You’re sitting by a lake in the summer, your feet resting off the dock as water laps at your ankles. Your phone is off, as your gaze settles on the horizon. This isn’t just a break or a holiday, it may be just what the doctor ordered. This calm state changes the frequency of brain waves and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Also known as the “rest and digest” system, our parasympathetic nervous system makes us resilient in the face of stress. Research shows that creating moments that allow us to slow down and promote relaxation make us stronger when the pressure is on.
Here are three relaxation boosters that can keep the body immune to disease or depletion.
“When we are under stress, our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our flight-or-fight response, is activated and stress hormones are released. This leads to a number of physiological changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. While our bodies are typically able to manage these reactions on a short-term basis, when chronically or repeatedly activated this stress response can have negative health outcomes including heart disease, suppressed immune activity, depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Ricardo Flamenbaum, a psychologist at Medcan.
“A normal component of the stress response is increased breathing rate, and while breathing is usually an involuntary activity we also have control over our breathing, and can use our breathing to slow down our reactions and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, essentially helping to reset our body’s stress response. Slowing down our physiological reactions through breathing can also help us to think more clearly and rationally about problems, further helping to reduce stress.”
Research shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improve immune function. Apps like Headspace and Calm are helpful for beginners.
“Meditation and breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, are particularly helpful when people are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and stress, including muscle tension, restlessness, racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping, etc. When performed on a regular basis, it can be a helpful way to reduce overall, or baseline, levels of anxiety, as well as helping to slow down and reduce more acute and intense feelings of anxiety, such as panic. Mindfulness meditation, in particular, has been shown to help make people more resilient to stress and cope more effectively with worry, uncertainty, and other negative emotions.
In her new book, The Nature Fix , Florence Williams presents the science behind something most of us know intuitively: nature can be the best medicine. One of her articles in Outside Magazine is titled “Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning”, which makes a lot of sense to any of us who have unplugged, immersed in nature and returned to the office with more focus and enthusiasm.
While hiking the West Coast Trail or completing the Annapurna Circuit may be on our bucket lists, outdoor exposure doesn’t have to be extreme for it to work. Dr. Flamenbaum recommends outside time to almost all his clients.
“It doesn’t have to take a big commitment. Even brief periods, such as going outside during lunch, can be restorative. As long as it’s done mindfully,” he says.
That means, putting away your phone. A recent study showed how even just having our phones near us can have a detrimental impact on our cognitive function.
“We have conditioned ourselves to be always ‘on’ and ready to respond to our phones. This state of alertness acts as an ongoing form of stress, and unplugging from our devices, even for brief periods, is an important way to manage stress.”
Deep sleep, the kind you get when you are uninterrupted for seven to nine hours, allows the body to release hormones designed to repair cells and build tissue in the body and the brain. But research on global sleeping habits shows that we are a sleep-deprived population. It’s not only affecting our cardiovascular health and increasing the risk of diabetes; our decision-making skills are also affected.
Going one night without sleep can impair your reflexes and judgment to the same extent as being over the legal driving alcohol limit. Chronic lack of sleep is closely linked to anxiety and depression, and insomnia is associated with reduced brain size. And there is growing evidence that links poor sleep quality to Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.
The good news is that research shows it’s possible to reduce all those risks through early diagnosis and effective treatment of sleep disorders and poor sleep quality.
That starts with getting your sleep hygiene on track.
If falling asleep or staying asleep is prevented by ruminating thoughts or worry, a psychology approach to sleeplessness may be right for you. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) aims to improve sleep habits by identifying and changing the thoughts and behaviors that are affecting quality sleep. CBT-I can help people kick the sleeping pill habit – which unfortunately is a high risk when people use sleep aids for a long time.
With quality sleep, you’ll support your immune system and your mind, to fight off the mental, emotional and physical pressures of your day.