Are pandemic-related pressures weighing on your heart?

Stress is a part of life. In fact, it serves a vital role in keeping us protected from potential dangers. The body reacts to a stressful situation by increasing your heart rate and breathing to deliver a powerful boost of blood and oxygen to the muscles and lungs. Plus, the mind becomes more alert, and the senses sharpen as the body prepares to either fight or flee from any perceived threat.

Most of us have experienced these side effects of stress at some point in our lives. And often these symptoms are benign. But when emotional stress lingers for months on end, such as that experienced during the pandemic, it can harm your health. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to have a skill set for squashing — or at least softening —the symptoms of stress.

Keep your heart light with the following must-have stress management exercises:

Catch your breath. Breathing becomes irregular when you’re stressed. But telling yourself to “calm down” isn’t an effective tool for sedating a burdened brain. And sometimes, that self-talk can cause more distress when we aren’t able to silence overwhelming thoughts or feelings.

One of the most accessible methods for managing stress is by learning how to breathe properly. Your mood directly affects breathing patterns. When you’re mad, you can yell, huff, puff, and then feel light-headed from inhaling insufficient levels of oxygen. When you’re relaxed, your breath is soft and slow, which mimics the emotions associated with feeling calm.

By recognizing the relationship between your breathing patterns and emotions, you can quickly disarm your response to stress that’s hardwired into your brain. For this to work, it’s like any other exercise program that requires daily reps to grow stronger. Initially, practice this skill when you aren’t in the throes of a stressful situation because your mind will be more clear and rational.

Belly breathing technique for beginners:

  • Find a comfortable, distraction-free place to sit or lie down. Relax your face, slack your jaw so your lips are slightly open, release tight, elevated shoulders, and let your arms rest at your sides with palms up and hands unclenched. If you’re working from home with school-aged children and there is no quiet place in the house, escape for 10 minutes by taking a drive up the street, parking, and practicing this exercise.

  • Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. It’s important to note where you’re more prone to draw your breath from: your chest or your belly. Chest breathing tends to be more shallow, whereas belly breathing produces a deeper capacity for inhalation. For this exercise, you want to focus on belly breathing by making sure the hand on your belly rises with each breath and not the hand on your chest.

  • Take a long, slow breath in through your nose, feel your belly rise, and exhale fully through your mouth. Try to keep breaths even on the inhale and exhale, but do not hold your breath longer than it feels natural. Continue this for 10 minutes, or until you feel relaxed and recharged.

4-7-8 breathing: This is a more advanced breathing exercise that should be implemented into your wellness program once you’ve mastered belly breathing.

  • From a comfortable seated or supine position, place one hand on your belly and one of your chest. Touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth to relax your jaw.

  • Slowly count to four as you take a deep inhale through your nose, filling your belly with air.

  • Hold your breath as you calmly count to seven. Now exhale all the air from your belly as you count down from eight. Practice this soothing sequence four times. This exercise also works well to calm a restless mind before sleep.

Find some fresh air. Breathe new life into your system by stepping outside for some scenic cardio. The change of scenery, fresh air, and physical activity will help promote the release of happy hormones including endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. Aim for 30 minutes of brisk walking or 20 minutes of jogging. During your cardio, try refocusing your attention from internal thoughts to the sights, sounds, and scents around you.

Please note, these suggestions are intended to ease the effects of stress. They are not a substitute for seeking professional help. If you are having trouble managing stress, please consult your physician.

Ashley Blake Greenblatt is a certified personal trainer and wellness coach in South Jersey. To learn more about her virtual training program, go to ashleyblakefitness.com.