6 practical ways to reduce stress
We are living through some challenging times, and it's clear that many people are feeling fearful as they look to the future.
Troubling, stressful thoughts might include how to take action in light of the climate emergency, alongside strong emotions at a time of political uncertainty, and all of this during the festive season that brings with it its challenges.
How does fear affect us?
Ongoing fears and negative emotions can lead to us become stuck in a permanent state of fight or flight, with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline pumping through our bodies in preparation to help us face or run from the perceived life-threatening situation.
In the past, our ancestors would be responding to a predator - a short-lived encounter in which you quite simply lived to tell the tale, or you perished. If you survived, the danger would be gone and you would return to a calm state, feeling sociable and able to rest and digest.
Today, with our demanding modern lifestyles, we are likely to encounter numerous stressors regularly, and because of this, we can easily move from one fear state to another. This causes the nervous system to become overwhelmed, leading to a wide range of debilitating physical and psychological symptoms, including feeling frequently anxious and stressed.
How do we create calm?
Creating calm within the mind and body does take effort, but the good news is that there are some practical ways to help yourself.
The following suggestions increase HRV or heart rate variability - the healthy irregularities in our heartbeat - by targeting the vagal nerve, which is the longest in the body. This nerve has two branches and connects the brain to the body and important organs such as the stomach, liver, heart, and lungs. By improving vagal tone, through an increase in HRV, you can feel calmer and more resilient. You can also help to improve your immune and cardiovascular systems and improve bodily processes such as digestion and bodily repair.
Six top tips to help you reduce stress
Our breath is an amazing tool that is always on hand to help you reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
We are often encouraged to take a deep breath when we are anxious or feeling stressed, but the key to increasing your HRV is to focus on your exhale. So, spend longer on the out-breath, do it more slowly, and practice this for about 10 minutes.
You can also learn and practice diaphragmic breathing that uses the large dome-shaped muscle at the base of your lungs.
2. Cold water
You may find cold water uncomfortable, but that sharp intake of breath and tingling in your body is helping your HRV. You can add a cold shower of 30 seconds and upwards to the end of your warm shower, or simply splash cold water onto your face.
Mindfulness and meditation practices are now soundly supported by scientific research and evidence to support the many benefits, which include helping us to increase our HRV.
Making time for this daily practice can be as simple as setting aside 10 minutes a day, and you can practice mindful walking in nature, being more present in the here and now. You can also use readily available apps such as Headspace or Calm to keep your motivation going.
4. Singing or chanting
If you’re blessed with a great singing voice that’s wonderful, but any kind of singing will help you to relax, calm yourself, and increase your HRV. Whether you sing in a choir or sing in the car, the act of singing will help.
Chanting is also a healthy practice, so repeating OM is working with your breath to improve your HRV.
5. Tai chi
There are five types of tai chi - Chen, Yang, Wu, Hao, and a combination of the techniques. The meditative state and movement work with the breath, and you can physically attend a class or look at YouTube to find online videos to fit around the demands of life.
Finally, although it may seem odd, gargling makes your vagal nerve more responsive, which helps improve, amongst other things, relaxation and digestive processes.
There’s no place for dainty gargling here though. It needs to be active and noisy, to the point of possibly feeling like gagging. Simply fill a glass with cold water from the tap, you can add ¼ tsp salt, and gargle noisily for as long as you can. You can also swish around your mouth to give yourself an oral cleanse.
As a bonus for the cold and flu season, scientists have found that doing this daily practice helps ward off colds, sore throats, and upper respiratory tract infections.
If you are unsure about your condition or how these might affect you, please do seek professional medical advice.
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