A New Way to Think About and Manage Stress
Updated: Sep 4
Written by Sebastian Rinnebach,
reviewed by Dr. David Spiegel (Director of the Center on Stress and Health, Stanford)*
In today’s fast-paced world, stress is a common experience for many of us. However, it’s important to understand that stress is not inherently bad. It's a natural part of life and can help us perform at a high level.
The problem arises when stress becomes chronic, meaning it doesn’t let up and seems to exceed our ability to assess, adapt, and respond. This constant state of stress can take a toll on both our mental and physical health, leading to a range of issues that can impact our quality of life.
In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at stress – what it is, how it affects us, and how we can manage it effectively using evidence-based strategies. Understanding Stress: The Basics
Stress is the body's method of reacting to a condition such as a threat, challenge or physical and psychological barrier.
When we experience stress, our body goes through a series of reactions. This includes the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn increase our heart rate and blood pressure, preparing us to respond to the situation at hand. This can be helpful in situations where we need to be alert or focused, such as during a presentation or when reacting to a potential danger (fight or flight).
It's also worth mentioning that stress is not always negative. There are instances in which stress can be enjoyable or even exhilarating, such as when we ride a roller coaster or compete in a sport. These experiences can make us feel more alive and engaged.
However, problems can arise when the body is repeatedly or continuously exposed to stressors, without adequate time for relaxation and recovery. Without this balance, chronic stress can lead to wear and tear on the body and mind, similar to how a machine would wear out if it’s continuously running without maintenance. Maintaining a balance between periods of stress and relaxation is essential for our well-being.
The Effects of Long-Term Stress on Health
When stress lasts for a long time, it becomes chronic. This means that your body thinks it needs to be ready for danger all the time. Adrenaline released by the sympathetic nervous system causes your heart to beat faster and your blood pressure to go up, while the cortisol released from your adrenal glands stimulates the release of glucose (sugar) into your blood to provide energy for responding.
However, when your body is constantly on alert, stress is no longer beneficial. You could feel anxious, find it hard to concentrate, or experience headaches. Your heart may race, and you could have stomach issues. Since your body can’t calm down, this likely affects you every day.
Being stressed for such a long time can also make you tired: When stressed it can feel hard to wind down at night and fall asleep. This can result in poor sleep and leave you with less energy during the day. When you're tired, you’re more likely to make bad choices like eating sugar-rich or otherwise unhealthy food or not being active. A downward spiral begins that sometimes can feel hard to stop.
Using Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress
Breathing holds a unique position in our body’s functions - it's like a bridge between the things we can control and those that happen automatically. For instance, our heartbeat is usually not something we think about; it's managed by our autonomic nervous system. Breathing, on the other hand, is generally automatic but can also be controlled by us. This dual nature makes breathing a powerful tool for changing our physical state.
Taking deep breaths and focusing on your breathing helps your body learn how to relax. When you control your breath, you're also influencing your autonomic nervous system. This can help your body switch from being on alert to being calm. This shift is important for restoring your body’s normal balance, even when life is busy and you’re chronically stressed. The good thing about breathing as a tool is that you can still leverage it, even when for example meditation feels hard. It’s easier for most people to use the body to influence the mind than vice versa. In fact, a study published in “Science” by researchers of Stanford University and UCLA found a direct connection between the breathing centre and neurons in the brain that are in charge of the calming response. That means breathing exercises not only calm the body but also calm the mind.
As research progresses, it becomes more and more clear that regular breathing exercises can be seen as an effective stress management exercise.
A study published in “Cell” and co-led by our advisor Dr. David Spiegel found that breathing exercises produce an improvement in mood, a reduction in respiratory rate, as well as a reduction of negative emotion including state anxiety.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV): A Measure of Your Ability to Handle Stress
As we delve deeper into the scientific basis of breathing exercises in counteracting stress, it’s vital to understand how we can monitor our ability to handle stress. This brings us to an essential physiological indicator known as Heart Rate Variability, or HRV.
HRV represents the variations in time between consecutive heartbeats. Counterintuitively, a higher Heart Rate Variability is actually beneficial. A higher HRV indicates that your body is good at adapting to changes. This reflects efficient stress resilience and is a sign of better mental and physical health.
Consider HRV as a gauge of how efficiently your body can alternate between states of tension and relaxation. Consequently, when you are chronically stressed your HRV will trend lower.
As shown in this Meta Analysis, breathing exercises done regularly can positively influence your HRV, thereby enhancing your resilience to stress. By consciously regulating the rhythm of your breath, you can encourage your body to transition more fluidly between states of stress and relaxation which is reflected in an increase of HRV. The tempo of breathing seems to be crucial here: As found in a study published in “Nature” the “maximum cardiovascular benefits in terms of increasing HRV were found only at Resonance Frequency”.
Resonance Frequency in this context refers to a slow breathing rhythm where Heart Rate Variability and respiration are in sync, creating a state of “coherence”.
This practice can not only fortify your capability to manage stress but potentially also mitigates the risk of chronic diseases associated with prolonged periods of stress.
The path to a healthier, more balanced life doesn’t necessitate drastic changes; it's about modest, yet consistent efforts. Engaging in a daily breathing exercise can be profoundly impactful.
Navigating Stress with Breath and Balance
As we’ve discussed in this article, stress is a normal part of life that comes and goes based on what is happening in our day.
But when stress stops being an occasional thing and starts being constant, we enter the territory of chronic stress. This non-stop stress is detrimental to our mental and physical health – it worsens our sleep and mental health, makes it hard to focus, and can lead to other health problems.
The good news is that we all have a simple, but powerful tool to fight stress: our breath. By adding regular breathing exercises to our daily routine, we can teach our bodies to recover and relax again. Doing so it makes sense to keep an eye on our Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as an indicator of how our ability to handle stress develops over time. The 59 Breaths app, with its real-time biofeedback, HRV monitoring and personalized breathing exercises, provides a path towards this goal.
In the end, reducing the negative impacts of chronic stress and leading healthier, happier lives boils down to recognizing our innate power to manage stress. It’s about embarking on a journey of consistent small efforts, of conscious breaths, that bring us back into rhythm with ourselves. We encourage you to begin practising slow, focused breathing today and experience the transformation for yourself. Here's to a life of improved wellbeing, one breath at a time.
* Dr. David Spiegel’s contribution to this publication was as a paid consultant and was not part of his Stanford University duties or responsibilities.