In honor of International Women’s Day, let’s talk about how mental and emotional stress can affect the body and also how we can use our body to affect our stress response!
One of the ways we understand how humans operate in different states in different situations is through the autonomic nervous system. This nervous system helps regulate our automatic responses like breathing, heart rate, and certain hormonal responses.
The autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic, otherwise known as our fight/flight/freeze response and the parasympathetic nervous system know more as our rest/digest response.
We need both of these responses, but spending an excessive amount of time in one or the other, especially in the sympathetic nervous system, can be detrimental for our health. Being able to transition easily between these responses has been linked to longevity and health.
This concept has gotten a lot of press recently in the form of heart rate variability. Increased heart rate variability is thought to be an indicator of robust autonomic nervous system flexibility and overall health and longevity.
Heart rate variability refers to a phenomenon in the cardio-respiratory axis in which breathing in is associated with the sympathetic nervous system and a slight increase in the heart rate, and breathing out is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system and a slight decrease in the heart rate.
So, while your heart rate is the average number of beats per minute, the heart variability is a calculation of the amount of change within the rate per minute. You need a special device that reads your heart rate very accurately and that links to a sophisticated program to run lots of math.
Whether or not you choose to measure or track you HRV, we know that there are actions that we can take to improve our HRV, health of our nervous system and overall stress.
One of the simplest ways to tap into our autonomic nervous system is through the diaphragm and breathing. Breathing is typically moderated through the ANS and increases with increased stress be it mental or physical and decreases in relaxed states and with sleep. We also have volitional control of our breathing, and by changing the rate of breathing and can exert influence on our relative autonomic state.
Being intentional about slower, deeper breaths helps us access our parasympathetic nervous system and can reduce muscle tension, reduce our heart rate, and decrease stress hormones in the body.
This can be a powerful tool to help us both mentally and physically.
Over the next several posts, we’ll explore some more strategies to manage our bodies stress response through our bodies.
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