The Mental Health Association of NSW reported in 2016 that Australians are stressing more than ever. This is impacting detrimentally on our physical and mental health. Not breaking news perhaps, but what is super interesting is how we deal with it (and how we could be doing better).
How do people deal with stress? According to the survey, 86% watch TV and movies, and 81% spend time with their loved ones.
86%! Watch TV! Yep. It’s a force of habit for most of us. Added to that would be spending time on our iPhones scrolling through some interesting (and not so interesting) stuff, to pass the time and distract ourselves from things that may be worrying us. Having a wine or a beer is also a fall back for most of us. Distraction is an interesting one. It can be great to focus on something else than the thoughts in our mind for an evening, but are we truly relaxing?
“Stress Less Tips” recommended by the NSW Association include: trying something new, living in the present moment, reaching out or talking to old mates, exercising, making time for yourself, aiming for more sleep and “recharging” (although it doesn’t specify how).
These are great tips but the Mental Health Association misses specifically recommending a key process for maintaining optimal health: the breath. The breath is a vital life function that has a positive impact on all our body systems, including the nervous system. Working with the breath in meditation, yoga and in daily life, helps us to relax and restore our optimal emotional and physical health and wellbeing. It is completely underestimated and is with us all the time.
A vital process for relaxing is awareness and modulation of the breath (for example in a hatha yoga class). It has a profound impact on getting out of our worried minds, bringing us back to our body, and calming our nervous system. Extending your exhale, for a second for example, when stressed can calm your nerves.
Without getting too scientific, our nervous system has two modes: the “flight or fight” response (when we are anxious, fearful, angry, or a bit stressed), and the “rest and digest” mode (when we are relaxed, unconcerned, and feel more at peace with things as they are). As individuals and as a society, we are pretty much always in hyperdrive – the “flight or fight” response. Our individual and collective nervous systems are way out of balance. This is not ideal, as the “rest and digest” mode maintains a homeostasis, and relaxes and repairs the body’s systems. Bringing our body to a state of “rest and digest” is important for our health.
And interestingly the physiology of our spine affects our thinking. The nervous system in fact starts at the tips of our fingers and goes through our spine to our brain. Consequently, doing an asana (in Sanskrit ‘asana’ refers to postures) practice before meditation, means that we come to any meditation practices with a less disrupted mind.
Ideally, have a massage for tissue release, do a breath-centred yoga practice to further calm the nervous system, then some meditation if you’re in the mood, and you’ll be pretty much as relaxed as you can be! This in turn, has a deep (and over time, sustained) impact on your optimal physical and mental wellbeing.