“Sometimes we hold onto stress and don’t make the necessary changes to reduce it. After a while, it effects all the systems of our body. It is very damaging and depleting.”
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, Sharon Conroy, says our daily stressors are significant and the way we deal with our worry can have a profound effect on our health – from hormonal balance to metabolism.
“Stress is meant to get our attention. It rises but then it is meant to rest. The worry, you should deal with when it actually happens. A lot of damage is done in the interim period; waiting and fretting over an event, or problem, that might never occur.”
Chronic stress affects signal paths in the brain, specifically the hypothalamus and pituitary gland – parts of the brain that control the activity of the endocrine system (which balances our hormonal state). Conroy says preexisting conditions, like asthma, can be exacerbated.
“When you’re stressed, your breathing automatically becomes very shallow and your posture changes, which means your lungs are not able to expand properly.”
She adds long-term worry can also affect fertility.
“In women, the small muscles around fallopian tubes can become very constricted, sometimes conception is difficult because of all this isolated tension.”
Conroy relates stress to a tap that will not shut off – dripping cortisol (a steroidal, fight-or-flight hormone) into the body.
“In Chinese Medicine, overthinking, mind chatter and worry affects the digestive system. It triggers irritable bowel syndrome, burdens the liver and the adrenal glands and causes a lot of inflammation. I feel that sometimes people can’t get rid of the stress, in the body, because they are in a holding pattern.”
When it comes to breaking the cycle and changing the pattern, specialists across the board say remembering to breathe is key. Deep (or diaphragmatic) breathing contracts the diaphragm – a muscle located horizontally between the chest and stomach cavities – which stimulates the connected vagus nerve and has a general calming effect on the nervous system. This type of breathing raises the chest and expands the belly. It strengthens the lungs, eases stress responses; increases oxygen to the muscles, improves circulation and nutritional absorption and balances our heart rate.
Clinical studies refer to this as eupnea – the most natural form of breathing when we are in a state of relaxation.
Michelle Greenwell, Tai Chi instructor and author of My Little Black Book of Qi, says any activity which utilizes full diaphragmatic breathing, such as Tai Chi, Yoga, Qigong, walking and singing returns us to balance.
“When you start that deep breathing…it’s the breath that opens everything up. The body responds, the thoughts slow down and become more peaceful.”
The recognition of conscious breathing as a healing tool, is not a new concept. The science of breath dates back well beyond ancient Hindu-Yogic tradition. For millennia, yogis and sages from eastern culture have understood the importance of abdominal breathing, on a variety of levels.
One of the most simple, necessary and automatic functions we possess as humans, and a wonderful counterbalance for our biological tendency to scan the horizon for danger.