BY: JULIA RENAUD
BIST’s March Community Meeting featured occupational therapist Michelle Jacob who discussed managing emotions and demonstrated HeartMath technology to our members.
About Michelle Jacob:
Michelle has been an occupational therapist for ten years. She is also currently following her passion as a therapeutic coach, speaker, and author. You can find out more about her on her website, rewiringminds.com, YouTube Channel and Instagram feeds.
The Nervous System & Brain under Stress:
The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two branches that ideally remain balanced:
- The sympathetic system causes the flight/fight/freeze response.
- The parasympathetic system permits body restoration and digestion.
When under stress, brain signals travel to the midbrain (the site of emotional processing) instead of to the frontal cortex (the site of decision making).
Why do we respond to stress in this way?
Back when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, there were many threats they had to be prepared to encounter. If they were being chased by a tiger, it was helpful to have the fight or flight instinct. While we rarely have to outrun tigers these days, the stress we experience still causes the autonomic nervous system to react in a similar way, preparing our bodies to fight, run away (flight) or freeze.
What about the heart?
The heart responds directly to stress. Have you ever noticed your heart beating faster when you’re feeling nervous or concerned? During times of stress, the heart tends to have a variable/chaotic rhythm. When relaxed, it beats in a more consistent and smooth pattern. It’s all about balance!
Several factors that can help manage stress are:
- Physical activity
We will explore the first three factors in more detail below.
Breath is affected by awareness, so paying attention can help you recognize how you are breathing (i.e. fast, slow, irregular). Having this awareness can help you to modify your breath to gain a sense of calm.
Here are three different methods of conscious breathing that you can try:
Abdominal breathing is a technique that brings attention to your abdomen by contracting the diaphragm.
- Breathe in while pushing your belly out; breathe out while pulling your belly in.
- Place a hand on your stomach to feel the rise and fall with the breath.
- Sit tall and pay attention to your posture; this is so the diaphragm doesn’t get compressed.
Brings attention to the area of your heart as a stress reduction technique.
- Breathe in carrying the breath through the heart area, to the stomach.
- Breathe out from the stomach, through the area of the heart, and out your nose or mouth.
Involves breathing to a count, or setting a rhythm to your own breath.
- Breathe in to the count of four, and out to the count of six.
- Alternatively, breathe in to the count of four, hold for four, and out to six.
- If you would like, pick your own numbers. The out breath is generally slightly longer than the in breath.
- Do what feels right to you!
Emotions are central to the experience of stress, they are a reaction to something we perceive.
When under stress the body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol regulates a body functions such as: metabolism, immune response, memory and sleep. Having a cortisol level that is too high can be bad for the body.
Here are some different methods of to help ease stress:
Notice and Ease
- Close your eyes and think of a situation that you would consider to be 5 / 10 on the stress scale.
- Notice what is happening in your body and the emotion that is tied to it. Name the emotion (i.e., frustration, anger, resentment).
- Imagine the emotion in the area of your heart; breathe into your heart, into your stomach, and out of your heart.
- With each exhale, think of the word ‘ease’ and feel the emotion melting away.
- Breathe until the emotion has been neutralized and you no longer feel it. When ready, open your eyes.
Quick Coherence Technique
Quick coherence technique is a combination of heart-focused and rhythmic breathing, while including a lovely memory.
- With your focus on your heart, breathe through your heart, into your stomach, and out through your heart.
- Breathe in for a count of five, and out for a count of five.
- Bring to mind a memory that you cherish (this can be of a person, place, or thing) and hold it in your heart.
- Stay with the positive feelings in your heart. When ready, open your eyes.
Taking It All In
Hopefully, you are now feeling re-energized and ready to tackle the world; but you may be wondering, how often should these exercises be done? Michelle recommends doing one exercise three times a day; morning, afternoon, and night. Using these techniques can help form new neural pathways to keep you cool under stress, but that doesn’t mean that you need to feel stressed to do them!
In case breathing exercises aren’t yet your thing, consider starting a Gratitude Journal: Write and/or draw the things that are going well for you in your life while focusing on feeling grateful.
With the weather warming up, I feel as though it’s even more fitting to sign off by saying, breathe deep and keep cool everyone! – J
Julia Renaud is a very talkative ABI survivor with a passion for learning new things, trying new activities, and meeting new people – all of which have led her to writing this column. When not chatting someone’s ear off, Julia can be found outside walking her dog while occasionally talking to him, of course!
Next Community Meeting:
Wednesday May 29, 6-8 pm