By: Cory Williams, BCN, MS, QEEG-T
Back to school can be an incredibly stressful time, for both students and their parents (their teachers too, to be honest). When our bodies experience too much stress, the brain produces excess cortisol. Too much cortisol can lead to a host of negative side effects, such as brain fog, slower processing speed, poor memory, and increased anxiety. It also takes a toll physically and lead to lower bone density, increased belly fat, blood sugar imbalances, and slower healing. Too much stress is NOT a good thing.
Luckily, we can use the body’s own natural stress response to help cope. Part of the nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system or ANS, serves to regulate automatic body functions, like sweating on a hot day or digesting food in the stomach. We never think about the ANS, but it is working all the time. One of the things it governs is the body’s response to stress. This means we can use the ANS to help reduce the effects of stress on the brain and the body.
The ANS is made of two separate branches. The sympathetic branch is our stress response. It governs the “fight/flight/freeze” reaction. The parasympathetic branch is our relaxation response. It governs the “rest/relax/digest” reaction. Ideally, these two branches take turns being in charge of the ANS. However, in times of high stress, the sympathetic branch takes over. This leads to feeling stressed and anxious, and over a long enough period of time, exhausted and depressed. That’s why in times of high stress, it is important to take some time to reactivate the parasympathetic branch of the ANS.
The easiest way to switch over to parasympathetic control is to breath slowly, with the exhale longer than the inhale, and a short pause between breaths. While the exact speed varies from person to person, on average, these are the breathing rates that help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the body’s stress response:
- Children: 8.5 breaths per minute
- Adolescents: 7.5 breaths per minute
- Adults: 6.5 breaths per minute
There are several free apps that help with practicing slow breathing patterns (also known as heart rate variability training or HRV training), though yogic breathing or other cognitive methods of slow breathing also work. I usually recommend making a stress sandwich with slow breathing. When you are about to go through a stressful event (an exam, a first day of school, etc.), do some slow breathing before getting started, do the stressful event, then do some more slow breathing when the event is over. Even two minutes at a time can send a calming message to the nervous system and reduce the harmful impact of stress.