Reduce Stress & Anxiety and Improve Physical Health
- Alison Ramsay
- December 19, 2018
Self Soothing to reduce stress and anxiety AND improve physical health
Are you experiencing physical symptoms of stress or anxiety such as pain, fatigue, restlessness, unintentional weight loss or weight gain, digestion issues, nausea, ammenorrhea, sweating or insomnia?
Understanding the nervous system (and how to calm it) can help you manage these effects of stress on the body.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into 2 opposing systems – the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is the emergency system, also called the fight or flight response. It prepares the body for danger by shutting down the digestive system, speeding up the heart, increasing blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Unfortunately our bodies cannot differentiate between real and imagined stress, and this system which was designed to save our lives, can instead be activated in everyday situations such as a busy day at work. If this response is activated too regularly our health suffers. Our bodies are flooded with the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol, and our pain threshold goes down.
The other side of the coin is the parasympathetic, or the rest and digest system. This system works to recover from normal daily activities by activating digestion, decreasing blood pressure and slowing the heart rate and breathing. When this system is activated the body is relaxing, the muscles can repair and build strength, food can be digested, and we can sleep and reproduce.
So how can we calm our fight or flight response and activate our rest and digest system?
- Identify and work to eliminate triggers in your life. This is always an important step for long-term recovery and health.
- Slow your breathing. This tells your body that you are safe and signals it to relax. Incorporate breathing exercises and meditation into your daily routine. Try the 4, 2, 6 breathing technique – inhale in for 4 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. Slowly release tension in your body by tensing and then releasing the muscles. Start with the toes and slowly work your way up to the face. Yoga is also a helpful and mindful practice for this.
- Light exercise. Don’t overdo the exercise. Cardio can have the same effect on the body as stress – the heart rate is up and the sympathetic system is activated. Try a nature walk instead. Being in nature has been shown to actively control the sympathetic nervous system and decrease blood pressure.
- Physical touch. We are hard-wired to be soothed by physical touch, just like a baby being rocked. Massage is a great option for relaxation, and make sure you get lots of hugs from your loved ones. You can even self-soothe by hugging yourself!
- Self care. Everyone finds different things soothing. Discover what it is that works for you, and schedule time for this regularly. It might be music, crafts, surfing or spending time with friends. It is important to have fun too!
What goes in
- Consume warm liquids and foods. This soothes the digestive system, which works to maintain body temperature. Ice cold drinks or foods make your gut work harder to regulate its temperature.
- Reduce caffeine. Limit your coffee to one a day, or cut it out completely. Coffee stimulates the sympathetic nervous system.
- Get enough sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene, and think about how you can priortise a good nights sleep. This might mean revisiting number 1 and considering lifestyle changes.
- Self compassion. Last but not least, self-soothing is all about being kind to yourself. Notice whether an internal critical voice is getting in the way of any of these steps, and think about what you would say to a friend who was struggling with stress or anxiety. Chances are, you are much harder on yourself than anyone else. Create some positive affirmations, or a mantra that reminds you you are doing your best, and remind yourself of this everyday.