Reducing Stress Can Be an Exercise in the Head
Sit comfortably and imagine the most beautiful sunset over the mountains. Breathe in the fresh air as you envision the sun beginning to dip below the peaks. Allow your skin to feel the cooling temperature as the sun loses intensity. Hear the fading chirps of the birds at they start to settle in for the evening. Be in this moment and continue to draw in long sips of air. The longer you inhale, the slower the sun takes to set.
This is an exercise in mindfulness or being present in the moment.
Using the senses to focus on a fictional or a real thought helps you fully engage in activities and deal with problems as they arise. Practicing mindfulness is good for your physical health by helping you relieve stress, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, ease digestive problems and sleep better.
The main sense used to achieve these health benefits is the breath.
When you are stressed or upset your breath most likely becomes short and you might even hold it for long periods of time, which in turn stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, activating the fight or flight response. But if you can manage to take deep long breathes and slow down the rhythm, this in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body and lowers the heart rate.
Why this happens has remained a mystery. While scientist have identified what they think are the “breathing pacemaker” cells in the brain they’ve been trying to figure out how they work. Most recently researchers have been using genetic sequencing on mice to isolate the neurons they think are involved and have gained major insight. A recent article in the journal Science says they now think the breathing center has a direct and dramatic influence on higher-order brain function.
Usually when mice are placed in a new environment they frantically explore the case sniffing excitedly. This elevates the heart rate and elevates stress. But scientists explained that when they removed these neurons in the mice and placed them in a new cage they were calm. They think that the increased sniffing triggered the fight or flight response and the more they sniffed the more excited they got. But when these neurons were taken away there was no communication in the brain to trigger the effect. They continued to breath at a relaxed rate.
Other research on adventure racers and elite operations soldiers, people with high stress activities, found these people to have what they called resilience. That’s the ability to quickly return to a normal physical and mental state after high stress. They found people with resilience to be in better touch with their body and thus have the ability to avoid overreacting or calm themselves down efficiently.
Experts say these results show resilience is largely about body awareness and less about rational thinking.
People can train themselves to have better resilience by practicing mindfulness or meditation and taking daily opportunities to focus on their breath and their body. This will teach you to notice when stress brings on a change in your breathing but not allow yourself to over react and increase its rapidness.
The Buddhist monk and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh, reminds us, “When you mindfully look at the sun, the mindfulness of the body helps you to see that the sun is in you; without the sun there is no life at all and suddenly you get in touch with the sun in a different way.”
NY Times Stress: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/to-better-cope-with-stress-listen-to-your-body/?action=click&contentCollection=Well&module=RelatedCoverage®ion=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article
NY Times Breathing: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/well/move/what-chill-mice-can-teach-us-about-keeping-calm.html?em_pos=small&emc=edit_hh_20170407&nl=well&nl_art=3&nlid=73214531&ref=headline&te=1&_r=0