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Heart Rate Variability, Stress Reactivity, and Diaphragmatic Breathing – How Yoga’s Basic 3-part Breath Practice Supports Body-Mind Health

One of the designations for the month of May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month with the social media message of #MoveInMay.  So in support of this awareness effort, I would like to share the benefits of learning how to move your diaphragm to support your body-mind fitness!  Yes, that large skeletal muscle that divides our chest cavity from our abdominal cavity.  Did you know that the diaphragm is the primary muscle responsible for our ability to breath?

When I attended my first yoga class, I struggled with the instruction to allow my belly to expand on the inhale and to pull my belly button in on the exhale.  This was due to several societal messages that informed me that I needed to hold my belly in to look thinner and to hold in my powerful emotions as it was not acceptable (or safe) to reveal such feelings openly.  I had become what is referred to as a “reverse breather” where I held my belly in on the inhale and let it soften on the exhale.  Reverse breathing keeps the diaphragm from participating in the natural breath process, slowly starving the body of the oxygen it needs to function optimally.

When we get stressed navigating overwhelming situations, our bodies naturally react by pulling and holding the belly in, while our minds support the stuffing of our emotions down deep in the well of the body.  So for most of us who have suffered some adverse childhood event or events that traumatized our bodies and minds, allowing our breath to release the tight grip in our bellies is scary!  So reconnecting to this powerful muscle might be a slow process for many and yet, the research is showing that the effort is well worth the reward of improving our overall body-mind-spirit health.

A new measure of our health status, known as heart rate variability (HRV), is being researched as a marker for overall body-mind health identified through imbalances in our autonomic nervous system (ANS), between the sympathetic (flight/fight) and parasympathetic (rest/digest) branches, as reflected by the variation in time between heart beats.  When the variability is low, your overall health is reduced and we experience life as more stressful.  When there is greater variability, your overall health is increased and your ability to navigate stress is improved.  We may not have any conscious control over our ANS and the beat of our hearts; however, this does not mean that we have no way to impact our HRV to improve our overall health and well-being.

Recent research out of the University of Pennsylvania showed that learning to re-engage our diaphragm in our breath process has a direct, positive impact on HRV.  The research studied indices of physiological stress reactivity in varsity athletes before and after introducing a task that created cognitive stress.  Slow diaphragmatic breathing was shown to significantly increase HRV, while also reflecting a trend toward greater relaxation.  So if we are not able to eliminate stress in our lives, we now know we can simply look to one of our most basic processes of life – respiration – for relief.  And with that inner resource to relieve the external stressors of life, we can improve our health – body, mind, and spirit!

If you would like to read more about this research, click on the button below:

 

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Reduce Stress

“We can never attain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”― Dalai Lama

The month of April, among other things, has been designated Stress Awareness Month.  The first step to making any change in our life is awareness.  Without awareness, we tend to  continue on our journeys doing the same old things, repeating old patterns, all while hoping the results will be different.

With awareness comes understanding, which leads to compassion and choice.  One of the best habits we can develop for our body/mind/spirit health is learning our personal triggers and noticing when and where we feel stress.  To this end, below are some ideas to consider to support this healthy habit:

  1. Understand common sources of stress.  Change – good or bad – tends to create stress.  Therefore, recognizing the amount of change we are experiencing in the moment can help the mind to understand why we might not feel ourselves.  With this awareness and understanding, we might be more willing to offer ourselves some compassion, letting that compassion support our next choice.  We all might recognize that the loss of a partner or other loved one as being stressful, yet we might not be as aware that marriage, pregnancy, retirement from work, quitting smoking, vacation, and/or moving to a new home are stress producing life events.  Consider taking a moment to complete the Life Change Index Scale (The Stress Test) to deepen your understanding of what life events are considered stressful and determine your current level of stress from those events.
  2. Know the symptoms of PTSD.  The source of our stress might not be coming from our current experience of change but may be emanating from a past experience of trauma.  Most of us are aware that war Veterans may experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); however, many (I dare say most) of us are not aware that PTSD can be a result of early adverse childhood experiences such as divorce, having a parent with a mental health challenge and/or addiction, and/or witnessing domestic violence, non-the-less more overt abuse and neglect. Consider taking a moment to complete the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Questionnaire to determine your ACE score and how your childhood experiences may be impacting your current body/mind/spirit health.
  3. Identify where you experience stress in the body.  Once you have gained a greater awareness of what life events (past and present) cause change and stress, consider taking a moment to sit in reflection, welcoming your stress to be present in your awareness, and sense into your body.  We all experience stress in our bodies differently.  Some of us might experience headaches/migraines.  Others might experience digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).  And others may experience frequent, diffuse muscular and nerve pain.  Our bodies hold great wisdom, so taking the time to welcome the sensations and notice where the mind’s awareness is drawn into the body, contributes to the foundation of the healthy habit of acknowledging when and where we are experiencing stress.
  4. Give yourself permission to learn to relax.  Many of us were not taught to value fun and relaxation as a basic human need.  In fact, I think the message most of us sensed was that we must work hard to be successful (whatever the definition of success might be for each of us) which does not leave time and space for anything else.  So know that it is up to you to challenge that message by embracing a new message, one that allows you to prioritize you.  Prioritizing your self-care is not selfish!  It is absolutely necessary to find balance and peace and health!!  Therefore, consider finding what works for you, whether it is movement, writing, connecting with others, anything that is a way to release stress from the body and mind and give yourself permission to just do it.
  5. Set limits.  I discovered a mantra many years ago that I found very freeing:  Say no so others can grow.  And yes, it can be easier to say than do!  However, with a little practice and a change in perspective, you will find it gets easier.  The change in perspective is seeing “saying no” as a gift you are giving the other person (and also to yourself!).  For example, when teaching a little one to tie their shoes, at some point you must say to them, “No, I’m not going to do it for you today as I know you know how to do it yourself.”  And, although they might get mad and cry (and even scream), if you stick it out, the joy they experience once they have done it themselves is the gift.  When you can really embrace this new perspective, you will begin to think “Who am I to think I have to do everything myself and rob others of opportunities for growth?”  If one of your personal values is growth then saying no to others can be seen as the necessary rain for the growth of others (and, oh, by the way, for yourself).  Setting limits in this way results in growth while reducing stress by reducing the probability that we will overcommit ourselves

Increasing stress and anxiety in children – can yoga help?

Although my adolescent days are several decades behind me, I still clearly remember the stress I experienced during those years, not only from the academic pressures but from the social pressure to “fit in”, while trying to manage potentially conflicting expectations from family and friends.  Unfortunately, I was not taught ways to manage that stress, although I had to take PE classes and voluntarily participated in sports regularly after school.  So, when I moved through my early adult years and began to work full-time, I attempted to continue to participate in those sports to help relieve the chronic stress I felt, only to discover that it wasn’t working.  The only relief I discovered at that time was planning and taking vacations, where I found I didn’t want “to do” anything but relax.  And there was simply not enough vacation time to effectively create the required balance in my life to reduce the growing anxiety I was experiencing.

It wasn’t until I found yoga – in mid-life – that I experienced an immediate sense of release of tension, stress, and anxiety.  I still tell people that ask me about yoga “I wish I found yoga at 4, instead of 40!”, although I am eternally grateful for finding it at all, as it truly has been a life saver.  So when I read the recent research on how yoga can help children cope with stress and manage their anxiety symptoms, my heart’s sense of gratitude grew even more.

Eight published studies were reviewed together and found that school children who regularly practice yoga show an improved ability to cope with stress and anxiety.  And with the majority of children reporting growing academic pressures to achieve, along with more challenging family life with both parents needing to work outside of the home, it’s about time we offer our children a life-time tool to create more balance in their bodies and minds.  What makes yoga different than the typical physical education classes currently offered in schools is that it is a meditative movement practice and it does not have a competitive focus.  There are no winners or losers.  There is no forming of teams, leaving some children feeling inadequate in some way when they are picked last (or not at all) to join a team.  It is most often practiced in a group setting, yet the practice encourages and welcomes individualized, unique experiences.  It is a practice that can be done by everyone, regardless of size, shape, strength or flexibility level, and/or any other physical limitation, such as chronic health conditions, including asthma or diabetes.

The review article looked at the interventions, which incorporated postures, breath, concentration, and meditation that are different paths or parts of a full yogic practice, and came to the conclusion that these combined features of yoga, when practiced regularly by children, provide an accessible tool to reduce stress and anxiety.  The author also recommended that yoga should be integrated into schools.  It is my personal belief that by offering yoga to children – even before they enter school – sets them up not only for success in life but happiness too.  And don’t our children deserve that balance!