When it comes to happiness we want to increase the number of ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters, natural chemical released in our body that make us feel alert, happy, content and even loved. On the other hand, we want to reduce ones which makes us stressed.
You can alter your brain chemistry through lifestyle changes including diet, sleep, exercise, social interactions which all boost our mood. Ultimately though, the very best way to control your mood is to change what you focus on and the way you react to what you focus on.
Remember, your neurotransmitters are released in reaction to your subjective experiences. So, change your experience by changing your beliefs so that you can improve your brain chemistry.
Every Friday I will be sharing a ‘feel good tip’ designed to encourage these necessary lifestyle changes and train your brain for happiness and success 😉
Feel Good Friday Tip
Stress & Deep Breathing Techniques
Stress is what we feel when we’re overworked, when we’re dreading something that’s about to happen or when we’re generally unable to relax and stay calm due to outside or inside factors influencing our thoughts.
But it actually goes beyond this. Stress is a basic physiological reaction that is designed to help us focus and survive. In itself it is not a bad thing and is actually rather adaptive. The problem is that it has been taken out of context, which means the positive effects become outweighed by the negative.
Essentially, stress is what causes the ‘fight or flight response’. This is a physiological response to perceived danger, designed to improve our chances of survival. If you were to see a lion for example, this would trigger a cascade of effects collectively resulting in the stress response.
This begins when we observe danger or experience fear. Increased activity in our brain, causes the release of adrenaline, as well as our stress hormones. These then trigger a number of physiological changes: increasing our heartrate, making us breathe more quickly and making us more acutely focussed on the potential threat.
In the short term, this is good for us. These things help us to evade danger and win combative situations. Increased muscle tension makes us stronger. Increased blood viscosity makes our blood more likely to clot in case of an injury. Dilated pupils let more light in to improve our vision.
Suppression of secondary functions means that more blood can be sent to the muscles and the brain. Reduced pain means we can carry on fighting or running despite injury. In short, anything that can help you to survive is prioritised, while secondary functions are suppressed.
The idea is that once we get to safety, we can then turn off this fight or flight response and instead enter the ‘rest and digest’ state in order to recover. Once the predator is gone, we can recover.
But the problem is that in our modern environments, predators aren’t the main problem. It’s rare these days for us to be chased, to get into a fight or to need to escape a forest fire.
What’s not so rare, is for our boss to shout at us and to tell us that we’re late for our deadline. It’s not rare for us to be in debt. It’s not rare for us to have marital problems. And unfortunately, the brain interprets all these signals in just the same way: as threats. This causes the same fight or flight response. But because these types of threats aren’t so easily resolved, this means we’ll often end up on heightened alert for a longer period of time. And this takes a tremendous toll on our bodies.
As you might imagine: it is not good for you when your immune system and digestive system are suppressed for days. It’s also not good for your brain to be flooded with stress hormones. It’s not good for your heartrate to stay elevated, or your blood pressure to stay high. This is the problem with chronic stress as opposed to acute stress. And it’s the problem with heightened levels of stress. Basically the longer stress like this continues, the more you start to feel drained, malnourished, fatigued, ill and possibly eventually depressed.
But what if you’re not stressed?
What if your work isn’t particularly high pressured, your relationships are good and you have plenty of money? Does that mean you’re fine? Probably not. Unfortunately, many other aspects of our modern lifestyles cause symptoms similar to those of stress. One example is our use of technology and artificial lighting. The brain is designed to use external cues to set its own biological rhythms, including the sleep-wake.
This actually triggers the release of stress hormones at certain times of day. That’s because stress hormones are one of the tools that the body uses to wake itself up when you are sleeping. The release of stress hormones triggers activity in the brain that stirs you out of sleep and makes you fully alert.
But if the light is on at night, or you’re looking at your phone in the evening, this will cause the release of similar stress hormones right when you’re meant to be relaxing. That means you’ll continue to feel alert and won’t give your brain time to recover.
And what doesn’t help is the way that everything on the internet and on TV is designed to grab our attention and pull us this way and that – this has been shown to cause effects similar to ADHD in the long term and make it harder for us to concentrate on any one thing for very long.
Stress isn’t a ‘bad thing’ necessarily: rather it is a useful and required part of a normal, healthy, functioning body. In fact, a little stress is necessary in order to help you feel more alert, more focussed and more productive. If we never had even a small amount of stress hormones in our system, then we would spend all our time highly rested and too laid back to get any actual work done!
The key is to make sure that those stress levels stay at this optimal level, as well as to try and get your natural cycles to line up with the times when you need to be most productive during the day.
When we are stressed, we breathe more quickly and not as deeply. But likewise, when we breathe more quickly and not as deeply, we become more stressed. Right now, take both hands and place one on your stomach and one on your chest. Now breathe normally. Which hand is moving first? Is it the hand on your chest or the hand on your stomach?
For most people, the answer is the chest. But to be optimally healthy, it should be the stomach. When we’re infants this is how we breathe and it’s also how animals breathe. Years of sitting in an office desk though, or on a sofa, mean that we’ve spent too long with our stomachs compressed and learned to breathe differently.
Stomach breathing means that you are relaxing your abdominal muscles, thereby opening up your abdominal cavity and allowing your diaphragm to drop down into that space. This then creates more room for the lungs and they will automatically inflate as they enlarge. You then bring your chest in and open that up to take in even more oxygen and as a result, you breathe a lot more deeply. This oxygenates your body, calming your heartrate and helps you to feel less stressed.
In fact, one of the very best ways to help yourself feel instantly less stressed, is to start taking deep, controlled breaths. This puts you in a rest and digest state and stops the fight or flight response in its tracks.
You can also simply count the breaths in and the breaths out and each time you get to ten, start again. The aim here is to have all of your focus and all of your attention on the breathing and not to be distracted by anything outside.
Now, from time to time, you will notice that your thoughts start to drift and that you end up thinking about other things. This is a fantastic example of just how hard we find it to focus on any one thing for a given period of time.
Don’t worry when it happens though. This is the worst thing you can do!
Instead, simply ‘notice’ that your mind has wandered and then bring your attention back to your breathing again. Each time it drifts off, just re-center and don’t worry about it.
Focussing on the breathing is simply giving us a way to center our thoughts and to remove the distractions that normally interrupt. This could just as easily work by focussing on anything else: for example, some people will focus on a single word called a ‘mantra’. A mantra is what is often used in transcendental meditation for instance and might mean just repeating the word ‘Calm’ in order to busy your internal monologue.
Hopefully now you have a little more understanding about stress and how breathing can help to begin reducing and combating the stress in your own life.
This isn’t going to be an easy ride. Stress for many of us has become a normal part of life and habits are hard to change. But by using breathing techniques, you’ll find that you can reduce your base level of stress.
What’s more, is that this will teach you to be more aware of your thoughts and better able to control them and thereby steer your emotions.
It’s time to wrestle back control of your mind. You tell your body when it needs to wake up and when it needs to focus. You decide what’s worth worrying about.
When you’re home and work is over, you use this power to allow yourself to rest, recover and forget all about the stresses of the day.
Once you can do all this, you’ll find your mood improves, your productivity skyrockets and your health is greatly enhanced in both the long and short term.
So inhale calm and exhale stress, give yourself the feel good vibes.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
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