Stress and Attention

Paying attention to your body when stress hits can be useful to collecting information and developing your own "user's manual". How does our body work? What happens when we are stressed? It's hard to know what to change when you don't know how things work.

Chronic stress accounts for over 50% of doctor's visits. Stress can increase one's risk for heart attacks, strokes, hypertension, migraines, headaches, and elevated cholesterol. Stress can affect the respiratory system by influencing the onset of breathing problems. Most individuals experience an increase in body tension and stiffness. Ulcers, diabetes, diarrhea and constipation are common gastrointestinal conditions that also may occur. The immune system becomes compromised, which increases the chances of someone coming down with something. There are also indications that chronic stress can influence insomnia, infertility and skin disorders.

So what can be done about this? How can one "manage" stress better, at least from a physiological perspective, so that the bodily effects of stress are not so intense? There are many strategies that may work. The idea is to put the brakes on the flight-fight response and trigger the relaxation response.

What is this flight-fight response? I attended a presentation on Transcendental Meditation a few weeks ago, by Dr. Norman Rosenthal, MD. He described how this battle between the flight-fight response and the relaxation response can be exhausting. I liked the analogy he used. He stated that the flight-fight response was like the fire marshal and the more relaxed, rational response was the CEO. The fire marshal  is constantly knocking on the CEO's door and because the CEO doesn't know what is actually an emergency and what isn't, the CEO is constantly getting up to answer the door. This is something we can pay attention to and see if this type of battle is happening to us.

If this battle is happening (which, if you're reading this, probably is), a strategy that can help with not only paying attention to how our body works when stress hits, but also calming the "fire marshal" is by paying attention to the breath. When the flight-fight response becomes activated, breathing becomes shallow and rapid. This allows for spurts of energy and a quick response based on the survival needs.

To elicit the relaxation response, calming the fire marshal and having the CEO be more in charge, deep breathing, which is also known as diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing is a simple strategy that can be used anywhere. Deep breathing allows the use of the entire lung, bringing more oxygen into the body and brain, thus helping one to think more clearly, make better judgments and decisions, and increase concentration.

The basic format is as follows: Place one hand over your belly and one hand on your check. Notice as the hands rise and fall as you breathe. Some people notice the chest rises higher, some notice the belly, and some are not sure. No worries. Paying attention to the mechanics of your body is a first step in becoming aware of what's going on. For deep breathing, breath in through the nose, allowing the air to go as deep as possible. Your belly will expand and you will feel the hand rise. Think of how a balloon expands when you blow air into it. Now breathe out from your mouth. Some people like to purse their lips together into an "O" and breath out, some do not. Whichever you prefer, as you breathe out, your belly goes in. You may even want to push on it to help the air expel. Do this a couple times.

Once you have a handle on this process, try it out when you are feeling overwhelmed and see what happens.

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  • Thanks.

    More people should be aware of the role of chronic stress and anxiety and the effect on your body. This is a lesson learned too late for some, but not late enough that it cannot be corrected through some of the techniques you mention.

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