De-Stress Your Mind with These Simple Tricks
I've had sleep on my mind a lot lately, probably because it's been a hectic couple of weeks and I haven't been getting enough of it myself. In fact the other day I even wrote about how most of us should be getting a lot more sleep than we do, and why we're not.
That led me to thinking about stress, and how stress and insomnia or chronic sleep deprivation go hand in hand. Stress and lack of sleep are often a vicious cycle—being sleep-deprived creates stress, and being stressed makes falling asleep and getting good quality sleep once your eyes close difficult.
Lack of sleep and chronic stress both have a seriously detrimental effect on us, and they actually affect our bodies and our brains in almost the same way. They affect our memories and our ability to focus. They make us more likely to have a stroke. They can cause our brains to shrink. And they both lead to the build-up of the beta-amyloid plaques that are so closely associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Those aren't the only effects, of course. Stress and sleep deprivation both affect nearly every system in our bodies, from making us gain weight to playing a role in heart disease. But they are very good illustrations as to why keeping stress levels low is incredibly important for brain health. With that in mind, I'd like to share a few simple techniques that can help diffuse some of the stress in your life and help you get a better night's sleep.
Releasing stress is as easy as breathing
There's a reason we're often advised to "take a deep breath" when we're faced with a stressful situation. There are a wide range of breathing exercises which can almost instantly lower your stress levels. Of course it's not quite as simple as just taking a deep breath, although that does help, but it is pretty darn easy. Here's what to do.
You probably think you know how to breathe. After all, you've been breathing since the moment you were born, right? But here's the truth: while babies, toddlers, and small children have got it right, as we get older—and more stressed-out—most of forget how to breathe properly.
Healthy breathing comes from you belly and uses your diaphragm to let your lungs expand. The little ones do this naturally. If you watch a sleeping child, you'll see his belly rising and falling rather than his chest.
Adults, however, tend to do it the hard way. We breathe from our chests, using our neck, chest, and rib muscles to lift our ribcages. This is not only very inefficient, it also means we take much shallower breaths. This intensifies and to some degree causes stress. To breathe your stress away, you must first learn to breathe from your belly.
To re-learn this habit, sit or lay in a comfortable position with your hand on your belly. Breathe in, pulling the air down into your chest. Feel your diaphragm move down and your belly expand as your chest fills with air. Then let it out. You should feel your hand rise and fall with each breath. When you've got the hang of it, you're ready to begin the exercises.
The anytime, anywhere stress-busters
Once you remember how to breathe from your belly, you can use simple breathing exercises to de-stress in nearly any situation. Whether you're in an acutely stressful situation or you simply live with chronic low-grade stress, your breath is an invaluable tool for decompressing your mind and reducing your stress load. And practiced at bedtime, a breathing exercise can be an extremely effective sleep aid.
Exercise #1: graduated breathing
For this exercise, you start by breathing normally and take deeper and deeper breaths. To begin, breathe in to a count of one, then out to a count of two. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
With the next breath, breathe in to a count of two and out to a count of three. Then 3:4, 4:5, and so on until you breathe in for a count of nine and out for a count of ten. Then reverse the count. Breathe in for eight, out for nine; in for seven, out for eight and so on until you are back to 1:2. Do this three times. I recommend doing this at some point during the day when you really need a stress break. It should leave you clear-headed and mildly energized.
Exercise #2: 5:2 breathing
This is a good tool for relieving acute stress. Of course you can practice it any time, but I find it especially useful when you're in a stressful situation and you need a dose of calm right now.
It's very simple: take a deep breath, breathing in to a count of five. Breathe in through your nose. Now let your breath out in a rush—breathe out to a count of two, exhaling through your mouth. Do this as many times as you feel you need to in order to be calm. While you're breathing, try to stay focused on your breath rather than the situation.
Exercise #3: 5:5 breathing
If you guessed that I'm going to tell you to breathe in to a count of five and out to the same count, you're right. This is an especially good technique to use at bedtime, after you're settled in under the covers and you're trying to fall asleep. It's extremely relaxing, and though you can do it any time, I find that bedtime is the most appropriate because it is a very effective sleep aid.
Lie on your back, with your arms in a comfortable position. Don't cross them or tuck them under your head; let them lie at your sides, put them above your head, or even rest your hands comfortably on your belly. Then breathe in for five and out for five. Take moderately deep breaths, but not too deep; breathing too deeply for too long can make you light-headed. If this happens, simply go back to breathing normally till the feeling passes. Continue the exercise until you feel yourself drifting off.
Your own breath is one of the most powerful tools you have for reducing stress. And exercises like these give you a double dose of stress relief. They have the added benefit of requiring you to be mindful as you count, and mindfulness has been shown to be an extremely effective stress reduction technique in its own right.
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