Forget what all those children's books said when we were kids — stress is the scariest monster out there, and it certainly isn't make-believe. Last year, the American Psychological Association reported that average stress levels for Americans rose to a new all-time high. On a 10-point scale, Americans in 2014 were typically stressing out around a 4.9 on the scale; that number rose to 5.1 a year later. To make matters even worse, 24 percent of us said we were highly stressed, compared to the 18 percent who said the same in 2014. Yet another study reveals that 47 percent of Americans are concerned with the current stress levels they're facing.
If chronic stress were something that just affected a small compartment of our lives, we might not worry about it as much, but it has a far-reaching influence that touches our personal relationships, our work life, and our physical health. If we're severely stressed out, it's highly unlikely that we're going to be able to function in the world properly. Stress exacerbates already existing illnesses, causes inflammation in our gut, and robs us of beauty sleep.
Bustle spoke with Jodi Aman, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience and the author of You 1 Anxiety 0, who works on stress management with a lot of her patients, some of whom wrestle with mental illness. Aman offers this one simple trick to instantly help you handle whatever stress you're currently facing: "Take deep, cleansing breaths. They're very effective, always available, and free!" Initially, it may not sound like something that will change your life, but it's a practice that holds a lot of power over the body and mind.
Here are five reasons pausing to simply breathe deeply can reduce your stress.
1. It Activates Your Parasympathetic Nervous System
There are three branches of the autonomic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system is the one that will be your very best friend when you're battling stress. The parasympathetic is also called the "rest and digest system". It slows down your heart rate, relaxes muscles in your gastrointestinal tract, and prepares you for sleep. It's the part of your body that rules when you're in a deep meditation or in an extremely relaxed state.
"[Deep breaths] are effective because they work on a physiological and mental level, settling your nervous system," Aman tells Bustle. When you breathe deeply, your parasympathetic nervous system is called to action, and then your vagus nerve is stimulated, whose main job is to reduce stress and lower your heart rate. This allows your sympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for the adrenaline-filled "fight or flight" response, to step out of the picture momentarily.
2. It Releases Neurotransmitters In Your Brain That Calm You Down
When your vagus nerve is activated, your brain goes through a few chemical alterations, all of them positive. A neurotransmitter called acetylcholine is released in high quantities, which helps you feel more calm and able to focus better on the task at hand. Another neurotransmitter called GABA is released, which lowers your blood pressure and heart rate, and even allows your organ function to smooth out. GABA is also present after you exercise, and it shows up in parts of the brain that are responsible for emotion control.
As these happy neurotransmitters are flooding your brain, the chemicals associated with the other side of the coin, the sympathetic nervous system, are on their way out. You've got less adrenaline and cortisol floating around, which makes you a lot less anxious.
3. It Can Change The Expression Of Your Genes
Herbert Benson, Harvard researcher and author of Relaxation Revolution: The Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing, has used scientific research to prove that breathing deeply can actually alter the expression of your genes and change the way your brain functions. He claims there is certain gene activity you can switch on or off, depending on how you use your breath to foster a mind-body connection.
Benson thinks Western medicine would be silly to write off breath work as something that has no influence over our overall health and wellbeing. It can be an effective way to reset your mind, even in the most stressful moments. Benson's methods have also been known to treat chronic illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, insomia, hypertension, fibromyalgia, and gastrointestinal diseases. It's certainly not a cure, but it can absolutely serve as an effective supplement in your overall treatment of stress and anxiety.
4. It Forces You To Take A Short Time-Out
Aman says the biggest misconception about stress management is that "if you can't resolve the problem, you have to be stressed about it." That's not how it works, though. You'll never be able to get everything done at once, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's all about how you handle what's on your plate, not necessarily how much you tick off your to-do list. Pausing to take a deep breath gives you the chance to drop everything, Aman suggests, even if only for a second. You'll be able to concentrate in a much more beneficial way.
5. It Makes You Feel More In Control Of Yourself
Breathing is the only bodily function that you can control both involuntarily and voluntarily. When you're sleeping, your body takes the reigns so you enjoy your REM cycles, but when you're awake you have the choice to be in charge if you wish. If things start to spiral downwards, take control of the situation by taking long, slow breaths. You'll instantly feel more at ease and more composed.
Aman says taking this boost of confidence might even inspire you to readjust some of your lifestyle choices and habits. You may feel more inclined to "read a book, join a gym, commit to daily walks, start meditating, eat more whole foods, see a counselor or coach." These are all great ways to manage your stress, but it all starts right under your nose — with your breath. Breathe easy, and your stress won't feel like such an insurmountable enemy.
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