We're talking about how we can manage stress, or some may refer to it... anxiety. So what is it? Ultimately, it's a message from our central nervous system that we’re in danger. Some may say that it is a chemical reaction that causes an emotional, physical or psychological response, but what we know today is that it is actually part of a feedback loop - a whole system approach and something we like to call the mind-body connection.
Anxiety is a highly non-specific term. There's no blood test, no brain scan that you can do, yet approximately 31% of Australians are taking prescription medications for anxiety. And 1 in 8 (over 3 million) Aussies are on prescribed anti-depressants. So what are the symptoms of stress? The truth is, it's different for many of us, and can be surmised in many different ways. In short, it’s a feeling of discomfort and concern that we’re unable to meet the challenges or demands that we are to experience in the present or the future
Perhaps the most important point to note about stress or anxiety is that it is natural. It is in fact, not bad. Anxiety is our body’s natural response to what we are perceiving in our environment (internal or external), it’s designed to save your life. Through evolution, stress has protected us from dangers. We learn and store information on things that have hurt us, so that we know not to make the same mistake again in the future. What is not normal is feeling stress for prolonged periods of time.
So what if there were some simple things that you could literally learn today that could give you a sense of what it feels like when your nervous system has been given the message that everything is OK…
We live in two environments, the external world (which occurs mostly out of our control), and our inner state (our mind, which we have some control of). Our consciousness is aware of both environments simultaneously, as our mind is home to both our conscious mind and our unconscious mind (or the subconscious). The conscious mind is separate from the subconscious mind, and as such we have the ability to be objective of the ongoings in our subconscious, we can observe the thoughts that are going on in there.
I like to think of our mind as a computer. The conscious mind is where we pick and choose the applications we want to run… like our desktop. We’re consciously engaging with thoughts, emotions, strategies etc. Our subconscious mind is the bottomless filing system that sits in the background, always processing, always running and filing things in an order of relevance. Our brains are the most elegantly created computers ever invented. But they’re ALWAYS ON. We can hear the chatter all day long, but we often don’t give it much attention in terms of observation. We have the choice to let our thoughts and emotions pass by or we have the option to grab them and run with them (through emotion and reaction).
Whilst there are many ways in which one can practise mindfulness, one of the best ways is with meditation. Meditation, simply put is the practise of calming the mind and body and simply observing without judgement. No emotion, no reaction, simply observing with your conscious mind and your senses. When starting out, begin with 1 minute of mindfulness, observe your breath, your posture, and notice what you see, feel, smell, taste and hear. As your thoughts wander and compete for your attention, just notice them, and allow your conscious mind to bring you back to the present moment through your senses.
The more you practise, the more you will find yourself wanting to return to these moments of awareness throughout your days, often at otherwise mindless moments, like washing the dishes, brushing your teeth, eating meals and you get the gist. It is here that you will find peace and more control of not only your thoughts and emotions, but also how you choose to respond to your environment. You will know that you can choose to either be taken for a ride by your subconscious, or that you can choose awareness.
2 . Breathwork
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've likely heard of breathing exercises to help with stress. Breathwork has been defined as "an active form of meditation to manipulate your breath to quickly change the way you feel".
An obvious indication of stress can be found in your breath…. for example, short and shallow breathing may be a sign that you are experiencing stress as this type of breathing is usually present when we're in danger. I’ll use an example from our ancestors... If you had been around in those days and had been walking through the bush, or jungle, and came across a dangerous predator… let's say it’s a tiger.. in the moment that you spot it, what would happen to your breath? Would you be breathing deep and deliberate? No? You see, short and shallow breath is also a result of spikes in cortisol, which diverts energy from the immune system. This is also known as fight, flight or freeze (or our stress response). Similarly, if we survived this encounter, and the tiger walks off into the distance, out of sight, how would our breathing change then? We might expect a big exhale followed by deep breaths. Deep deliberate breaths into regular breathing engage our parasympathetic nervous system and send the fight, flight or freeze response away.
The location from which you breathe is also a factor. When you take shallow breaths from the chest, it causes the heart to race, creates muscles tension and activates the sympathetic nervous system which causes as surge of adrenaline and cortisol that tells your body that you're in danger. When you are able to shift your breath to the abdominal (using your diaphragm), your body shifts into a more relaxed state. As your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, you are able to slow your heart rate and reduce feelings of stress or anxiety. Mouth breathing and nostril breathing also play different roles in how our body responds. Now that you have a little look into the significance of our breath, I'll share a little 1 minute breathing exercise that you can use to calm your mind and body.
The first thing to do is to straighten your spine and relax your shoulders away from your ears. You’re going to block your right nostril which creates a direct line of communication to your parasympathetic nervous system. Through inhalation and exhalation of your left nostril only, take slow deep breaths. You can count or you can go with what feels naturally soothing to you. Start with one minute and work your way up to 3 or 5 minutes for a deeper relaxation. We like this one as it’s very easy to do almost anywhere… at work, at the gym, in social situations. It can even be done discretely before a big presentation or important meeting... so be sure to keep this one in your wellness toolkit.
3 . Journalling
Psychologists say: “If you struggle with stress, depression, or anxiety, keeping a journal is a great idea. It can help you gain control of your emotions and improve your health.”
Most anxiety sufferers struggle with excessive worrying as this is one of the most common anxiety symptoms. And while we may believe that we know everything we are worrying about, there are too many thoughts that go through our minds for us to keep track of. Writing down your problems can help you manage your stress in many different ways. First, the simple act of sitting down in a quiet place to collect your thoughts can have a positive impact on your mood. Getting away from stress triggers in your life, whether situations or people, can greatly improve how you feel. Even if it's just for a few minutes a day, you should carve out time to sit down and write in a journal
Research shows that journaling helps to:
Boost your mood
Release negative thoughts
Improve cognitive functioning
Improve clarity and focus
Reduce chronic worrying
Release pent-up feelings
Induce better sleep
Enhance self-awareness of anxiety
Help with depression
Boosts memory and comprehension
Help with achieving goals
Improve communication skills
Writing in a journal helps you release all of the stress and emotions that you've been holding inside. Once you start the practice of writing down your problems, you'll find that the simple act of writing will be like a release of built up pressure. Even if your situation doesn't dramatically change in the fifteen minutes you took to write the entry, you'll walk away with a weight lifted off your shoulders.
Interested in how to get started with effective journalling?
4 . Reduce Coffee Intake
This one usually gets a lot of pushback... it’s not popular by any means, so I'm just going to keep it short and sweet so that you still like me after hearing me out.
I'd like to start with a challenge for you to eliminate your coffee intake for just one week. I know that to many people, this doesn’t sound very good at all, but there are a few things to consider. Let me start by saying that coffee is not bad for everyone. There are numerous health benefits that are very well researched. The thing is that if you’re struggling with energy, clarity of mind and anxiety, it’s unfortunately likely that coffee is not good for you. It could be exacerbating these effects.
At the very least, you might like to consider cutting back on your caffeine intake. Caffeine works by blocking the effects of adenosine, a brain chemical that makes you feel tired, which does increase alertness. At the same time, it triggers the release of adrenaline, the “fight-or-flight” hormone associated with increased energy. What this could mean for someone who is prone to anxiety, is that they will likely experience higher stress, nervousness, and jitteriness - which makes it hard to calm the mind. Studies have shown that just 300 mg of caffeine in healthy subjects increased stress by 50% more than in those who took placebos.
Too much caffeine can also cause insomnia, digestive issues, muscle breakdown, high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, rebounding fatigue and addiction. Perhaps ask yourself... What is it that you love about coffee? Is it the buzz you get? Because if it is, you might consider switching to a matcha latte or a ginger latte. Is it the taste that you love? If so, you could consider dandelion root tea that can taste a lot like coffee. Or is it just the ritual or habit of having a sort of warm drink at particular times of the day? Golden milk which is a type of turmeric latte, is a great alternative as it tastes good with any type of milk, and it has anti-inflammatory properties. Perhaps you could answer these questions and also document your one week challenge in your journal? What do you have to lose?
5 . Exercise
It's no surprise that movement exercises such as Animal Flow, Yoga and Pilates are also super effective when it comes to mental health as well as physical health as they each incorporate breathwork into their practise which helps to strengthen the mind-body connection. While weight training can be effective for strength and over-all health, it doesn't seem to offer as much anxiety relief. Ken Ware, founder of revolutionary Neurophysics Therapy, advocates slow, controlled, light weight movements as a way to recalibrate and centre the entire nervous system, improving the neural pathways from the brain to different parts of the body.
Having said this, whilst most of us associate 'calm' with a slow heart rate, where exercise is considered, getting your heart rate up with mobility focused exercises for just 30 minutes a day can also do wonders for our mind and body. During exercise, your heart rate shoots up, but over time, as your fitness level improves, your heart begins to work more efficiently. As a result, your resting heart rate between exercise sessions eventually becomes slower. Improved heart and lung function due to regular activity are often associated with a greater sense of overall well-being, which can help offset feelings of anxiety. Even short bursts of exercise — just 10 to 15 minutes at a time — can improve your fitness and your mood.
Consistently tracking your exercise can be as effective for your mindset as exercise itself. You can see your progress through tracking, and this motivates you to continue on a journey to being the best version of yourself.
Other stress relieving mobility exercises include:
Tai Chi or Qi Gong (slow deliberate movement and breathing)
Walking (particularly in nature, on the beach or barefoot on the ground)
Swimming (strokes involve rhythmic breathing which relaxes our system)
Stretching (relieves tension in the body and feeds back to the mind)
Dancing (releases endorphins and makes for a good nights sleep)
Cycling (helps synchronise your circadian rhythm)
Boxing (improves focus and concentration, strengthening clarity of mind)
Jogging / Running (helps clear the mind and releases 'happy' hormones)
When it comes to the question of which exercise is best... there is no one-size fits-all answer. The best exercise is in fact the one that you enjoy the most because it's more likely that you will keep it up. If you love dancing, but hate jogging, then dance baby, dance!