The body’s wisdom to manage stress

Dr. Natalia Pardo, physician specialized in stress managementBenson Henry Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital.

Stress is an adaptive response that aims to provide you with energy to accomplish a task or demand, efficiency to make an adequate use of resources and capacity to return to equilibrium. When the stress response is very intense or prolonged, it can alter the organism and lead to states of discomfort. 

With certain frequency, we are faced with life situations that challenge us in many aspects and that involve high levels of stress, it is precisely here when we should focus on improving our resilience. If we can stress, we can also learn to relax because both functions are biologically encoded within us. 

Relaxation states are achieved through the activation of the parasympathetic system, a very special part of the nervous system that when stimulated produces adaptive changes in our organism and especially at a cognitive and emotional level. 

Through research studies we have understood that experiencing relaxation changes brain activity and specifically strengthens connections at the level of an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Imagine that this part of the brain functions as a very sophisticated navigation system that allows us to interpret information, communicate assertively, regulate the tone of emotions, inhibit impulses, concentrate, make plans, propose solutions and much more. 

Well, in the most complicated and stressful moments is when we most need to have our navigation system on and turn down the volume of the alarm and alert systems. Although the alert system is necessary for survival, when the volume is turned up too high it makes us feel irritable, nervous, anxious and brings to our mind negative or catastrophic thoughts that end up making us feel very bad. 

By increasing your resilience through relaxation, you will be able to get through difficult times feeling more empowered. Remember that the wisdom of life lies not in changing what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us. This is why one of my favorite quotes is from renowned author Viktor Frankl: “Between the stimulus and the response there is a space. In this space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” No matter how difficult the situation we are in, we are always free to choose the story we want to tell ourselves about what we are experiencing. When you turn on your relaxation system, you are better able to modulate your perception and become more resilient. 

Here are some recommendations and breathing strategies to activate your relaxation system and increase your resilience. 

  • Breathing techniques: 

The way you breathe can either produce more stress or on the contrary induce relaxation. Surely you have noticed that when we feel anxious our breathing becomes rapid and feels stagnant in the chest, you may even feel that the air enters with great difficulty. 

Different texts and studies have shown that to activate the parasympathetic system through breathing you must inhale and exhale through the nose, both the entry and exit of air is slow (being twice as slow the exhalation) and the movement starts from the abdomen, as if you were inflating a balloon. 

The diaphragmatic extension was described by Dr. Belisa Vranich and is one of the exercises I most recommend to my patients. You can do it sitting or lying down, if you are sitting try to keep your back straight and your shoulders separated from your ears. Place both hands on the belly, just above the navel. Breathe in slowly through your nose dilating your abdomen to its maximum capacity (notice how your hands ascend with inspiration), and then very slowly release the air through your nose. When you feel that you are reaching the end of the exhalation, contract the abdomen, trying to touch the spine with the navel. Breathe in again slowly through your nose and start a new cycle. 

I recommend you to do this exercise at least 5 minutes in the morning at the beginning of the day and at night just before going to sleep, it is excellent to induce sleep states. You can also do it in times of pain, anguish or during medical procedures. 

  • Breathing in sighs or air packing: this exercise is very useful in moments of acute stress, panic or anxiety crisis. It consists of taking air through the nose continuously in the form of sighs until you reach maximum capacity, in other words, you inhale and inhale and inhale until there is no more air left. Then you slowly release it through your nose and repeat the exercise. Try to do at least 15 repetitions, this is the time necessary to stimulate the relaxation system. 

The wisdom of the body is amazing, put these strategies into practice and remember that pleasure and social connection are powerful antidotes to stress. You can find a smile in the midst of adversity, you can find love in the midst of adversity, you can find illusion in the midst of adversity, you can find purpose and meaning in the midst of adversity. These are very powerful medicines; they are cures for the soul.