In this post you will learn what stress is and how you can reduce it. We’ll present an easy tool that helps you to immediately get rid of stress and find your calm again. Moreover, the tool lays the foundation of long-term stress reduction.
What is stress?
When we hear ‘stress’, it often comes with a negative connotation. We might think of it as this unnecessary bad thing that stresses us out and makes our lives difficult. We’re told that stress is this outdated horrible ancient carry-over form when humans were still chased by bears and tigers and that this is no longer needed in our modern society.
Wrong! In fact, stress is a hard-wired mechanism that is a generic response of our body to any situation where our full attention and awareness is needed. It is triggered by certain situations or events. It is a natural reaction of your body to the stressor. Initially it triggers a positive response that ‘prepares’ the body for the situation. In practice, the body gets prepared in a positive way and switches into a state of alertness to confront the stressor.
Stress is individual
Every individual reacts differently to stressors. For example some of us feel stressed when a bee is approaching us. Our heart rate increases, our muscles contract and our respiration rate accelerates. On the other hand, some of us don’t bother at all if the very same bee would approach us. We don’t even care if the bee sits on our face.
How we react to certain stressors depends on many factors such as the level of familiarity with the stressor, the experience we have in certain situations, etc. Therefore, we all have our own stress threshold, and a situation that is problematic for one person might be easy for another person.
The fight or flight response
If a situation is considered dangerous, challenging or problematic, our fight or flight response kicks in. This means that our body reacts with the immediate release of a package of hormones including cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. And these hormones trigger our bodies to:
- increase our heart rate
- Increase our respiration rate
- dilate our blood vessels that are serving our muscles
- constrict our blood vessels that are serving digestion organs
- make our skin pale or flushed as blood flow is reduced
- dilate our pupils
In such an alert stage we’re ready to tackle any situation in a positive way. Think of the last time you went skiing, skydiving, or did any other risky thing for fun – or not 🤪.
Imaginary stressors and long-term stress
Stress is a hard-coded body response to any ‘difficult’ situation even when the situation is not appropriate for such a rush of hormones. These false alarms can be triggered by real or imaginary situations.
A real situation can trigger a false alarm when we’re afraid of an animal that is not dangerous per definition e.g. a harmless snake. Our bodies go crazy even though there is no rational danger.
A false alarm can also be triggered in our imagination. When for example anxiety arises from something that happened in the past or might happen in the future, but there is no acute danger or immediate need for action. In other words we get stressed even when the stressor is purely imaginary.
For some of us, these imaginary situations drive us to constantly worry about things that might or might not happen. As a result we start believing we’re in constant danger. Our bodies are exposed to a constant flow of hormones and this chronic or long-term stress is harmful to our health.
How to reduce stress
Whether or not we’re in a chronic or acute situation that triggers stress, there is a tool that we can apply in such situations that helps us and our body to calm down and relax. Calming breathing has an immediate effect on our nervous system. It tells our body that everything is ok. And here’s how it works.
- Make sure you sit or lie comfortably. As for any breathing exercise, it can happen that you feel light-headed and there is always a risk of falling.
- Place your hands on your stomach and start relaxing your muscles.
- Inhale to the count of four through your nose via the abdomen. Make sure you feel your stomach rise as you have your hands on it.
- Hold your breath for the duration of one count.
- Slowly exhale through your nose to the count of eight or so that it’s still comfortable and you’re not getting out of breath.
- Make sure that the duration of the exhale is about twice the duration of the inhale. You can count or use one of the calming breathing techniques in our free Earkick app.
- During the exhale, relax the muscles of your body as much as possible. Start to pay attention to relaxing the muscles in your feet. Then make your way upwards until you’re at the muscles of your head and relax your tongue, cheeks, eyes, etc.
- Repeat the exercise 6 times or more.
In short, it is a 4-1-8. Inhale while counting to 4, hold while counting to 1, and exhale while counting to 8. In our free anxiety tracker app the exercise is called ‘Calm down’. You can start it faster and then reduce the speed as your body gets more relaxed and you are less in need of air.
With this simple exercise we can reduce our stress immediately. Moreover, it is the basis for a long-term stress reduction. A recent study led by Prof. Dr. Tania Singer showed that mental training reduces the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol in hair. This study provides the first objective evidence that mental training reduces physical signs of stress.
If you suffer from it, don’t hesitate to contact us or test some of our effective relaxation breathing exercises.
At Earkick we are building a free selfcare companion app to follow our great mission in order to make the world a less anxious place.