According to recent reports, workplace stress may contribute up to $190 billion in health-care expenses and over 120,000 deaths each year. Anxiety about employment could potentially kill more Americans than diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or the flu every year. Further, the constant stress, overload and the sedentary nature of so many office jobs puts undue strain on our minds and bodies and contributes to rampant sickness, pain, and premature decline.
What can we do to reverse this decline? Take a break. But not just once in a blue moon, but regularly, every single day. Before you say “No way – I just don’t have time!” read on.
To learn more about how we can incorporate desperately needed breaks into our daily lives, I spoke with Tiffany Cruikshank, the founder and brains behind Yoga Medicine, a community of expert yoga teachers focused on fusing the best of anatomy and western medicine with the practice of yoga and meditation. With her medical background in Acupuncture and Sports Medicine and over 20 years experience teaching yoga, Tiffany has worked with professional athletes and celebrities around the world, has run her own clinics, and was the Acupuncturist and Yoga Teacher at the Nike World Headquarters. She’s been featured in numerous national publications including Yoga Journal, Prevention, Self, Marie Claire, Fitness, Redbook, More Magazine, Good Housekeeping and more.
Here’s what Tiffany shared about our need to take regular breaks, and how we can do it:
Tiffany Cruikshank: In our modern world, things are moving and changing at a faster rate than ever with new developments in medicine, business, finance, you name it, all happening in the blink of an eye. If we want to succeed, if we want to support our families, if we want to build a legacy we must work harder than we ever have to get and stay ahead of the game. So stress just becomes part of the terrain. But what if that stress is also what’s halting your progress?
There have been numerous studies in the past decade exploring how taking short breaks in the day can affect our productivity, concentration, memory, energy level, sleep, well-being and stress levels. And we have all heard the many reasons why stress reduction is so crucial to our health. For these reasons, doctors are more commonly recommending stress reduction as an essential part of their treatment. But very few are giving specific guidelines for how to do so.
We tend to think of stress reduction as something big we need to do or large feat to be achieved, often waiting until the end of the day to try to relax, which becomes impossible. But the most effective way to reduce your stress is through the small things you do throughout your day. Stress is implicated in so many different issues in the body including headaches, migraines, hypertension, asthma, fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety , indigestion, reflux, heart or lung problems, weakened immune system, skin problems, chronic muscle tension or pain, irritable bowel, fibromyalgia, arthritis, colds and sinus infections to name a few. In order to fix this, your nervous system has to set a new baseline for operating.
With our understanding of neuroplasticity, we now know that our body has the capacity to adapt but that it requires a consistent effort to reprogram the nervous system. Looking deeper, we see that the stress response triggers our nervous system to go into what we call the sympathetic mode. This is where our body sends most of our ATP or energy stores out to our muscles and our brains to help us achieve what we are working toward.
The downside to this, however, is that this energy is shunted away from the very organs that can create more of this energy to drive our body and our organs. To counter this, we also have the parasympathetic mode – the capacity to heal and repair, detoxify and digest. Because the body can only be in the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system mode, any part of the body that is having trouble will be magnified under the influence of stress. Given these facts, today’s modern society stress reduction can be tremendously beneficial for everyone.
Caprino: So, Tiffany, what are the easiest, most effective ways we can incorporate taking breaks into our daily life?
Cruikshank: Taking breaks and reducing stress sounds simple, but for most of us it is easier said than done. The tricky part of treating stress is that it’s ongoing and typically affects us throughout our day. It takes patience. Enjoying the lasting effects of stress reduction come over time with consistent practice.
Below are six of my favorite ways to take a break. Stress reduction is not one-size-fits-all program; try them all and see what is most helpful for you. Remember it’s the ability to stick to one or two of these for just a few minutes several times a day, everyday that is important, but just 3-5 minutes at a time can be enough.
Six effective stress reduction strategies:
Set a timer on your phone.
The first thing I like to have my patients do is to start setting a timer on their phone around 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. or whatever time works best for them to stop what they are doing for 3-5 minutes. (They can snooze the time if they are in the middle of a meeting or something important). This step is key to help reprogram the stress response, the more often the better. I recommend starting with twice a day. See below for suggestions on what to do during that time.
Stop and count your breath
This one is simple but very effective. All you have to do is stop what you’re doing and notice your breath. I say it is simple, but it isn’t necessarily easy since the goal is to watch the breath without trying to change or regulate it. Just shifting the awareness to the breath will help to draw the body in the parasympathetic nervous system where the body and mind can shift into relaxation. Notice if it feels choppy or smooth, long or deep. Notice where you feel the breath in the body, more in the upper ribcage or lower, more in the front of the chest or the back. Don’t try to change it but notice how the breath reflects how you feel.
Use a meditation app
Meditation can be a great way to reduce stress and there are many apps that provide guided meditation exercises. My favorite is the Mindfulness app. It provides guided meditations for those newer to meditation or a simple timer with bells for those who prefer silence. They are also a great way to keep you on track by keeping track of how much time you spend meditating. Both short and long meditations are offered so you can adapt it to fit your schedule. Some other great apps to check out are Headspace and Calm.
Lengthen your breath
Deep breathing practices are a great way to induce some quick stress relief, start with a 4 count inhale and a 4 count exhale. Repeat for 1-3 minutes. Once you feel more comfortable with this you can try making the exhale a little longer than the inhale, this will help induce the parasympathetic response even more. The key to this one is to try to keep the breath relaxed as you go. A great app for guidance on this is called Breathe2Relax.
Connect it to something you do every day
Making this break a part of your life is the key so connecting it to simple things you do every day is important for re-educating the nervous system, similar to training your muscles if you were to go to a physical therapist. Simple things are the most helpful, like noticing your breath (instead of planning your to-do list) while you brush your teeth, wash the dishes or commute home from work. This one sounds small, but it makes a huge difference for re-educating the stress response.
Connect it to intense moments
This one is the hardest, but possibly the most helpful. After some experience with a few of the previous ones now try taking it into the intense or stressful moments of your day. A good stress break is only as good as its ability to help you in times of need as well. Challenge yourself to see if it’s possible to notice your breath when you find yourself in periods of more intense stress or when you find yourself in a heated conversation or high-pressure situation. There’s no pressure to change it or even to relax in this exercise, but just notice the internal response. From there the nervous system can start to adjust and regulate the response appropriately.
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