Might this be a good time to remind you to be mindful of your level of stress and how it might be affecting your health?
A little stress, like a little inflammation, is a good thing, giving us the energy to do what needs to be done. But too much, for too long, definitely takes its toll on our bodies. The hormones of stress drive up blood sugar and blood pressure and inflammation and make it hard for us to think clearly, digest our food, and sleep well. Stress makes our bellies fat. In all these ways, it makes us get old faster.
Especially in this difficult time in our nation, I encourage us to take the time to notice when we are stressed and then to figure out what we can do to care for ourselves.
In my bag of health tricks, the stress management tool that I turn to first is awareness of my breath. Most of us can’t directly control our blood pressure or blood sugar or digestive efficiency. But we do have the power to control our breathing, and, through that, our autonomic nervous system, which then controls all these other parts of our physiology.
If we slow down our breathing, particularly our exhalation, we can get our whole body to calm down. I could explain the physiology, but, for now, let’s keep it simple. Just try this: breathe in, counting slowly. Breathe out, also counting, making the exhale last longer than the inhale. Breathe in four, breathe out six, or eight, or whatever counts work for you. Repeat, for as long as it feels right. That’s it. That’s all it takes.
Do this as many times a day as you need to de-stress. Do it when you are worried or afraid or unproductively angry. Use it before meals, to help with digestion. Use it at bedtime or if you wake up in the night and have trouble getting back to sleep.
This may feel difficult when you first try it, but it’s a skill that most people can learn. The more you use it, the easier it gets. If you find it too hard, some people benefit from the help of one of several available do-it-yourself biofeedback tools. Let me know if you want me to write about these.
Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein writes this: “On a boat in the middle of a great storm, one wise, calm person can bring everyone to safety. The world is like that boat, tossed by the storms of greed and hatred and fear. Can we be one of those people who help to keep it safe?”
Breathe in, breathe out. Take good care of yourselves.
Elizabeth Walker, Ph.D., Certified Nutritionist and Wellness Coach
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