We are all familiar with stressful situations, but how do we really experience stress?
In our daily lives, signals from the senses reach the amygdala, a part of the limbic system – a set of brain structures – that is responsible for memory formation, arousal (stimulation), processing emotional reactions and the ability to detect potential threats (survival mechanisms).
When we are stressed, the amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) by stimulating the adrenal glands, which flush our system with hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine and cortisol. This fuels the ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response, a natural reaction of the body that generates rapid, less rational responses to perceived dangers: heart rate and pressure rise, breathing accelerates, blood rushes to the large skeletal muscles and the flow of oxygenated blood to the internal organs decreases, preparing our body to either confront and fight the threat, flee from it or freeze to gauge the situation.
While this instantaneous response from the emotional part of the mind can mean the difference between survival or death, when we are in danger, (and although the human body is hard-wired to cope with stress, so short-term stress does not affect us), prolonged and sustained exposure to stress has a negative impact on our health. Studies suggest that chronic stress contributes to high-blood pressure, digestive problems, headaches, muscle tension and pain, anxiety, depression and addiction.
Notably, the autonomic nervous system is not able to discriminate between real and imagined (psychological) threats, so an overworked mother who’s in a state of permanent alertness, handling multiple tasks both privately and professionally while attending to the needs of her children, may not necessarily be facing mortal danger, but feeling the effects of a response accordingly.
Relaxation on the other hand, helps to reduce anxiety and nervousness. Calmer states of mind stimulate the part of the autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) whose main function is to activate the body’s “rest and digest” response that gets inhibited during the “fight-flight-freeze” response.
Relaxation strategies done repeatedly over time will improve the way you react towards stress. For all of the following, you only need less than 15 minutes (you can even set a timer).
10 relaxation techniques for busy mums
1. Breath awareness (Pranayama)
Deep, conscious breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, a part of the PSNS. The heart rate slows, the blood pressure decreases and the muscles relax creating an overall feeling of calm. Try Sama Vritti or equal breathing: count to 4 while you inhale and then again while you exhale. Ujjayi breath or Nadi Shodana are also excellent ways to calm the nervous system.
2. Meditation and visualization
Mindfulness techniques are helpful to connect with the present moment. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and become an observer of your thoughts. Choose a guided meditation to work on a specific topic.
3. Restorative poses
Yoga poses like Child’s pose, Seated forward fold (Paschimottanasana), Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), Easy pose (Sukhasana) and supported Corpse (Savasana), they all allow the mind to become stiller and quieter while staying conscious. If you notice you start fidgeting in any of these poses try a mindful stretching instead.
4. Prepare and drink an herbal tea
Replace any form of caffeine (coffee, black tea, soft and energy drinks) with a calming herbal tea. Not only will an infusion allow for a more restful sleep, but the ritual of preparing the herbs and their pleasant smell will also help with relaxation. Try chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), linden (Tilia spp.) or passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).
Read a few pages of your favourite book or magazine. I try to choose reads that either inspire, entertain or educate me.
Play your favourite songs to dance to in the silliest way or sing at the top of your lungs in the shower. Choose the song or playlist depending on your mood: uplifting if you need to boost your energy or calming if you’re having a hectic day. Dancing away stress is always effective. Singing is directly related to the out breath: the sound comes out as you exhale. Extended exhalations promote relaxation.
7. Self-massage and aromatherapy
Take some olive, coconut or sweat almond oil. Mix one teaspoon of the chosen oil (preferably organic) with three drops (no more) of your favourite calming essential oil. I suggest lavender, chamomile, bergamot, grapefruit, clary sage, frankincense and geranium. Spend 5 minutes thoroughly massaging your hands and/or feet before going to bed.
Write down everything that comes to your mind, no matter how messy or incoherent it may be. The goal is to slow down the mind and avoid ruminating thoughts about to-dos and deadlines. Make a list of priorities, plan your week and break down complex assignments into small, doable tasks. Keep feelings of overwhelm and frustration at bay by regularly doing a brain dump and setting realistic objectives. You can also keep track of your dreams and goals for the future.
9. Take some time out
Drink a glass of water, take a mini power nap or walk around the block once and then return to whatever you were doing. Taking your mind off might help you see things with different eyes.
10. Get in contact with nature
Spend time in the garden or balcony, plant, pick up flowers, touch the earth or take of your shoes and walk barefoot on the grass. Notice the physical sensations, experience the grounding effects of feeling the earth beneath you.
***If you’re unable to sleep, feel extremely anxious or depressed consult with your health care provider.***
– Amygdala: The powerhouse of emotions. <https://blog.cognifit.com/amygdala-2/>
– Chevallier, Andrew. 2016. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments. London, UK: Dorling Kindersley Limited.
– Chronic stress puts your health at risk. <https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037>
– England, Pam. 1998. Birthing from Within: An Extra-Ordinary Guide to Childbirth Preparation. Albuquerque, NM: Partera Press
– Fight, Flight, Freeze: What This Response Means. <https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/fight-flight-freeze>
– Goleman, Daniel. 1995. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
– Proper Breathing Brings Better Health. <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/proper-breathing-brings-better-health/>
– Romm, Aviva Jill. 2002. Natural Health After Birth: The Complete Guide to Postpartum Wellness. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press
– Understanding the stress response. <https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response>