14 May, 2010

stress and breathing

I have realized recently that I often have trouble relaxing. This week I completed my ultimate final as an undergraduate. That, I think, is a good reason to celebrate and to say, "Okay. I have accomplished something. I should now relax for a little while." But that is not how it happened. In fact, before I even took the last final I began feeling anxious about the next thing on my to-do list. I am now noticing that this is a recurring pattern. Maybe it is a pattern of yours also.

Before I finish one project I start thinking about the next one, so that by the time I finish the first I am so mentally involved in the second that the former doesn't even seem like much of an accomplishment. It was just something I had to do to get to where I am now. This is true even with major life events. Why do we have this tendency to let free-floating anxiety stop us from recognizing the value of our accomplishments? When you consider the pace of our lives, maybe this question is not so hard to answer.

When I studied in Spain we took a siesta everyday. Everybody did. Really. There was a pause in the day to go see your family at home, to meet a friend in the park, to take a nap. The whole schedule is different to accommodate for this break from work and from the heat of the afternoon. It just means that the work day is pushed a couple hours later. The evening meal is also pushed a couple hours later. But the beautiful thing about that is that when you do finally sit down to the dinner table you know that it means you are done for the day. Since you don't eat until 10 p.m. there really is no question of getting back to studying or paying the bills or cleaning the house. It will be time for bed. So you can just enjoy your food and a glass of wine, and really have a conversation with your loved ones without feeling rushed to finish eating and get back to work. I know studies show that not eating late in the evening is better for your metabolism, but I think the relaxation encouraged by this schedule must have some serious benefits.

Although eating a very late dinner has not been a lasting habit for me I have tried to hold onto some of those things that I observed and experienced while in Spain. Both during the siesta and during dinner I felt like I was really taking a break from the day. I think we should take a daily break. It doesn't have to be long and it doesn't mean that you are not working hard enough. It just means taking a few minutes to stop what you are doing, take notice of your emotions and physical feelings - if you are tired, if you have been squinting your eyes at the computer all day, or if your body is aching from physical activity. Maybe you can take ten minutes to talk to a friend (without mentioning how busy you are). Maybe you can take thirty and enjoy every, single, simple, tasty bite of your lunch. 

Now, if you don't mind a quick little bit of biology, I would like to tell you why this is so important:

Our central nervous system has two main components, the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest & digest).  These two are constantly in flux and when we get stressed because we are sick, get injured, are running away from danger, or are annoyed by the people around us or worried about getting everything done, the sympathetic system tends to overpower the parasympathetic. When the cause of this is psychological/social it's bad news for our heart because it starts beating faster, which wears on our blood vessels. Again, this is great when we have to fight infection or engage in strenuous physical activity - but when we don't it just causes our bodies to wear out more quickly.

Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are always active and it just so happens that when we exhale the parasympathetic system automatically kicks it up a notch. One way that it does this is by lowering our heart rate. Your heart automatically beats more slowly when you exhale than when you inhale. Every time you do it. This is one reason prayer and meditation are so effective. So...

The next time you feel anxious and think your body might be working over-time, take 2 or 3 minutes just to sit quietly and breathe deeply. Inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 6. Try to think only about your breath, not everything else going on around you. This should help to clear your mind and relax your heart.


  1. This was such a great post! I love that you put beautiful, calming pictures from Spain in between the paragraphs. Interlacing the biology with breathing practices was wonderful as well. It's really amazing how much breathing can help with stress. I was feeling really anxious before one of my finals so I went home and sat in front of my window, closed my eyes and just focused on my breathing for fifteen minutes. Afterwards I was completely calmed down for my lab final, on which I made a nearly perfect score!

  2. Beautiful post Lisa, Crystal


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