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Stress and lengthening your exhale

Updated: Apr 21

Personal practice: This week I have been mainly...

Lengthening my exhale.
Woman wild swimming with a waterfall in the background
Wild swimming is pretty but it's often also pretty cold, which stresses the body and nervous system

Stress! Something we never seem to be short of one way or another.

Did you know that there is in fact something called "good stress"?! 😂

Good stress, just like "bad stress", challenges the body and nervous system. The difference is it's acute, so happens in short bursts, and gives you the chance to grow stronger and more resilient as you recover.

Weightlifting and cold water therapy are two examples of "good" stress.

Until a few years ago I would have thought these things were pretty much the same as "bad" stress. Something painful, uncomfortable, likely to leave me dysregulated or injured and I wouldn't have been in a hurry to do them!

Just like stress with work or finances, I tried to build my life around avoiding them.

As my journey with yoga developed, I realised that my body and mind actually needed this type of "good stress" to develop too. To get stronger and more resilient. And I couldn't avoid financial or work stress. There is never a good time for the washing machine or the car to break down 🙄

Stress happens, and actually we do need it to grow and develop. So how to manage it in the moment?

That's where this week's practice comes in!

Stress and lengthening your exhale

Putting stress on the body, "good" or "bad", activates the sympathetic nervous system- the fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. Stress hormones, heart and breathing rate can shoot up ready to respond with physical action- even if we're in an emotional stress situation and no physical response is actually required.

This is how our bodies are programmed. We often need to calm down from this response if it's not helping us in the moment.

Wild swimming has been my window into stress response this week. I've loved getting in the water regularly, but it's usually been (sometimes very) cold and I commonly experience acute stress (i.e. rapidly increased heart rate and respiration). Gasping for breath in the cold, I come back to the yoga practice of extending my exhale to relax and calm down, even when it feels kind of impossible. Inhale through the nose, looooong exhale through the mouth...

Deliberately making your exhalations longer than your inhalations is shown to decrease stress (fight/flight etc) response by stimulating the vagus nerve. This is true for calming down in heat as well as cold (I've used it in 40 degree Celsius hot yoga many times) and in situations involving fear or being emotionally triggered.

Bring the heart rate down, bring the nervous system back to into social mode, feel more in control and make better decisions.

Cue work deadlines, financial stress, or that recurring argument with a family member 😬 this is one of the tools to have at the ready.

On the mat

We practice this technique in yoga class too ready for use in the wider world. Taking on a challenging posture or energetic sequence, remembering to breathe and extend the exhalation is a rehearsal for more stressful situations that we no doubt find ourselves in off the mat.

I also offer yoga for your workplace- contact me now to enquire.

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