By Judith Macek
- What is an effective or healthy way to cope with stress?
- Whether it’s physical or mental, stress is a pressure or demand on the body, and if you’ve ever experienced rapid heartbeat, headaches, nausea, insomnia, muscle tension and/or difficulty concentrating (to name a few symptoms), then you’ve most likely wined and dined with stress.
Although stress is typically associated with negative terms like pain, pressure, trouble and worry, realistically it’s not always negative or unhealthy. Everybody has an optimal positive stress level, which is called eustress. This motivates us to get out of bed and keep up with our responsibilities, while the unhealthy one, christened distress, may shift us into overdrive.
Imagine waiting in the doctor’s office with nothing to do. Yawning follows because the mind is bored, and hypostress (not enough demands) sets in. Conversely, if you’re running late, can’t find your keys and traffic is heavy, then you experience hyperstress. Stressors result from demands we place on ourselves (internal) or demands from surroundings (external). Whatever the source, the body’s first response is short shallow breaths.
We can either learn to control the breath or the breath controls us. One healthy effective way to cope with stress is with a breathing technique. Before beginning to practice this skill, pay attention to your breathing patterns.
A healthy breath fills the lungs and distends the diaphragm. It can be helpful to place a hand on your belly to feel if it rise and fall with the breath. One breathing technique to try is to draw a slow breath in through the nose while counting to three, fill the lungs and diaphragm, and then slowly exhale through the mouth counting to four. Repeat this three times. If three rounds don’t suffice, repeat the process. If counting to three isn’t comfortable, try four- or five-second inhalations. Just remember to exhale at least one second longer than the inhale to push out extra carbon dioxide.
Healthy breathing patterns not only help us feel calm, but they also have positive physiological effects on our bodies. Slow controlled breathing alters chemicals in the blood, alleviates muscle tension, decreases heart rate and lowers blood pressure. The nice thing about this coping skill is it can be used anywhere because most people won’t find it odd that you’re breathing. It’s only as noticeable as you make it. Remember to use this technique in times of stress, and try practicing it a few times a day when you’re not stressed. This allows the brain to master the skill without distractions.
Judith Macek is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Portage County who works with all ages and diagnoses, specializing in anxiety, depression and grief counseling.