A few weeks ago, I found myself at the hospital for an emergency ECG heart scan. It’s a perfectly painless and quick test, but, being a hypochondriac, my inner scriptwriter had already created a compelling drama featuring a montage of Casualty out-takes and alarming outcomes. I could feel my heartbeat race – not helpful for the test. ‘Oh no, now the results will be abnormal and then I’m doomed…’ I panicked.
Try as I might, nothing would calm me down. Not visualisation, nor any of the mindfulness techniques or stress breathing exercises I had spent 11 weeks diligently learning earlier this year. I could feel my heart beating faster and faster, in spite of my willing it not to and, surprise surprise, the test result indicated ‘tachycardia’ – abnormally fast heartbeat.
The involuntary impact of stress
As soon as I left the building, I exhaled and everything slowed down. By the time I got home and measured my pulse, it was normal. I mention this incident to illustrate the thorny issue of stress and its involuntary impact on our physiology. We all know it’s desirable to reduce stress and adopt a calm mindset. However, certain aspects of anxiety lie beyond our control.
Medics even have a term for what I experienced: ‘white coat syndrome’. As Dean Burnett, author of The Idiot Brain (Guardian Faber, £12.99) points out, our minds aren’t only occupied with thoughts, memories and the brainy stuff.
‘The body needs the brain to control it and make it do necessary things. As a result, much of the brain is dedicated to basic physiological processes, monitoring internal workings, co-ordinating responses to problems,’ he explains.
‘The regions that control these fundamental aspects, the brainstem and the cerebellum, are often referred to as “the reptile brain”. By contrast, all the more advanced abilities we humans enjoy – consciousness, attention, perception, reasoning – are found in the neocortex, neo meaning new.’
How stress affects the brain and body
Burnett describes the relationship between these two parts of the brain as being like a freedom-loving employee and an annoying micromanager. ‘If you’ve ever worked for someone who’s a micromanager, you’ll know just how inefficient this arrangement can be,’ he says. ‘Having someone less experienced (but higher ranking) hovering over you, issuing ill-informed orders and asking dumb questions (the super-analytical neocortex).’
So, what happens when we’re stressed? The brain receives information about any given situation. Depending on the context (such as footsteps in your house in the middle of the night, as opposed to footsteps outside during the day when the postman usually does his round), your brain will label it safe or not safe.
If ‘not safe’, cortisol and adrenaline are released – the so-called fight-or-flight response. According to Burnett, this is why we often experience physical reactions to stress. Common manifestations of this include rapid pulse, dry mouth, the shakes. In more extreme situations, you might even develop eczema, mouth ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.
But these physical responses are no longer only triggered by obvious threats to our safety. One research study* indicated that low-grade daily stress, like your phone running out of charge before an important call, the train that’s running late, or having to tackle a pile of bills, can cause brain cells to prematurely age by as much as a decade. This statistic is enough to bring about a mini stress- attack in itself.
Could stress actually be beneficial?
Kat Farrants, yoga teacher and founder of Movement for Modern Life, offers some words of reassurance. ‘In a way, stress is a good thing because it has saved us from being eaten by wild animals and it gets us out of immediate danger. But it is meant to be a short-term reaction to a situation. Humans can deal with it and return to relax-and-recuperate mode,’ she says.
‘However, if you’re in fight-or-flight mode all the time, your body can’t focus on repairing itself. For example, the human body is not able to digest food and be on that red alert state at the same time. Red alert takes precedence.’
So, given that evolutionary biology isn’t on our side, what can we do about stress? Stress breathing exercises could be one key method. However, Susan David, psychologist and author of Emotional Agility (Penguin, £14.99), believes we overuse the term ‘stress’ in the first place.
‘We often use it as a blanket term for anything that’s going wrong,’ says David. ‘So, if someone asks, “How was your day?”, a typical response might be, “Busy and stressful”. We’re using stress as an umbrella term to describe stuff that’s far more granular. On further questioning, you might discover that, in fact, you’re not stressed, you’re angry, or embarrassed.’
The two types of stress
According to David, psychologists have identified that there are two distinct types of stress. ‘Type 1 stress is when you are stressed about something specific, such as losing your job in a round of redundancies. You’re upset, but it’s a clean emotion,’ she explains.
‘Type 2 stress is when you get stressed about the stress. “Oh no, I’m stressed, that’s really bad for me, I might have a heart attack”. Or, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way, I should be feeling happy”.
So, you start layering struggle into the experience and expending precious cognitive resources on whether we’re allowed to feel something. This takes away from the core issue – I need to find a new job/boss/husband or whatever.’
In the case of type 1 stress, what should we do about it? ‘The question to ask yourself is, “Is this worthwhile stress?”. Is the source of stress fundamentally connected to what’s important to you? If it is, it will often involve discomfort or pushing yourself in directions that are not part of your usual story.
‘So, you may be in a job that’s stressful, trying to deal with the kids and make dinner, which is also stressful. But those things are deeply congruent with the choices you’ve made.’
Be realistic about your stress
In the case of type 2 stress, the so-called ‘stressing about being stressed’, David observes that people will often have an unrealistic attitude. ‘Be very careful of adopting what I call “dead people’s goals”.
‘By that, I mean when you hear yourself saying, “I don’t ever want to feel anxious, I never want to fail or embarrass myself”. The only people who avoid all that are dead. If you want to live a life that’s vital, thrilling and energetic, then you don’t want to avoid stress, because stress is the point at which you’re experiencing true growth.’
‘Good stress’ verses ‘bad stress’
So, if that’s good stress, what is bad stress? ‘When you start feeling that stress is in charge of your actions,’ explains David. ‘Your inner dialogue might be something like, “I’m so stressed, so it’s justified that I snap at my husband because he’s asked me to do one extra thing. I’m on overload! I can’t believe he’s asked me to do that”.
‘So, your thoughts and emotions take over, directing the way you snap at your kids or check your phone instead of being present with the family. Instead of being connected to what you truly value as an individual, you’re being completely distracted, you’ve got hooked in.’
Why the voice in your head is an unreliable narrator
In her book, David mentions that, during the average day, most of us speak an astonishing 16,000 words. That’s not counting the voice in our head! ‘This voice is an unreliable narrator – just like Amy Dunne in the psychological thriller Gone Girl. Our own narrator may be biased, confused or engaged in wilful self-justification or deception. And it will not shut up.’
She cites an example from her own life: a colleague rang to tell her that they were going to use one of her ideas in their own research paper. Upset, she called her surgeon husband, who said he couldn’t talk because he was about to operate on someone.
Rather than brooding about the cause of her stress, her inner scriptwriter came up with the line: “He’s never there for me”. She then proceeded to ignore her husband for two days. David laughs when I tell her how much this anecdote resonated with me. She mentions that it’s really common for people to brush off the real source of the problem and fixate on something easier to handle.
‘There are two default responses I see in people who are very stressed. The first I call “bottling”. This is when the person says, “I’m stressed about my boss/husband, but at least I’ve got a job/marriage”, so they push the stress aside and ignore it.
‘The other strategy I see is the same but opposite – brooding. That’s where the person will say, “I’m so stressed”, going over and over it in their mind. They come up with drastic solutions like giving it all up and moving to the country. Both are illustrations of where thoughts are in charge.’
How breathing exercises could ease your stress
One much simpler solution than resigning from your job or asking your spouse for a divorce might be to change the way you breathe by adopting stress breathing exercises. Kat Farrants observes that many people she sees don’t know how to breathe properly. This is simply because no one has ever taught them how to do it.
‘There are people who take their first shallow gasp of breath when their boss shows up in the morning, and the last shallow breath with a sleeping pill at midnight,’ she says. ‘In between, there’s a constant state of anxiety.’
When you’re feeling stressed, she suggests sitting up with a straight spine, visualising your head reaching up to the ceiling: ‘That gives your lungs a chance to take in air. If you’re sitting hunched over your desk, you’ve got no chance.’
In a really stressful situation, she suggests not trying to control the breath at all. ‘Just count. Count the inhales as they occur naturally, and count the exhales. Accept what shows up without changing your breathing. “Ooh, that’s a very shallow breath. Oh, I’m breathing quickly, I’m going into something stressful”. By counting your inhales and exhales, you cannot also be stressed. This is because the mind can’t count and think about the stressful event at the same time – it’s not possible.’
Remember: stress isn’t always a bad thing
Although stress feels like it’s a scourge of modern life, and isn’t something we can ever completely make peace with, David does offer a comforting theory: ‘Don’t forget that, very often, you’re experiencing stress because things are going your way.’
Having a tough deadline at work because your boss has given more responsibility, or juggling a busy family schedule with work and a hectic social life are common examples. ‘Think back to a time when you learned the most from an experience,’ David says.
‘Usually, that will coincide with a time when you were also stressed. Those types of learning experiences take us out of our standard way of being. Learning to become emotionally agile gives us a willingness to accept what is.’
Perhaps this idea is best summed up by a quotation in David’s book from Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived a Nazi death camp. ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space,’ he wrote. ‘In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
How to approach and manage your stress levels
Making simple changes to the way we approach stress can help us find clarity and strength to overcome it. Try Susan David’s top stress-busting tips…
1. Take a helicopter view of life
Noticing your thoughts about stress immediately deflates the power of that stress. If you’re standing waiting for a train that’s late, instead of running a script that says, ‘I’m going to be late for work and then the boss will… because…’ imagine yourself looking down on the situation objectively. Notice feelings as feelings, as opposed to being stuck inside them. ‘I’m stressed because the train is late’. Breathe into it.
2. Label what you’re truly feeling when you are stressed
If you’re able to articulate your emotions, then that’s an incredibly helpful first step to enable you to deal with the situation more easily and effectively. For example, rather than simply saying, ‘I’m stressed at work’, you might come up with, ‘I’m disappointed with my career direction’ or, ‘I’m struggling with my sense of belonging at work’. When people do this, it helps them to be more emotionally agile and become less stuck.
3. Find what is important to you
What’s the beacon behind your stress? For instance, if you’re struggling with a sense of belonging at work, that could be a sign that you want to feel more like you’re part of a community and that that’s important to you.
4. Make tiny tweaks in your life to ease stress
Rather than just abandoning the whole situation, such as leaving a job or relationship, once you identify what’s really meaningful for you, you can make small life changes. For example, if you’re stressed because you feel you’re always running after other people and lacking self-care, you might make a Monday evening date to go to a painting class or see girlfriends – just for you!
Breathing techniques for stress relief
So, how do you combat anxiety? Research shows that one easy way is to just breathe deeply. Here’s why stress breathing exercises are effective, plus some top tips on getting started…
Why do stress breathing exercises ease anxiety?
In 1970, Harvard Medical School cardiologist, Dr Herbert Benson, researched a technique to induce an opposing reaction to the ‘stress response’. This is that feeling of anxiety we get when we being constantly triggered into fight-or-flight mode by the stressors of modern-day life.
He found that we can invoke a ‘relaxation response’ instead, which counteracts the ‘stress response’ through our breath, and the first step is by simply breathing deeply. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness and tai chi all help with stress – and breath is the one factor that connects them all.
How do stress breathing exercises work?
Deep breathing, which uses the full space in the abdomen to fill with air rather than only our chests, is scientifically proven to increase oxygen within the body, creating energy and improving functionality.
It balances the nervous system, lowers our heart rate, decreases the production of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, and cleanses our body of carbon dioxide and 70 per cent of other bodily waste.
It also helps to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide levels balanced, which supports an alkaline environment; as infection thrives in acidity, explains Jean Hall, author of Breathe: Simple Breathing Techniques For A Calmer, Happier Life.
When you should NOT use stress breathing exercises
There are some circumstances under which deep breathing is not helpful. If you are prone to panic attacks, which involve hyperventilation, causing a dramatic drop in carbon dioxide levels in the blood, a study at the Southern Methodist University found that the antidote to reverse hyperventilation is not to take deep breaths, but slow, shallow ones.
Self-soothing stress breathing exercise
Next time you feel overwhelmed, try the self-soothing breath (below). Adopt this pose to alleviate anxiety; the gentle, rhythmic rolling motion used in this stress breathing exercise helps to soothe both the body and the brainwaves.
Drawing up the legs and hugging them can make powerful feelings seem less overwhelming, as you protect and contain them with this action.
- Lie down on your back in a comfortable position.
- Bend your knees up towards your body and gently hug your legs, relaxing your feet and ankles. Soften and release your shoulders to the floor, relax your back and lower your chin to lengthen the back of your neck. Close your eyes.
- As you hug your legs to your body, pay particular attention to your breath. Notice its natural rise and fall; your energy softly rising when you inhale and gently falling when you exhale. When you inhale, allow your belly and ribs to rise up towards your thighs, then sink back down again when you exhale. Settle here for a few moments.
- Slowly roll your body a little to the right and then to the left, using the floor to massage your back. Keep the motion relaxed, soft and rhythmical.
- Now, begin to coordinate the rocking motion with your breath. As you inhale, gently roll to the right, and as you exhale, roll back to centre. Slowly inhale as you rock to the left, and exhale as you rock back to the centre.
- Continue rolling for 5-10 minutes, until you feel a quiet calm flowing through your body and mind. Take time to breathe, moving slowly and smoothly.
Adapted from ‘Breathe: Simple Breathing Techniques For A Calmer, Happier Life’ by Jean Hall (Quadrille, £7.99).