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Stress & Anxiety - Techniques to feel calmer (part 2)





Part 1 of this blog series looked at the physiology of how food can affect mood, and you learned some tips for adjusting what and how we eat to positively support mood, especially when stressed or anxious.


In part 2, Integrative Therapist Alexandra Taylor, from Aegle Mind & Body has put together her own collection of tips to help you regain control of your mind and shift the balance into a more restorative head space, as often as possible. Here we go...


 

Happy Mind Happy Gut


Have you ever wondered why we have the expressions, “I have butterflies in my belly”, a “knot in my stomach”, “trust your gut” or “I feel sick with nerves”?


Well it turns out that your brain and your gut are intricately connected and continually communicating with one another.


Perhaps you have noticed that when you are feeling stressed or anxious it manifests as a bloated belly, flatulence or stomach aches.

Or maybe, on the other hand, how your mind seems to spiral into negativity when you’re in physical discomfort, wondering whether it was something you ate, the way you ate, or the time of day.


What science now knows, is that what impacts the gut, affects the mind and that the state of our mind, significantly influences the digestive system.


We know that stress hormones like cortisol can lead to increased inflammation of the gut. It’s easy to lean towards blaming particular foods as the cause of discomfort, but stress and anxiety can have just as much of an impact - sometimes referred to as mind-bloat.


When we are in a state of homeostasis, the body is able to function optimally, with all parts working in harmony. However, many people are overly stressed, living in a state of dysregulation, with their nervous system highly activated and their body performing only key survival functions. We call this the state of 'fight or flight'. The body is preparing itself to defend or flee a dangerous situation. Certain parts of the brain, along with our immune system, reproductive system and digestive system are suppressed.


Up until recently, gut health issues were treated by focusing solely on the gut. However, with a greater understanding of the gut-brain connection we now know that it is possible to treat many digestive issues through a Top-Down approach.


Whilst emotions such as stress and anxiety impact the whole body, they begin in the brain. Learning how to effectively manage our thoughts and emotions, can have a huge impact on the body, especially the digestive system.


Below are 5 simple practices to help reduce anxiety and bring your body back to a balanced state.


 

Mindful Eating

Mindless eating, which can look like eating whilst working or without thinking about the nutrients, can significantly impact our body's ability to digest food. Mindful eating, on the other hand, primes the digestive system to work in the most effective way. Mindful eating involves being present to why and how you eat. Before you begin a meal ask yourself the following three questions:

  • Why am I eating now? Am I actually hungry?

  • What am I eating now? Will what I am eating now nourish my body or is it simply satisfying a current craving?

  • What else am I doing now? Am I working, watching TV or otherwise distracted?

The second part to mindful eating is through engaging your senses. Notice the colours of the rainbow on your plate. The delicious aromas. What tastes are you immediately aware of? How do those tastes change with each new bite. Savour the feeling. What are the textures like? Your mind will invariably wonder and that’s okay, that’s just a part of being human. When you notice that your mind is planning or ruminating, gently guide it back to the sensational meal in front of you and be grateful for the food that nourishes your body.


Breathwork

One of the most effective ways to quickly reduce stress is through the breath. When we feel stressed, our natural breathing pattern changes to become short and shallow, triggering the sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight). By consciously controlling your breath, so that it is longer, slower and deeper we can shift our bodies into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) which is optimal for healing. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, encourages the breath to move deeper down into the lungs and abdomen as opposed to just the chest, and directly influences the vagus nerve, the nerve responsible for stimulating digestion.


A simple practice is simply extending the length of the exhale. To begin with you may try inhaling for a count of 4 and exhaling for a count of 6. Overtime you may build your capacity to a ratio of 4:8 or even more. Place one hand on your belly and watch your belly distend as you take a breath in, whilst keeping your shoulders and chest relaxed.


Meditation

There are many different ways to meditate, but one thing they all have in common, is a reduction of stress and anxiety. Research shows that a consistent meditation practice reprograms neural pathways in the brain, improving our ability to identify and regulate emotions.


Through meditation we learn to be with our anxiety and become familiar with our triggers and the storylines. Sitting with the experience, rather than trying to analyse or suppress them often helps to dissolve the intensity of the stress. The practice teaches us two important life lessons: our thoughts do not define us, nor are they real or factual. Overtime, the meditator learns to observe their thoughts calmly and neutrally, like watching clouds in the sky.


Meditation isn’t a magic wand or a quick fix strategy. It takes patience, practice and persistence to master, but is worth every effort. The most common thing I hear when it comes to starting a meditation practice is “I can’t meditate, my mind's too busy”. The truth is, everyone can meditate. 2 minutes a day for an anxious mind, is a great place to start.

Restorative Yoga

Any type of movement is a great thing for the mind and body. Yoga especially has been scientifically proven to relieve stress and anxiety, as well as ease digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating and cramping.


Restorative Yoga is a style of Yoga that promotes a profoundly deep physical, mental and emotional relaxation. This therapeutic style of yoga is best known for activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), the part which helps keep the basic functions of the body working optimally. As the name suggests, this type of practice is designed to allow the body to restore, rest, heal and balance.


In a 60 minute class you will typically hold only a few comfortable and supported positions for up to 10 minutes allowing the relaxation response to deepen. During these longer holds you are encouraged to breathe mindfully and stay present to the moment - although undoubtedly hard, it will truly be the best investment of your time. Try resting belly pose, twists, or legs up the wall for a deeply nourishing experience to soothe the gut.


Reframe your thoughts

Our thoughts, and the way that we think about things, play a huge role in the way we behave and feel. In short, it’s not the situation that causes you to feel a certain way, rather how you think about it - which is why two people can come away from the same experience with totally different perspectives. The intricate cycle between our thoughts, behaviours and emotions can lead to making healthy or unhealthy lifestyle choices, including with food.


As well as this, our thoughts can contribute to what we call health anxiety, triggering the stress response on a regular basis. Learning how to reframe your thoughts is one of the most effective ways to increase resilience and move through life's stressful challenges. When you find yourself stuck in a cycle of negativity, ask yourself the following questions to challenge your thoughts:

  • Am I confusing thought with fact?

  • Am I jumping to conclusions?

  • Am I thinking in terms of Black and White?

  • Am I catastrophising about the future?

  • Am I focusing in on the negatives and ignoring any potential positives?

  • Do I have any evidence that this thought is true? If so, how accurate is that evidence?

  • Am I assuming my view of things is the only one possible?

  • Am I expecting myself to be perfect?

  • Am I engaged in double standards?

  • Are sources I trust telling me this thought isn’t true?


 

If you found Alexandra's top tips for managing stress & anxiety helpful or if you would like to know more, check out her instagram page and her website and please share widely to help others who may find this information useful.


 

Try out some of these tips above and let me know how you get on in the comments section below. For a more tailored insight into your personal health and underlying drivers, book in to see me in my Lymington clinic or online.


Good luck! Annie x

 

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