Deep breathing combats stress

Here’s how to manage our stress, according to a therapist

Stress comes from everyday life situations, whether it’s a promotion at work, an argument with a spouse, buying a house or paying bills. It can also come from our own negative self-talk, attitude or poor coping skills.

We usually think of stress as being negative but it’s not all bad. In small amounts, stress can actually help us perform under pressure and take care of important tasks. However, many of us have become so accustomed to living with stress we don’t realize we’re suffering until it boils over and begins to negatively affect us. If we find ourselves frequently feeling frazzled, overwhelmed and at our limits, it’s time to take action to bring ourselves back into balance.

Nevada Health Centers (NVHC) Licensed Clinical Social Worker Christi Gunn explains, “When we’re stressed, we have thousands of chemicals released in our bodies which cause us to either react or respond.” We will experience this as muscle tension, quickening of breath and heart rate, a rise in blood pressure or something else.

“If we leave stress unchecked, it makes problem solving more difficult and drains our energy,” Gunn adds. “We won’t feel effective, safe, healthy or productive.”

Gunn compares our ability to respond to stress to a rubber band — flexible and adaptable. But if we’re not dealing with our stress, over time it will continue to stretch the rubber band. As we keep pushing ourselves, the rubber band will keep stretching and stretching until….SNAP!

The Effects of Chronic Stress

“We quickly minimize the impact of our stress, thinking ‘I’m fine, it’s not that bad,’” Gunn says. “And we try to keep going until we can’t any longer.”  Gunn says that negative stress usually shows up in a variety of symptoms, including:

Mental:

  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor judgment
  • Constant worry

Emotional:

  • Depressed mood
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Moodiness, irritability, anger
  • Easily overwhelmed
  • Loneliness

Physical:

  • Aches and pains
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain
  • Frequent illnesses

Behavioral:

  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Procrastination
  • Using drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes to relax
  • Excessive screen time

How to De-Stress

“I hear it from people all the time — that they don’t have time to deal with their stress,” Gunn says. “We need to change our mindset to appreciate the true cost of not making our health and wellness a priority. Eventually, it will catch up to us.”

RELATED: Integrated healthcare: The benefits of a whole person approach

While there are many issues outside of our control that may be contributing to our stress, we need to identify what we can do. Showing up for ourselves in small ways, like moving our bodies, getting good sleep and eating healthfully are the tried and true strategies that support our health, and are often overlooked.

Gunn says that creating mindful moments throughout your day is another simple way to give your rubber band more flexibility. “This can be as simple as bringing your full attention to what you’re doing for 30 to 60 seconds,” she says. “For example, while you’re at work, pay attention to the temperature in the room, the chair you’re sitting in, the floor beneath your feet, and the quality of your breath.”

We’ve all heard someone say, ‘take a deep breath’ to calm down and so often we blow off their well-meaning advice, convinced they don’t really understand what we’re going through. Well, it turns out their advice is good. We all breathe unconsciously, but Gunn says the key is to breathe intentionally.

“Purposefully breathing deeply centers us,” she explains.

Gunn says everybody has time to do this kind of breathing, as it can work in as little as a minute. “Take in a deep breath through your nose noticing your belly expand, then slowly exhale through your mouth,” she says, “Make your exhale be slightly longer than your inhale.”

She also recommends performing daily body scans, though not the kind you get with an MRI — the kind you can do yourself.

“Do a mental scan from the top of your head to the tip of your toes,” she says. “See if you can relax your muscles as you scan through each part of your body and check in with your breathing, slowly and deeply.”

She shares another simple exercise that she calls 5-4-3-2-1. If you’re feeling stressed, stop and consider these things:

  • What are five things I can see?
  • What are four things I can feel?
  • What are three things I can hear?
  • What are two things I can smell?
  • What is one thing I can taste?

All of these exercises are designed to help us get more in touch with our own bodies and out of our heads. “If we can carve out even 10-20 minutes a day to check in with ourselves, take a walk or just breathe, it gives our rubber band more flexibility,” Gunn says.

When to Seek Therapy for Stress

Another option is therapy. “We tend to go through the day on auto-pilot,” Gunn says. “Working with a therapist can help us identify our negative habits and learn new and more healthful ways to deal with life’s challenges. Therapy can help us learn to live with more purpose and joy.”

Related: How can therapy help you?

Gunn normally sees people after the rubber band breaks, but there are obvious advantages to seeing a therapist before that happens.

“We want to help people move towards wellness,” Gunn explains. “To learn how to take care of yourself, be compassionate toward yourself, rather than slapping a Band-Aid on it and gritting your teeth through it.”

She notes that most of her patients need a better understanding of their unhealthy habits that keep them stuck. “In doing so, your mood, motivation, creativity and relationships with others and yourself can improve,” she explains. Understanding and recognizing when we are stressed gives the opportunity to better care for ourselves and those we love.

As with their other services, NVHC has a sliding fee scale for mental health and addiction services. If you’d like help getting your rubber band in check and living your best life, call 800-787-2568.