We live in a stressful world. It’s no surprise that many of us are dealing with high levels of anxiety, stress and pain on a regular basis. Often we are unaware of how much just our “normal” days affect our primal nervous systems — to the point where we consider the side-effects of our lifestyles (tension, low back pain, pain in general, sleep disorders, headaches, weight gain, etc.) as normal signs of age or just simply life.
Often when people come to see me in the clinic they are at breaking points. The pain or stress has become so much that they can no longer function in their day-to-day lives. While it’s my hope for all of us that we don’t continue this pattern of only seeking help once things get that bad, it is in our nature to push through a lot.
There’s a few “simple” practices I give clients routinely that can help mitigate acute levels of overwhelm. These are practices I also recommend as routine preventive practices in our everyday lives.
Our breath is our direct connection to our physiology and our nervous system. Our nervous system is for all intents and purposes our control system. It is in charge of our survival and sends the signals that control our physical and mental processes. It’s also the one thing we can always gain control over and adjust. When things feel like too much, the first thing you should and can do is bring your focus to your breathing. This has been proven to help us reduce overwhelm in the system, lower pain levels, blood pressure, anxiety, improve mood and energy, assist in sleep and various other symptoms.
A few ideas for breath exercises are:
- Square Breath: Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and exhale for four seconds. Repeat.
- Connected Breath: Move continuously between your inhale and exhale, removing any gaps or pauses between the breath. Imagine your breath like a wave, flowing in and out. Create an active inhale and a sigh-like exhale.
- Held Breath: Inhale to capacity and restrict the exhale for as long as you can before the body forces the process (this will happen!) then make the exhale as long as you can. Repeat for five to six rounds. Do the same but in reverse. Exhale completely and restrict the next inhale until the body forces it to happen, then inhale as deep as possible. Repeat for five to six rounds.
- Simply breathing for two to five minutes (or more) each day, mindfully. Set a timer, get comfy and focus in on your breath for a few minutes with eyes closed or a soft gaze. Allow thoughts to come and go, and resist judging whatever does come up. Approach all things in this state with curiosity rather than judgment.
Go for a walk/move
Seems simple, and it is SO effective. Some of the most overwhelming moments I’ve experienced personally have been lessened by a simple walk. Whether it’s a five- to 10-minute stroll around the block, or a few hours walking on a nature path, it’s going to help. Often the hardest part about this tool is taking the first step. When we are stressed, overwhelmed or in pain the last thing we usually want to do is go for a walk. This act in itself is going to redirect the nervous system and bring us out of fight or flight and back to a calmer state.
If walking isn’t an option, find another way to move your body. Simply raising and lowering the shoulders, raising the hands up and down with the breath, folding to touch the toes, or doing some basic stretches or moves on the ground will lower our activated state, redirect our thoughts and change the narrative.
Research has proven that practising gratitude increases resilience, lowers anxiety/depression rates, and decreases negative health outcomes and chronic pain.
Take a moment each day to list (preferably in writing) three to five things that you are grateful for. It may be as simple as having a warm cup of coffee or tea, having water to drink, or the sun in the morning. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture to the big things in life each day. Expressing our gratitude physiologically puts our body into a positive relaxed state, and this even in small doses can be a game changer in combating symptoms of stress and pain.
Try out these accessible to anyone, and free, options whenever possible — even daily as a preventive or management strategy to the stressors of regular life.
The patterns of stress, overwhelm and pain can be challenging to change. This is where facilitated guidance can be really helpful. Checking in with your regular health-care provider when things are adding up can be important too — especially when symptoms persist.
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