YES! When we're stressed, when we're anxious, when we're angry AND in fact EVERY day. Let me explain....
Our brain is hard wired to protect and survive; a small primitive but powerful part of our brain, the amygdala, is constantly alert for signals of danger. It's the part of our brain which kick starts the "Fight/Flight/Freeze" survival response. It works amazingly!! And the physiological process occurring in the survival response is truly incredible! Unfortunately the amygdala, whilst it's looking out for us, is not a rational part of our brain and can kick off in a split second when it interprets threat. Unfortunately the "threat" may not actually be a "life or death" threat but our body is motivated, infact propelled, into responding at its optimum performance. Great when we find ourselves being attacked by a dangerous animal (hmm I'm encountering tigers all the time!!) and when we need to be functioning at our optimum for a deadline or an exam but not so great when its triggered constantly by everyday stressors. The stress response constantly "kicking off" has a negative effect on our physical health - it's exhausting for one! It impacts our immune system, our digestive system, our cardiovascular system. After all its purpose is to ensure immediate safety, here and now, not for the long term. So when the instinctive brain perceives a "life or death" scenario (that isn't always "life or death"!!) then at that moment, fighting disease, replenishing skin cells, digesting food effectively is not a priority.
is interpreted by the brain that we're not safe. In time we end up being unwell, with more colds, with reflux and indigestion, with high blood pressure and with stress accumulating it can also lead to depression and anxiety.
There's lots of ways to relax and release yourself from the survival / stress response. For instance Yoga, Tai Chi, Mindful meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, massage, breathing exercises.
Deep breathing, often referred to as diaphragmatic breathing allows us to take a full natural breath, optimising oxygen exchange. By deliberately activating a healthy diaphragmatic breath it indicates to our brain that we are in a relaxed peaceful state to heal, to digest, replenish skin cells, fight infection and helps to lower blood pressure..... it helps us relax and can help us manage stressful and anxiety provoking situations.
So we can use this type of breathing in stressful situations, for instance, I still use breathing exercises to "breath through" my dentist appointment if I have to have work done! Focusing on the breath can help manage pain; its not a case of simply "distracting" yourself with breathing but allowing yourself to "breath through" the pain - its no surprise that mothers have been taught breathing exercises to help in labour (note: no one said a breathing exercise made labour pain free mind!) Recently I fell and hurt my back and whilst doing yoga the other day my back went into an excrutiating spasm but focussing on the breath got me through it.
already snapped the boss's head off! Taking a moment every now and then to just regulate our breathing can help us keep on top of things, to let go of building tension and possibly even to help us stay physically healthy too.
When I was first taught to do diaphragmatic breathing I was told to put one hand on my chest and one on my stomach and to make sure that as I took a breath in to watch my stomach rise and as I took a breath out watch my stomach fall...... well that's certainly what it should look like but try making yourself do that! How un-natural can breathing naturally feel?!!! You can use "7/11" breathing or a "breathing square" - what ever works for you but why not...
Try this instead...
TOP TIP: If you're angry breathing exercises can help too but avoid starting by taking a deep breath in, instead, take a breath out, blow out (make sure the balloon is empty before gently inflating it again! And aim to focus on calm breath) The reason for this is when we're angry a deep breath in can energise us into acting and that isn't always helpful when we might be better helped by taking a step back and thinking before acting!
New Year and many people are thinking about how to “improve themselves”, whether its “dry January” or starting a new exercise regime or eating plan. New Year resolutions are generally made to better ourselves or our situation….. Mine, if you’re interested, is to keep up my mindfulness meditation and to practice gratitude daily….. well actually that isn’t really a “New Year” resolution, just a resolution that I still need to keep reminding myself in a compassionate and encouraging way, until it becomes a good-enough-habit, that it’s an old habit!
Whenever you decide to make change, New Year or mid-year, it takes some effort, it doesn’t just happen! Its far easier to keep treading the path you know well and forgetting there’s an alternative route!
Currently everywhere I look I see adverts for gym membership and slimming clubs…… then I wonder, is someone trying to tell me something?! Well yes – of course! They want the business and they’re offering us a service; they know a lot of us want help to achieve change. And New Year is traditionally when people make their resolutions to change. Human beings are creatures of habit and are also generally social creatures, so being in a group of like-minded people gives a sense of belonging (we don’t like to think we’re alone and the only one with a ‘problem’), having another person to support and motivate us can feel good so it seems like a good idea – and indeed it CAN be a good idea! There's nothing wrong with joining a group, getting a personal trainer or roping in your 'bestie' to help you.
But some New Year resolutions just don’t last long, at worst, less than a day!!! Thinking about making change and putting a plan in place doesn’t always mean putting change in to action is straightforward, let alone maintaining it!
Setting a goal, making it achievable, developing a plan can certainly help but oh, how good are we, at sabotaging our good intentions?!! How many people have paid for gym membership and not used it?! The idea that paying for something will motivate us doesn’t always quite pan out that way ☹
There’s an old saying, “old habits die hard”, well the truth is that old habits don’t “die”. After all, think about it, the ability to ride a bicycle doesn’t “die”; we don’t forget how to ride a bicycle, if we haven’t done it for a while, we might be a bit rusty and less agile but once the behaviour is learnt we don’t unlearn it. The same goes for other, often less helpful, behaviours we’ve learnt - we don’t forget how to or lose the ability to drink alcohol, to smoke or to eat unhealthily. And on top of that when we’re trying to change these particular habits we also have to struggle with things like survival instincts and brain chemistry e.g. we need food for energy and growth, we might like the experience of drinking alcohol or eating chocolate, or crave nicotine ….and then there’s stress and temptation etc etc
BUT we CAN keep learning new things and learning to do things differently. New habits ARE hard because the old behaviours (that we’re most used to) are easier, even when the consequences of doing them might be harder on us…. and well, because old habits don’t “die”!
But what we CAN try and do is put old habits to bed and let them “go to sleep” (like the now rusting bicycle in your shed perhaps!) So….. what we need is motivation and strategies, to let old habits “doze off” while we bring new habits ALIVE & nurture them ….and to stop THEM from going to sleep! Zzzz
Whilst the physical/chemical/ biological element might be important to acknowledge and manage e.g nicotine withdrawal, missing the sugar / endorphin rush etc etc, the important factors in starting and maintaining change, are going to be the two things that are totally ours to change: our behaviour …and our THOUGHTS!
Change your behaviour but not your thought processes? You might start off ok but you could soon find the old behaviour waking back up and singing a merry tune! And THERE you have the self-sabotage…. That inner voice…. “oh I can’t be bothered today”, “I’m too tired”, “I don’t have time” “x, y, z is more important right now”, “I deserve a treat”, “one won’t hurt”, “I can’t do this”, “It’s too hard”, “I’ll do it tomorrow”, “Oh well I’ve done it now” etc etc. That’s YOUR inner voice becoming increasingly unhelpful, unmotivating and to top it all, quite possibly self-critical!
In the same way we learn habits in our behaviours, we also learn habits in the way we think. Getting a personal trainer, joining a group or getting your 'bestie' on board to help you with your behaviours also means you hear a helpful (external) voice which hopefully helps to influence your internal voice but you do need to hear that motivation as consistently as possible internally too! Unfortunately sometimes the internal voice and it’s argument for the old habit or against the new one wins. But we CAN successfully train that new voice to stay “awake” when we find and maintain our own meaning / importance in change and when we recognise unhelpful / sabotaging thinking processes. We’re the only ones who can answer our internal selves back when the old voice starts it’s argument! Yep! That's right talking to ourselves is a good thing 😉
Oh yes, and that’s where I might be able to help you 😊 with strategies to discover, understand and manage your own internal voice so you can succeed in making the change you would like to see…..
And today I will make room for mindfulness and for gratitude.... (perhaps a blog on those another day!?!)
Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, Integrative Psychotherapist, Nurse Specialist (Mental Health), Mum, Youth Worker, Trainer.......