It's that time of year when we're all meant to be winding down and enjoying the 'holiday season' (whether you're taking a holiday or not) - so why does it feel like the most stressful time of the year? We tend do a lot of socialising ("let's try and catch up before Christmas"), we're indulging a little more often than we normally might (alcohol, lots of food, snacking at 3am?) and we may not be getting the time to do the exercise and normal activities that help us cope with stress.
What is stress?
Stress is any 'input' into the body to which the body has to respond - words like: tension, pressure and demanding come up when one looks up 'stress' in the dictionary- and there are a variety of definitions.
The Oxford Dictionary defines stress as "something that causes a state of strain or tension".
So what am I talking about?
Lack of sleep (yes, even one night)
Doing a hard workout at the gym
Poor nutrition - how many vegetables did you manage to consume this week?
An infection (parasitic, bacterial etc) you may or may not be aware of.
Having a fight with your partner/boss/the tram driver
Getting up and doing a speech in front of a large crowd of people
Attempting to get extra work done before you go on holidays - hands up if you've ever gotten sick as soon as you go on holidays?
Lack of sunshine - have you been staring at a computer screen since 8am?
Toxins in your environment (such as mould or general pollution etc)
And, of course, the ones you might be seeing your osteopath about - a disc bulge, a torn muscle or ligament, migraines and so forth.
All of these are may be 'stressing' you- your body is responding to it and you are coping (or not coping, as the case may be) with the 'inputs' to your body and mind. Stress comes in many shapes and forms and we have a variety of ways in which we respond.
Some signs of stress:
You start to feel like you're getting a cold - or you just get a cold
Breathing faster than normal- often through your mouth - this type of breathing is really common in stressed people
Lower tolerance in general or you may loose your temper very quickly. You might become overwhelmed and feel out of control in various situations
Feeling moody, tearful, anxious or depressed
Suffering from headaches, muscle soreness, neck and back pain
Elevated blood pressure and elevated heart rate
Tingling in the hands
Feeling nauseous and/or a lack of appetite
The list goes on - stress doesn't always feel that great!
Having said all of this, not all stress is bad. There is a strong argument for some stress being good for our body and mind so as to make us 'less fragile' - by stimulating the immune system to strengthen itself, for example. This is known as 'hormesis' and refers to the physiological adaptive response to a stress (a 'hormetic stress'). Another example of this is muscles getting bigger when we lift weights. This isn’t to say that you should just keep lifting weights all day and all night- there is always a limit. So, it’s about giving your body enough stress to encourage adaptation but not too much to break it- remember that saying ‘the straw that breaks the camels back’- that applies here too.
What can I do?
There are some methods that may help you reduce some of the stress that you may be experiencing and my favourite one is known as "chandra nadi pranayama" or, more easily pronounced, 'left nostril breathing'. Now, before you turn your nose up (eh-hem), there is a fair bit of evidence to suggest that this is worth trying- even for the skeptics!
Alright- what do I do?
Sit quietly somewhere if possible with your eyes and mouth closed
Using your right hand, place your thumb over your right nostril
Breath* in through the left nostril for a count of 4
Breath out through the left nostril for a count of 6-8 (essentially the ‘out breath’ should be longer than the ‘in breath’)
Repeat 27 times
No need to force your breath- it should gentle and comfortable. Don’t worry if your breathing is faster to begin with- it will slow down.
Chandra nadi pranayama has been shown to increase Heart Rate Variability (that’s a good thing) and lower sympathetic nervous system activity (that’s lowering your ‘fight and flight’ response). There are many ‘yogi-breathing’ exercises and some are a little more complicated than others. This is a really easy one and it’s done in less than 5 minutes.
Some other quick and easy tips:
Good nutrition, good sleep and good hydration and things to focus on during times of stress- do the best that you can.
Try to reduce blue-light exposure after dark- these are your iphones/ipads, tv time etc- it reduced the quality of sleep that you are getting.
A little exercise can go a long way - just because you can’t get to the gym for your usual workouts it doesn’t mean you have to miss out of the benefits of movement and some exercise- go for a short walk at lunch-time or after dinner- it’ll help!
Most importantly, don't let stress go on for too long. Seek help if chronic high levels of stress are interfering with your every day life and activities. A mental health professional, like a psychologist or councilor can help you identify behaviours and situations that are contributing to high stress, and help you to make changes to the things that are within your control. See the links at the bottom of this article for further information.
So there’s an easy exercise that you can do in the bathroom if you need to while you’re hiding away from your in-laws on Christmas Day!
Bhavanani AB, Ramanathan M, Balaji R, Pushpa D. Differential effects of uninostril and alternate nostril pranayamas on cardiovascular parameters and reaction time. International Journal of Yoga. 2014;7(1):60-65. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.123489.
Bhavanani AB, Madanmohan, Sanjay Z. Immediate effect of chandra nadi pranayama (left unilateral forced nostril breathing) on cardiovascular parameters in hypertensive patients. International Journal of Yoga. 2012;5(2):108-111. doi:10.4103/0973-6131.98221.
Ch CKK, Krishna BH. N MR. Modulation of Sympathovagal Balance after Chandranadi Pranayama in Healthy Volunteers. IJMRHS. 2015: 4(4): 783-785. doi:10.5958/2319-5886.2015.00154.X
Fan WH, Ko JH, Lee MJ, Xu G, Lee GS. Response of nasal airway and heart rate variability to controlled nasal breathing. European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology. 2011 Apr; 268(4):547-53. doi: 10.1007/s00405-010-1402-0
Mattson, M. P. (2008). Hormesis Defined. Ageing Research Reviews, 7(1), 1–7. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2007.08.007