Updated for COVID-19: April 2020

Background

I know stress can be an abstract concept which isn’t as easily measurable as your weight, blood pressure, or blood glucose.  This is a key reason most individuals have very poor stress awareness and make stress management a much lower priority than nutrition and exercise.  Breathing and heart rate can be one way to help you better quantify and manage stress and this post goes briefly into the science, and then shifts to providing you with some easily accessible biofeedback tools.

I updated this post during the COVID-19 pandemic because stress has clearly been shown to affect our immune system in adverse ways.  One of the ways COVID-19 and other serious infections can cause disability and death is by triggering the immune system to produce a toxic flood of chemicals called cytokines (aka “cytokine storm”), which can lead to cell death.  Emotional stress has been shown in multiple studies to increase cytokine release, which literally “primes” your cells to turn into an inflammatory forest fire upon infection with a pathogen like COVID-19.  Be sure to refer to my COVID-19 resource page for additional tools and a free e-book that provides evidence-based lifestyle tips on minimizing the cytokine storm and the overall impact of a COVID-19 infection.  Now let’s discuss some practical strategies.

Breathing and Heart Rate

I cannot overemphasize how effective proper breathing is for regulating stress.  The simple act of controlling your breathing automatically calms your sympathetic nervous system (aka “stress response system”) which allows you to be so much more centered in the midst of even the most challenging conditions.

Remember, stress management isn’t the act of avoiding or eliminating external stressors.

Stress management is the practice of conditioning your mind and body to be able to handle inevitable stress with the least amount of physiological damage.

In other words, someone who is conditioned to handle stress through specific practices like breathing will have a lesser increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol (stress hormone), which means reduced damage to your heart, brain, immune system, digestive system and other vital functions.  Speaking of blood pressure, I highlight how I use breathing to reduce blood pressure in this post, along with additional tips on reducing blood pressure naturally.

My patients with blood sugar issues like prediabetes and diabetes, often do not see complete normalization of their blood glucose until they have gotten their stress under control.  Same with many of my patients, especially women, who struggle with weight loss.  Instead of spending more hours in the gym trying to torture their body into losing those last pounds of body fat, they often do better when they initiate calming practices that reduce their overall cortisol levels.  Remember, one of cortisol’s many effects is to promote increased fat storage and this effect is especially pronounced in women.

Replacing a few of your boot camps with breathing, yoga and gentler forms of movement and activity often yield far greater mental and physical benefits in the long run. 

Below are some of my videos explaining how to use various tools to teach you better breathing with and without heart rate monitoring.  Some involve using the Apple watch while others can be performed with just your smartphone. Keep in mind that there are a growing number of Apps that might do similar things, so use whatever App you enjoy and that keeps you practicing regularly.

I also want you to read my detailed post on nasal breathing and nasal humming here which is a ridiculously simple technique I use to manage stress every day and can be done literally any time anywhere.

If you have neither a smartwatch or a smartphone, consider yourself lucky and just use the teaching points in these videos to sit quietly and breathe while watching your thoughts come and go like waves.  You can monitor your pulse if you’d like before and after the old fashion way with your finger on your wrist, or on the side of your neck.  In fact, for those of you with all the smart gadgets, eventually doing these practices without any devices as often as possible will feel completely liberating.

Below are some of my tutorials on the tools and to learn more about heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV), I updated my prior post a bit which you can find here.  Also, the Whole Family Health Program has a dedicated module on stress reduction for adults and kids.

A Few of My Past Talks to Review and Share

Below are some of the posts that I continue to get positive feedback on.  For those of you with a male in your life who just isn’t paying enough attention to their mental or physical health, have them read the very popular men’s health post further down on my list of posts.  I have also included a dedicated post on teen mental health and suicide which is becoming a real crisis.

 

This Single Thought Process Can Ruin Your Health

The Power of Nasal Breathing

Teenage Mental Health and Suicide

How to Motivate Men to Take Care of their Health

Can Resolutions, Goals and High Expectations Sometimes Harm Your Health?

Can Stress Trigger Disease in Otherwise Healthy Individuals?