These days, most articles that I run across on the topic of stress tend to be about chronic stress— the day-to-day stress of jobs, finances and family dysfunction that chip away at our well-being, year after year. This is the insidious form of stress that we all try to manage with yoga and meditation in the hope that we can gain control over it and avoid all sorts of medical issues down the road (heart attack, stroke, ulcer, etc.) Controlling chronic stress is one of my on-going goals, and I use various techniques, such as journaling, prayer, and meditation to help each day.
With all of this stress management on my mind, you’d think that I would be mindful of acute stress as well as chronic stress, but I actually rarely think about the acute variety. I lump all forms of stress into one bucket, and that’s not really a fair way to think about it.
Acute stress is short-term stress that fires up in response to an event. The event might be a near collision on the highway. Or maybe something more primitive— like being chased by an animal. In either scenario, your stress hormones are in high gear. Your adrenal glands release adrenaline and norepinephrine, your heart races in your chest, and your body feels hyper-alert and energized.
I thought about acute stress today as I was on a conference call for work. As I tried to speak naturally and (hopefully) intelligently, I worried that I was rambling and not communicating effectively. I suddenly realized that I was sweating and my heart was pounding in my throat as I was asked a series of interview questions. I was exhibiting the symptoms of an acute stress response!
I wasn’t running from an animal or avoiding a near-death experience, but I was pumped up with stress hormones as if my life were in danger. Although the physical sensations of acute stress are uncomfortable, this type of stress response (in small doses) is actually good! We want our impulses to quicken and our awareness of our surroundings to intensify when we are in a challenging situation. What we DON’T want is uncontrollable energy and fear that cannot be used to our advantage. The good news is that we can effectively manage our acute stress to work for us rather than against us.
Being able to channel the rush of adrenaline into a controlled stream of positive energy is the trick to being able to thrive under short-term stress. And you can do it!
I know this isn’t going to come as a huge surprise, being that this is a yoga website and all…but the trick to managing and channeling this stress is to control the breath.
You can turn an intense, harried situation into a calm, collected experience by slowing your rate of breathing. You will continue to benefit from the added burst of energy provided by the stress hormones flowing through your body, but you will be in full control. Your voice will not waver, and your actions will exude confidence.
You obviously cannot shut down in the middle of your stressful episode to meditate or start flowing on your yoga mat. Instead, you will practice these two breathing techniques and re-gain control of the situation. You may find that one technique is easier than the other. Try them both for a couple of minutes each and see what works for you.
Inhale deeply through the nose for a count of six until the lungs are full, and then exhale through the nose for a count of six until the lungs are empty. In your head, count like this: Inhale-two-three-four-five-six; Exhale-two-three-four-five-six. Keep the count in your head for a couple of rounds until the rhythm of the slow breathing exercise feels natural.
Inhale through the nose for a count of four; Hold your breath (with lungs full of air) for a count of four; Exhale for a count of four; Hold your breath (with lungs empty) for a count of four. Practice this breathing technique by maintaining this count in your head: Inhale-two-three-four; Hold-two-three-four; Exhale-two-three-four; Hold-two-three-four.