Stress, Sleep, and how breathing can help
One of the major reasons why many of us have trouble sleeping comes down to the fact that we’re stressed. Stressed about work, about how to pay for rent on top of student loans, about the fight we had with a friend or partner, or about how the various current political issues won’t even matter if we can’t get climate change under control. And even if we manage to get away for a weekend to “detox,” the onslaught of these stressors comes back with such a vengeance when we return to our routine that it can be extremely difficult to find peace of mind.
You may have heard of the “flight or fight” response to stress; a reaction developed in order to save our ancestors from dangers way back in the cave days. When we have this reaction, our bodies react in a specific way. Hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, are released into our bloodstream. Our heart rate increases, and we take more, shallower breaths. Our pupils dilate, we can become pale, and may even tremble. We grow hyper aware of our surroundings, and are poised to flee or to protect ourselves at a moment’s notice.
While that response was very necessary when a massive saber-toothed tiger was about to attack us, the daily likelihood of such peril has started to diminish (for those of us lucky enough to live in conflict-free regions). However, new types of stressors have emerged. These could be in the form of work emails that come through at 11pm, the 1:1 you have with your boss the next day, the difficult conversation you need to have with a parent. Because of this, our bodies are now often under chronic stress.
The crux of it is that our bodies weren’t designed for this amount of chronic stress. We release cortisol as part of this fight or flight response partly because it controls our blood sugar levels (they increase during stress) and also because cortisol helps to temporarily halt any processes not necessary for fight or flight. When our cortisol levels stay elevated, a few things happen. Firstly, our hormones get messed up. This can lead to weight gain, trouble sleeping, heart problems, and digestion issues (among others!) Secondly, our mental health can be seriously impacted. Depression and anxiety can manifest or deepen, and even our ability to function well cognitively can deteriorate.
If you’re reading this and are now stressed out even more about your current levels of stress, we’re with you. Especially when there is no end in sight to our new stressors, it can feel extremely overwhelming to know what these feelings can do to you physically. At GetBProducts we are super passionate about mental health; therapy is always a great way to help relieve some of your burdens.
If you’re in between sessions or simply sitting at your desk freaking out before a presentation, another tool at your disposal is belly breathing. Before we go into how to do that, a quick overview of why breath is important to help relieve stress. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the part of our body that controls our heart rate, breathing, digestion, arousal, and certain hormonal processes, all of which happen largely unconsciously. The ANS is composed of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work in a see-saw kind of way - when one is up or “on”, the other is down.
Breathing is one of the few actions that we do both consciously and unconsciously. When we’re moving throughout the day, our body ensures that we take in oxygen in order for our organs to function. However, we can hold our breath or take deeper, prolonged breaths if we so choose. This ability is quintessential to controlling stress, because deep breathing can help stop fight or flight reactions and allow the parasympathetic system to seesaw back up after a stressful moment.
Ok, so now for how you can do this on your own to help release some stress.
- Find a comfortable seat, or lay down on the floor/your bed
- Close your eyes and let your hands rest on your belly
- Exhale out all of your air - you can’t breathe deeply if there’s already air in your lungs
- Inhale deeply through your nose and breathe into your belly - you should feel your hands move
- Exhale for the same amount of time as you inhaled (it can be helpful to count to five as you breathe in and then again on the way out)
- Repeat 5-10 times
This is also a great exercise to do as you’re getting into bed to help relax your mind if active brain is something that you struggle with when trying to go to sleep.