Because of the crazy world we live in today, we are being subjected to more stress than our bodies were meant to endure.
Our caveman ancestors occasionally were subjected to stressful situations where their bodies implemented the “fight or flight” response as a way to prepare them with the energy and mental awareness needed to either take a stand and fight or flee the scene.
In occasional short-term situations, it is beneficial to our health.
But today, many of us are in the “fight or flight” response most of our day, every day… and it is taking its toll on our bodies.
The effects of stress
When we are under a stressful situation, the hormone cortisol is released into our system.
That triggers several biological changes, like dilation of the pupils, increased heart rate and an increase in mental sharpness.
Once the situation is resolved, the cortisol stops and things get back to normal.
But when under chronic stress, the constant cortisol in our system can cause health issues like:
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar
- Tense muscles
- Low sex drive
- Missed period in females
- Erectile dysfunction in males
- And fertility problems in both genders
While we can’t control the situations causing the stress in many cases, we can learn how to respond to them in a more controlled way … a way the reduces the release of cortisol.
Control the cortisol and you can control the effects of it. Four ways that we are going to discuss to control the effects of stress are:
- Mindful Awareness
- Mindful Breathing
- Mindful Meditation
- The Yoga Advantage
Much of the stress we experience today is based on how we perceive what is happening around us.
But there is a space in time between when the stress happens and our response to it; it is this brief period of time that we can determine how a situation will affect us.
The key? Concentration of the moment.
For example, let’s say you are having a cup of tea. If you are stressed about the dozens of different things racing around in your mind at the time, you will drink the tea, but not have enjoyed it.
If you have a cup of tea everyday at the same time, then it becomes a conditioned response – something you do without thinking much about doing it. But you are not enjoying it because you are always preoccupied with other things.
However with mindful awareness, you clear your mind of the stressors, i.e. the things that are preventing you from truly enjoying the flavor, smell and taste of the tea, and you concentrate on having the cup of tea and the joy it brings to you each and every day.
One of the ways people use to learn how to concentrate and get that mindful awareness is to concentrate on their breathing.
Normally most people naturally breath in and breath out without thinking about doing it because it is a natural bodily function.
However, when we actually focus on the act of breathing, everything else that normally distracts us goes away.
To breath mindfully, try this exercise:
- Start by sitting with your back straight. If you can sit cross-legged on the floor, so much the better. If not, sitting in a chair or on the edge of the bed is fine too.
- Next, place the tip of your tongue against the top of your mouth right behind your upper front teeth. Hold your tongue in the position during the entirety of the breathing exercise. Be sure your lips slightly pursed so air can get out.
- Start the breathing exercise by forcibly exhaling completely through your mouth.
- Now, close your mouth and inhale slowly through your nose for four seconds.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale forcibly through your mouth for eight seconds.
- This completes one breath cycle. Repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breathes.
As you breathe in, hold it and breathe out, clear your mind of everything else and concentrate on each of the three breathe steps.
Do this breathing exercise at least twice a day. During the first month, limit your breathing to four breath cycles each time.
After the first month, increase the breath cycles to eight each session, and still at least twice a day.
Because this breathing exercise is a natural relaxant for your brain and nervous system, you can use it whenever a stressful situation arises and interrupt the “fight or flight” response and the associated cortisol release.
And over time, if done often enough, your breathing will naturally become deeper and more rhythmic thus drawing in more air with every breath.
More air means more oxygen to your cells. The more air out, the more carbon dioxide (a by-product or cellular activity) will come out with it helping to detoxify your cells and make them work more efficiently.
Having started in the Buddhist religion, meditation in one form or another has been around for over 5,000 years and is still being used today.
Do you think it would have endured if it was not beneficial?
While there are many different forms of meditation, one similarity all of them have is a high level of concentration on a single object: repeating a single word or mantra, staring at a candle flame or focused on breathing.
With mindful meditation, an individual’s focus is on the different thoughts that cross their mind during the meditation session.
But what is different is that they simply observe the thoughts and do not make any judgments about them one way of the other – negatively or positively.
By focusing on just the thoughts, and not judging them, an inner peace starts to develop and the stress level drops dramatically.
The Yoga Advantage
Yoga has both physical and mental benefits.
Physical movements called asanas or poses benefit the body. Ironically, breathing and meditation are two of the mental elements of yoga that benefit the brain. Both mental and physical benefits help reduce stress and the effects of it over the long-term.
As noted above, one of the mental effects of stress is losing the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time.
For some people, everything is a crisis and triggers the “fight or flight” response and corresponding release of cortisol.
But as also noted above, breathing and meditation exercises, which are part of yoga, negate the mental effects of stress, so doing yoga just for its mental effects is worth the price of admission.
But how about the physical effects of stress. Can yoga help with that also? The answer is yes.
Some of the benefits derived from the physical side of yoga include:
- More flexibility
- Better muscle strength and tone
- Improved respiration, energy and vitality
- Boost in metabolism
- Better weight management including loss if that is a goal
- Improved cardio and circulatory health
- Better athletic performance
- More protection from injury
- A more erect posture
- Improved bone health
- Better immunity to disease and illness
If new to yoga, there are six easy poses to start out with before moving up to the more complex ones.
- Stand straight with your feet together, shoulders relaxed, weight evenly distributed on your feet, arms at your sides.
- Take a deep breath while at the same time extending your hands overhead, palms facing each other with arms straight. Reach up toward the sky with your fingertips.
- Hold for a few seconds before returning to the starting position.
- Start by getting down on all fours so both feet and hands are on the floor with your hands directly under your shoulders, knees under your hips.
- Walk your hands a few inches forward and spread fingers wide, pressing palms into mat.
- Come up on your toes and slowly press your hips toward ceiling, bringing your body into an inverted V. Feet should be hip-width apart, knees slightly bent.
- Hold the position for 3 full breaths.
- Start by standing up straight.
- Turn 90 degrees to the right at the waist and take a step forward with your leading leg so that your feet end up being 3 to 4 feet apart; your left foot should be turned in slightly to the right also.
- Bring your hands up, relax your shoulders, and then extend your arms out to the sides, palms down.
- Bend your right knee at 90 degrees, keeping knee over ankle; gaze out over right hand. Stay for 1 minute.
- Switch sides and repeat.
- Stand with your arms at sides.
- Shift your weight onto your left leg and place sole of your right foot flat on the inside of your left thigh, keeping hips facing forward.
- Once balanced, bring hands in front of you in prayer position, palms together.
- On inhalation, extend arms over shoulders, palms separated and facing each another. Stay for 30 seconds.
- Lower and repeat on opposite side.
- Lie on floor on your back with your knees bent and directly over your heels.
- Place arms at sides, palms down.
- Exhale, then press your feet into floor as you lift your hips.
- Clasp hands under your lower back and press arms down, lifting hips until thighs are parallel to floor, bringing the chest up toward the chin. Hold for 1 minute.
- From the standing position, extend your arms out to sides.
- While bending over your right leg, stand so that your feet are about 3 feet apart, toes on your right foot turned out to 90 degrees, left foot to 45 degrees.
- Allow your right hand to touch the floor or rest on your right leg below the knee and extend the fingertips of your left hand toward the ceiling.
- Turn your gaze toward the ceiling and hold for 5 breaths.
- Stand back up to the staring position and repeat on opposite side.
Use these sample mindfulness exercises to not only improve your mental health, but your physical one too.
Repeat as often as necessary to keep stress levels low, reduce the effects of cortisol release and its negative effects on both the mind and body.