It has been well documented that stress can cause both immediate and long-term damage to our bodies, increasing levels of inflammation in our body and our risk for heart attacks, depression, and other mental and medical health problems (Kiecott-Glaser & Glaser, 2022). As a woman living with systemic lupus, I am acutely aware of how stress can impact my health. Namely, if my stress is not well-managed, my lupus will flare up and I’ll experience increased joint pain and debilitating fatigue, or end up hospitalized, or worse (Seawell & Danoff-Burg, 2004).
While most people do not live with auto-immune diseases forcing them to stay mindful of stress management skills, over 100 million Americans are living with chronic illnesses. More than this, every individual will encounter stress in one form or another at some point in their lives (… ahem, have you watched the news lately?) Fortunately, there are skills that help and can be used as preventative stress management measures as well as in the moment to relax your mind and body. In the text below, I will review just a few of these tools below. You can practice all of these skills in my mental health app, “Faces of Health.”
Body-based skills for stress management
Interventions to help with stress in the body include deep breathing. Research has shown the positive effects of deep breathing exercises on the vagus nerve by measuring heart rate variability, which is a measure of our body’s resilience or ability to bounce back from stress (Rovesing et al., 2021).
Oftentimes, stress will manifest in the body as muscle pain and tightness, internal inflammation (as previously mentioned), and an over-activated nervous system (e.g., racing heartbeat, sweating, shallow breathing, etc.). Somatic interventions – those that raise our awareness of what is happening in our body and help relax the body – are effective tools for addressing this issue. One of my favorite somatic exercises is called, “havening touch.” Havening touch is like a gentle self-hug. You perform this exercise by crossing your arms across your chest so that each palm is touching the opposite shoulder. Then, rub your hands down from your shoulder to your elbow and repeat the downward motion several times. Havening touch has been shown to evoke the body’s production of oxytocin, this is the “love hormone” or the neurochemical that brings feelings of pleasure and relaxation (Sumich et al, 2022).
Another body-based relaxation technique is self-tapping, which can be done slowly and bilaterally (like in EMDR therapy), where you gently tap one side of your body and then the other while taking deep breaths. Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) offers us another method of self-tapping for relaxation as well. EFT involves tapping on meridian/energy or acupressure points around the head, face, and body to reduce tension and promote a deeper mind-body connection. This treatment has been shown on the bio-physiological level to help rewire the brain by deactivating signals sent directly to our brain’s fear center, the amygdala (Feinstein, 2010).
Gentle chair yoga is another powerful technique to help induce relaxation. Chair yoga is what it sounds like: yoga is done while seated in a chair. The range of motion movements involved in this practice may help loosen the fascia, which is part of the body’s connective tissue. When fascia is too tight, blood circulation and organs are negatively impacted. Loosening fascia helps decrease internal inflammation which will benefit mental and physical health.
Spirit-based interventions for stress management
Stress can also be reduced by taking good care of your spirit. To me, this means connecting (or reconnecting) with purpose and meaning in your life. Ask yourself, “What is most important to me? What are my values? What brings me joy?” And, pursue those things. This could include engaging in physical movement and outdoor activities, reflecting on nature, paying attention to your nutrition and the importance of a healthy gut microbiome, and spending time alone or with people with who you can be your authentic self around. Most importantly, connecting with others in your community can help you to feel supported and live a life that is aligned with your values.
Summarily, the body-mind- and spirit are all connected, and when we take care of these parts of ourselves we are better equipped to manage stress. Stress management is health management.
So, what is one tool or skill that you will commit to starting today? Taking one step at a time, you can do this.