Many of us think that we can overcome our stress by going away on vacation or taking an occasional day off work. How did that work out for you? My guess is not that well. We need better solutions.
We can’t always use our minds to control our minds because humans are by nature irrational. And stress hijacks our executive or thinking brain. Which is the reason CBT sometimes fails. Even people with the most knowledge about the human mind such as psychiatrists and psychologists make bad decisions. Knowing is different from feeling.
Stress is a non-specific physiologic response. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase whether we are excited because we just won the lottery jackpot or a patient just went on a tirade yelling at us because we refused to sign a disability form for which he did not qualify medically.
Our brains interpret whether the physiological response is good or bad. “I am so excited and thrilled!” our brain exclaims in the lottery scenario. In the case of the patient’s tirade, our brain says, “I am so angry, how dare he treat me like this!”
According to the Harvard-trained neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, when we experience a stressful event, the physiological response dissipates in 90 seconds. This is how it works in a nutshell:
- We are triggered by a stressful encounter
- We have a thought: “How dare this guy talk to me this way!”
- Our brain dumps norepinephrine down into our
- The norepinephrine results in physiological changes: our heart rate and blood pressure increase, we feel nausea in our stomachs, and our faces
This chemical cascade in our bodies lasts 90 seconds, after which the chemicals are flushed out. Since your rage can last for hours, you might be wondering how that might be possible.
The reason it lasts longer is that we continue to re-experience the event with our thoughts. We ruminate over the trigger; we replay the scene in our heads. Each time we do that, we release more norepinephrine.
“We can’t solve our problems with the same level of thinking we were at when we created them” Albert Einstein
We need new ways to get out of our chronic stress state rather than trying to think our way out of it. Mindfulness training is one well-documented and proven method for interrupting those thoughts. To me, this is one of the most powerful ways to build resilience and mitigate the negative effects of chronic stress. One can register for programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs, which are offered worldwide.
Another way is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). You will recall that the PNS is the part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is also called the rest and digest system. This is the system that reduces our blood pressure and heart rate. Even though it is automatic as the name implies, we have some control over it. By activating the PNS, we can reduce our heart rate and blood pressure. Our brain can then interpret these physiological changes as signs that we are more relaxed. By changing our physiology, we can change our minds.
Five body-calming techniques to stimulate Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
1.Softening our vision and widening our gaze.
When we are stressed, our visual field narrows causing us to focus narrowly. For example, if someone tries to attack you with a knife, you may not notice the butterfly fluttering because all you see is the knife approaching you. You develop tunnel vision. This is a sympathetic response. Our stress response causes changes in our vision. On the other hand, we can mitigate our stress response by changing our visual field to panoramic vision, by widening our visual field. By doing this, we can manage our autonomic arousal. Once in a while, look up from your computer and out the window. Take a few moments to soften your gaze and widen your visual field.
There are numerous studies showing how meditation will activate our parasympathetic nervous system. Don’t know where to start? There are numerous excellent apps that can help you get started.
This is shown to also trigger the vagus nerve and suppress the sympathetic nervous system. This in turn allows the PNS to become dominant.
4. Physiological sigh.
Have you ever noticed that when a child is crying uncontrollably, he inhales twice quickly in succession, before letting out a long exhale? This is a physiological sigh. People do this instinctively because it activates the PNS and helps us calm down. We can intentionally employ this tactic.
Take two quick inhales through the nose, then a slow exhale through the mouth.
This is not voodoo magic. There’s a physiological explanation behind it. The double inhale allows our normally collapsed peripheral alveoli to inflate, which removes CO2 more efficiently. The slow exhale, as described in the 1:2 ratio breathing below, reduces the HR.
The parasympathetic nervous system can be activated after two to three physiological sighs.
Our breathing naturally becomes shallower and quickens when we are under stress. By purposefully slowing down your breathing rate, you are triggering the parasympathetic nervous system.
There are many different breathing techniques that will activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Because of its simplicity, my favorite is 1:2 ratio breathing and shifting to long deep breaths. Here’s how:
Slow down your breathing rate, and exhale for twice as long as inhale. For example, inhale for a count of three, hold for two seconds, then exhale for a count of six. As a result, your inhale to exhale is 3:6
These five simple techniques can be used any time you experience a stressful encounter. They are quick and easy to do. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system and changing our physiology, our thoughts can change. When our thoughts shift, the emotion cascade will dissipate after 90 seconds.