One on my favorite stress management exercises is to ask my counseling and anger management clients to imagine themselves getting up from a really good nights sleep, and to note how refreshed they feel as they pull the covers off, and move their body toward the next right thing to do.
We go through finding a number of descriptive words to describe how they are feeling and the hormonal bath they have going on, and the words that come up are refreshed, relaxed, comfortable, ect.
Then I ask them to imagine themselves as the pivot their body out from under the covers but before their feet touch the floor while still refreshed, to imagine having a large unpaid bill to deal with, and I ask them to again tell me what they feel, as they switch the thought from relaxing, refreshing sleep, to unpaid bill.
Most of those same clients report that the feeling switches to anxiety immediately, and they can go from relaxed to stressed out anxiety at the speed of a thought.
Then I ask them to imagine back to just waking up refreshed, and I ask them what happened to the stress feeling related to the unpaid bill and to a person, clients report that the stress is gone or greatly reduced.
That simple exercise illustrates two key components of stress management exercises, the speed at which my body works to prepare itself for a problem solving effort, or an actual emergency, and how thoughts impact physiology.
Paul Ekman,Ph.D. in his work on cataloging facial expressions reports that across cultures humans respond to a look of contempt with a powerful hormonal stew featuring hormones like adrenalin and cortisol in 1/25th second, which is about 2 and 1/2 times faster than I can blink my eyes, and that is without an interpretive thought.
So my stress management exercises must teach me to monitor the inside of my body frequently, so my powerful hormonal stews do not drive a behavior before I make a decision.
I like to call that process ‘awareness gives me choice’.
The next part of the stress management exercise that I mentioned above is to recognize the impact of thoughts on feelings.
My thought as I wake up is about how refreshed I am and the feeling state following that thought is quite comfortable, which changes to a quite uncomfortable feeling state when I switch my thought to the unpaid bill.
So to change my feeling back to a comfortable feeling means changing the thought, changing my breathing, or utilizing a technology like Heartmath, which is a biofeedback tool which teaches me to manage the time between heart beats.
Stress management tools, up until the discovery of the heart’s own nervous system, have always been about breathing and mindfulness, and they are effective, just not as effective as fast as Heartmath, or heart rate variability biofeedback.
I discovered heart rate variability biofeedback in an EEB Biofeedback listserve about 11 years ago, and determined to learn more about it. (EEG biofeedback works at a speed of HZ or cycles per second. If Heartmath could come close to that speed, what a powerful tool to have available).
I bought it and learned it in about 3 hours, or six 1/2 hour sessions. I have used it with clients since and have had only one client take more than 10 sessions to learn it.
Heart rate variability biofeedback actually combines the thinking and breathing technologies with computerized feedback, which allows you to manage the time between heart beats within a heart beat.
The new field of neurocardiology has determined that the heart has a brain of its own which learns and makes decisions independently of any other brain I have, and I can invoke that coherence on any given heart beat should I so chose.
With a tool like heart rate variability biofeedback, stress management exercises become proactive rather than reactive.
In other words, I can practice the easily learned heart rate variability biofeedback process anytime I want, perhaps every five minutes, for two whole heartbeats, to cue a very pleasant feeling good physiology which has some real impact on my brain, opening up the higher perceptual centers for high level brainstorming.
I think this physiology is akin to what Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi wrote about in his book called FLOW in 1993.
His book said to me that if we can determine the components of flow, then we can duplicate it on demand, and life flows.
Well, heart rate variability biofeedback gives me a quick and powerful tool to use on any given heart beat to relax my body and open my brain.
(It does not pay any bills, just changes my physiology.)
So now my stress management exercises involve regular thinking and breathing practices, which take as little time as two heart beats (I can feel it!)to change my inner physiology to coherence, and my body gets used to that, and does not tolerate unnecessary stress for long before reminding me to cue my coherence.
I am literally managing my happiness/stress/distress/eustress/eustasis very frequently in short bursts, which takes into account the human orienting response.
Since the discovery of the heart’s own brain, the entire neuroscientific community has had its dogma overturned by the discovery of two capacities of the human brain, called neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.
Both capacities can be enhanced by attending to what are generally being called the ‘pillars of brain fitness’, or physical exercise, nutrition, including lots of omega 3 fatty acid, sleep, stress management, and novel learning experiences.
Neurogenesis is the term used to describe the growth of new neurons every day. However those new neurons do not survive prolonged exposure to Stress Hormones, which gives added importance to using stress management exercises to maximize the growth of new neurons, which migrate to the memory centers of your brain, making neurogenesis something I want to enhance.
The authors of Brainfit for Life describe this process in great detail.
So my stress management exercises and brain fitness combine with my personal and professional life very easily. Isn’t that having your cake and eating it too?
About the Author
Michael S. Logan is a brain fitness expert, a counselor, a student of Chi Gong, and licensed one on one HeartMath provider. I enjoy the spiritual, the mythological, and psychological, and I am a late life father to Shane, 10, and Hannah Marie, 4, whose brains are so amazing. http://www.askmikethecounselor2.com
stress induced sinustachycardia