meditation, breathing

Most of us grew up in our education learning about the “fight or flight” response to fearful situations. It is that protective brain function that warns us of high threat and sometimes gives us unique abilities to escape or deal with those threats in rather remarkable ways. As neurological science has progressed, we have identified this reaction as a stress response.

Although the stress response can help us meet serious challenges, it also can be provoked by everyday events such as annoying drivers, traffic jams, relational problems, job worries, etc.

Also, stress responses can create a difficult health profile. Stress can cause high blood pressure, immune system suppression, and anxiety and depression if it builds up. Unfortunately, we cannot avoid certain life stressors, but we can find ways to manage them.

One way to do that is to invoke a relaxation response. This was first developed by cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson. It can be described as a profound rest that can be elicited in many ways including meditation, yoga and certain types of progressive muscle relaxation. One very easy technique is to simply learn how to breathe deeply. 

We tend to breathe in a shallow way just because it feels unnatural to breathe deeply. Yet research tells us that deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange. It can actually slow the heartbeat and lower blood pressure. However, for some of us it may take some practice to retrain ourselves to breathe more deeply on a regular basis. It may have to be a very intentional and regular habit if we truly want to regulate our stress responses.

So how do we do this? First we must find spaces and time in life where we can remove ourselves from the stressors and take time to breathe. Once you find that space, you should practice breathing in through the nose until your lungs feel very full and then exhale through the mouth. This should be slow and methodical. You also should give it more time than just a quick moment. It is suggested that we should take 10 to 20 minutes to simply breathe until we can feel that relaxation response in our bodies. 

If you think about it, we spend most of our days with one stressor after the next. I know that sometimes I set out to achieve certain goals and new stressors happen one after the other.  Before I know it, the day is done and I have spent the entire day solving problems and dealing with a host of stressors. That constancy of issues creates a build-up of stress and the daily pace does not allow me to stop, take a breath and create a relaxation response. I have to be intentional to stop, breathe and create a space for a relaxation response.

Take a few moments each day, find some relaxation responses that work for you and spend a few minutes each day to relieve some of the stress that you encounter. It will make a huge difference to your life, health and perspective.

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