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Scientifically Proven Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Evolution is slow. Our bodies are hardwired to protect us from the dangers of lions and tigers and bears not the constant hum of modern day stress. What we simplify as our fight or flight response is actually a complex and fascinating balance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Imagine yourself walking through a dark forest. You hear a branch snap nearby and spin toward the sound. Your pulse quickens, adrenaline surges through you, blood flows away from your extremities and into your major organs. This is your sympathetic nervous system preparing you to fight or run—whichever will keep you alive. Your dog bursts from the bushes; tongue hanging and tail wagging. Your heart rate slows. Your breathing becomes deeper and slower. Your blood pressure normalizes. This is your parasympathetic nervous system restoring balance now that the threat has passed.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in perfect harmony when survival is at stake. But oddly enough, the little stresses we deal with throughout the day can throw them off balance. Thankfully, science works faster than evolution. Here are scientifically proven methods to reduce stress and anxiety by rebalancing your nervous system.
Belly Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress
Belly breathing techniques are about stimulus and response. Deep, slow breaths tell your brain that the coast is clear; it was just a dog in the bushes. Your brain responds by triggering a normalizing parasympathetic response. For all of its complexities the human brain isn’t that difficult to manipulate and deep breathing exercises might just be the easiest trick of all.
In order to maximize the effects you’ll need to practice belly (or diaphragmatic) breathing techniques. Start by practicing at home. Once the techniques become muscle memory you can apply them anytime you’re feeling off balance.
Find a comfortable (distraction free) place to sit with your knees bent and your shoulders, head and neck relaxed.
Place one hand on your upper chest and the other below your rib cage. It is important that the hand on your chest remains still.
Breathe in through your nose, deep and slow, causing your stomach to move out against your hand. You should feel your diaphragm moving in concert with your breath.
Tighten your stomach muscles and allow them to fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips.
Repeat these steps, slowly and purposefully, for 5-10 minutes.
Activate Pressure Points to Reduce Stress
Acupressure is an ancient Chinese practice that can be easily applied to your daily life; like belly breathing, it effectively triggers a parasympathetic response. Here are few simple steps to get you started:
- Wrists - Place three fingers on your wrist with the top finger just below the base of your palm. The pressure point is beneath the third finger. Press your thumb firmly against that point and massage in a circular motion. Two minutes on each wrist should suffice.
- Ears - Massage your earlobes between your thumb and forefinger. There isn’t an exact pressure point so work along the edges.
- Feet - Place one foot across your knee to expose the bottom of the your foot. From the top of your toes move down one-third and press your thumb firmly against the center of your foot. Massage in a circular motion for several minutes. Switch feet.
Obviously, there is a lot more to this 2000 year old tradition than wrists, ears and feet. If you find these basic steps helpful, dive deeper. There are a wealth of acupressure articles and videos available and these days a lot of insurance providers cover acupressure treatment. It’s worth looking into.
Take a Walk to Reduce Stress
How many times have you heard the advice “just walk away.” That bit of wisdom is rooted in science. A brisk walk, especially in a non-urban environment, has several tangible benefits:
It allows you to escape a stressful environment.
It releases endorphins which improve mood.
It improves blood flow to the brain which improves cognitive thought and coping skills.
Forget about the usual boxes; exercise, calorie burning, going green. Walking is a quick reset. It allows you to stretch your legs, stretch your mind and jump back in relaxed and ready!
Photo by Miguelangel Miquelena
Progressive Muscle Relaxation to Reduce Tension Headaches and Anxiety
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is used to treat tension headaches, stress, anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain. It involves systematically tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups. Although most effective when done as part of a daily routine, it is a tool that you can utilize in the office, in rush hour or anywhere in between.
Work through the muscle groups in one direction. Some experts say head to toes, others say toes to head; go with whichever feels more comfortable.
Breathe in and tense the first muscle group (toes scrunched with feet pointing away from your body.) Hold for 5-10 seconds—firmly but not painfully.
Release and exhale. Do it quickly. You’re not gradually letting the tension dissipate. You’re dropping it, tossing it aside.
Relax for 15-20 seconds taking slow belly breaths, then move on to the next muscle group.
When you’ve finished with the routine take full minute to breathe and relax. Allow your brain and your nervous system to accept the relaxed state before you go back to being busy.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation to Treat Acute Stress & Anxiety
The vagus (or pneumogastric nerve) connects your brain to all of your major organs. It is responsible for a host of important functions including helping your parasympathetic nervous system restore balance. It can be triggered in a number of ways, some of which we’ve already discussed; belly breathing, physical activity and accupressure. It can also be shocked into jump starting a parasympathetic response which makes it a favorite of ER nurses and sufferers of acute stress and anxiety. Here are few simple ways to give your vagus nerve a shove in the right direction.
Splash your face with icy cold water or take a cold shower if its really bad. The coldness of the water will decrease your sympathetic fight or flight state allowing the parasympathetic system restore balance.
Squat down like your out in the woods and nature is calling. Pull your belly button in towards the spine and hold for 5-10 seconds. Repeat as needed.
Consult your doctor about electric pulse stimulation. The FDA recently approved an at home vagus nerve stimulation device for the treatment of migraines.
How to Trigger the Vagus Nerve
Adaptogens to Regulate Stress and Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Adaptogens are natural substances that help the body regulate stress and anxiety. Common examples include; ginseng, coconut oil, holy basil and kava root. Before you run out and fill your cabinet with a bunch of dusty glass vials try to incorporate a few of the tastier adaptogens into a healthy diet plan and supplement with a comprehensive adaptogen formula like 1Hour Break which provides a powerful blend of kava root, lemon balm, passion flower and lobelia herb. Click here to get a free bottle of 1Hour Break ($29 value).
“I started using 1Hour Break to help alleviate work stress. I was getting these spikes that I thought were random but it turns out they weren’t. I realized that I was reaching for 1Hour Break at the same time everyday; just before I left the house, around 3pm and five minutes after I got into bed. Now I use it preemptively and I feel fantastic!” -Danielle Garcia, Gardena, California.
Cognitive Reframing to Reduce Situational Stress
Cognitive reframing involves changing your perspective in order to eliminate stress from a particular situation. Imagine that your whole life is being filmed by a series of cameras. What are they seeing that you’re not? How can you use that shift in perspective to relax and allow your parasympathetic nervous system to engage?
Here’s a real world example. You take a family vacation to Hawaii. Everyone has an amazing time and returns home tan, relaxed and full of stories to tell. Grandma (your mom) picks everyone up at the airport. You start gushing about the vacation and the first thing she says is, “Well, I hope you wore sunscreen. Cancer runs in the family, ya know.” Stress spikes. You’re instantly upset that she is sucking the joy out of the moment, bringing everyone down. Stop. Shift your perspective. She wasn’t with you on vacation and couldn’t possibly understand what you just experienced. Though harsh, her comments were made out of love; she is getting older and she worries. No comment anyone makes can diminish what your family experienced together. Breathe.
Steps you can take to incorporate cognitive reframing include:
Breathe deeply. Get yourself to a place of relative calm.
Write down the situation that triggered the negative reaction.
Analyze the mood(s) you experienced in the moment.
Write down the thoughts you were experiencing; your flash reactions
What evidence supports your flash reactions?
What evidence contradicts your flash reactions?
Weigh them both and arrive at your revised, balanced (not apologetic) reaction.
How do you feel? How do you want to move forward?
Incorporate Stress & Anxiety Reduction Techniques Into Your Daily Routine
Your daily routine is your own. Your stress triggers are your own. You will need to experiment until you find what works best for you. But let’s imagine Monday:
The alarm rings. You are sleepy and altogether unhappy. Before you get up run through your Progressive Muscle Relaxation Routine. Put your feet on the floor feeling a lot calmer.
While the coffee is brewing go for a brisk walk. Take 15-minutes to the get the blood flowing. Endorphins are more powerful than caffeine.
It’s time for your 20-minute break. Stay off of social media. Instead eat a healthy snack packed with adaptogens, then hit a few of the key acupressure points.
Lunch time. Leave your cars keys where they are. Walk to your favorite restaurant or cafe. If you brought your own, escape the breakroom and eat outside.
Your boss just dropped a load of work on your desk and it’s due by the end of the day. Panic and anxiety surge. Splash cold water on your face. Shock your vagus nerve into triggering a parasympathetic response. You’ll get it done.
Your stuck in rush hour traffic and late for your daughter’s dance recital. Take a small dose of 1Hour Break then spend 10-minutes doing your belly breathing exercises. You’re not going anywhere fast. You might as well relax.
The kids need help with their homework, your spouse is being argumentative and you just want to be left alone. Play around with cognitive reframing. Perspective changes a lot.
You feel good; calm and sleepy. And yet, sleep won’t come. Your thoughts are running and your imagination is wandering. Take a dose of 1Hour Break and work through your progressive muscle relaxation routine one more time. Sleep will come.
The art of relaxation is rooted in science; it’s a simple matter of rebalancing your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. If you master these techniques, you’ll take the mystery out of stress & anxiety.