We all have it. Most of us tend to think that we are justified in our chronic worrying, in being anxious about an upcoming event, becoming fearful of a medical procedure, getting angry at a jerk at work, feeling overwhelmed by a medical diagnosis, or upset over a mistake (our own or someone else’s…). In fact, we justify our reactions by claiming that we were triggered by a Very Bad Thing that may have happened or that may well happen next week. Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news ahead. Spoiler alert: there is hope. Read on!
The not-so-good news:
First, the bad news is that although all the relevant activity seems to take place inside our heads, the results of all of that inner chatter have effects way beyond our thoughts. This is your body on unmanaged stress:
- modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmunity
- high blood pressure
- poor sleep
- high blood sugar
- obesity (it’s much harder to lose weight when we’re stressed)
Chris Kresser states it succinctly for us (1):
“Because no matter what diet you follow, how much you exercise and what supplements you take, if you’re not managing your stress you will still be at risk for modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmunity.”
Now for the good news:
Thankfully, there are plenty of tools that we can learn to employ that will help us to react differently to the bad news that seems to plague us in this modern world we live in. How we react is the secret behind what is making us so sick—what we are required to do, should we want to live with less stress, is to think differently about anything that happens to us which causes us distress.
For example, being more mindful, reframing our predicaments, choosing a different perspective, taking a breather, focusing on what we are doing at the moment without letting our thoughts control us — these are all approaches that have helped millions of people over the years to discover that a life with less stress is possible. And better.
The following exercise (2), disseminated widely by Dr. Andrew Weil,M.D., is a helpful place to start the journey. As you will discover, it is indeed a ‘natural tranquilizer.” Here are the instructions:
The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a ‘whoosh’ sound.
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a ‘whoosh’ sound to a count of eight.
This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that with this breathing technique, you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens – before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension or stress. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.
Here’s a link to watch Dr. Weil demonstrate this technique.
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