Last night Joe Wicks AKA ‘The Body Coach’ posted a video about the negative impact coronavirus is having on his mental health. He’s not alone. As a nation this situation is being felt by all of us. And everyone is being affected differently.
Some are worried about their livelihoods, some their health, others their education, others just want to socialise in groups of more than 6!! It doesn’t matter where the stress is coming from, it’s there in some way for all of us. Everyone I’ve spoken to is either pissed off, anxious, stressed or unsure what the future has in store.
I think what struck me about Joe’s message was his concern for small businesses and how people will manage with job losses. This makes my insides churn too. These poor people. What will they do? What a nightmare. I could cry when I think about it. And on a personal level, I started my business just over 2 months ago. IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC!!!! I. Feel. The. Stress.
But if Joe ‘happy-go-lucky’ Wicks is feeling the tension then I think we all need to take a good look internally and see how we’re feeling and what we’re doing to manage it. Because if the most optimistic of us are struggling then we’re all in trouble.
I read an article the other day which stated anxiety is ‘exploding’ in the UK – particularly in the younger age groups.
The blame was placed at the feet of the economic troubles from 2008. Recession, austerity, unemployment, uncertainty, not enough money to live your life, get on the housing ladder, try to save money. Understandably this creates lots of background stress and anxiety.
Then there’s the other sinister players at work. A world that’s always connected. We just don’t switch off. Work emails at home. The threat of your boss being in contact at any time of the day. This can’t be good for you, right?!
The simple life has gone. We’ve got to ‘do this’. Achieve that. My kid needs this. Our plates are full. WE NEVER STOP.
And of course, there’s social media. Ever wanted to feel dissatisfied with your life? Then go look at Instagram, that’ll really tip the balance. Feel like your friends are doing better than you? Not as pretty as a random stranger in their heavily doctored picture? Wow, look how much money they have. They must really be enjoying life. It’s a breeding ground for anxiety.
Just a friendly reminder……those people posting about their perfect life – they’re struggling too. Their relationship isn’t perfect. Their body isn’t perfect. They’re making up their own super happy version of reality. They’re either seeking validation from people they don’t know or they’re trying to sell you something. In the words of my marketing lecturer ‘they’re selling you the MYTH’. Don’t be fooled! Happy people don’t tend to post stuff to look happy. And unhappy people certainly won’t be posting the miseries in their life. Stop benchmarking. You are on your own journey.
And that’s why what Joe posted was such a good thing. It’s ok not to be ok. Something genuine and honest on social media.
But we must heed the warning. If anxiety was exploding before coronavirus then I’m terrified it’s about to become a pandemic in its own right.
We need a battery of coping mechanisms which work for us. Everyone is different, but the basics have gone right out of the window. And those basics start with breathing. For everyone.
Joe was right to say that we need to exercise during these strange, unsettling times. It’s a great tool to manage stress and anxiety. But we need to get our foundation right too. That foundation is our breath and our breath has never been more important.
Let me explain why……
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a part of our peripheral nervous system, which has 3 main components. The ANS basically regulates the involuntary physiological processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and breathing rate.
The two parts relevant to this story are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The SNS is the ‘GO’ button. It is our survival mechanism, you probably refer to it as ‘fight or flight’. You’ve felt it before. The pounding heart. Sweating palms. Churning guts. It’s triggered by some form of stress. Way back when, before we had safe houses and our food was conveniently found in a supermarket, we had a lot more life-threatening dangers to contend with. Mainly getting eaten by something else. A necessary survival instinct.
Unfortunately, this survival instinct remains well and truly intact, but it is stimulated by everyday life stressors which are not threatening our survival. Work worries, financial difficulties, relationship stress, and now coronavirus has been thrown into the mix.
Our SNS is hot. We are ready for action. Our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate are raised. But this threat doesn’t disappear. The hungry lion hasn’t run away after you threw something at it. What did Boris say yesterday…..‘these restrictions could be in place for 6 months’ WHAT!!!!!!!!! I’m not going to live a normal life for at least 6 months?? Bloody hell. The unknown is stressful.
So, what’s the problem with having an SNS that’s dominating?
Putting it bluntly, it makes you unwell. Physically and mentally.
As a breathing physio I’m going to focus on what happens to your breathing.
The SNS increases your respiratory rate. You get a bit more oxygen (O2) in but you breath out more carbon dioxide (CO2). In the short term this is fine.
The lower CO2 in your body, because of breathing more (deeper/faster), means the pH (going back to your GCSE chemistry lessons here guys!) of your blood is raised. In other words, you have less acid (CO2 is an acid) so your blood is more alkaline. That’s the hard sciencey bit done.
That’s perfect if you have to run away from something because it means you have a nice buffer to tolerate the extra acid (lactic and CO2) which will flood your system from running.
But the problem is, we ain’t running anywhere. In fact, lots of people took to their sofas during lockdown. The complete opposite of what we need to do to stay well.
The stress is still present, and some people keep breathing more than their body needs. Without realising we start to breathe more all the time. It can result in us breathing too fast or deep. Or irregularly with lots of yawns or sighs. Some people even breath hold.
Whatever the symptom, it means we aren’t breathing normally anymore and this alone can keep our SNS fired up. A constant cycle of being ‘primed’. We change at a physiological level.
Over time this leads to changes in our breathing mechanics – breathing in through our mouth and upper chest, leaving our diaphragm to weaken. We get shoulder, neck, jaw and back pain from the incorrect use of certain muscles.
Our mental health suffers. Feelings of anxiety become the norm. In some cases people feel unable to cope. A real loss of self. Constantly tense. On edge. Unable to relax.
Then there’s the brain fog, tiredness, chest discomfort, breathlessness, headaches, pins and needles and upset gut.
Each of these symptoms becoming their own source of stress. And that is how dysfunctional breathing can become a ‘thing’. An exhausting self-perpetuating cycle.
But this doesn’t need to happen. And that’s what Joe was talking about. We have to stop the negative effects of stress on our bodies.
First, we need to take an active role in shutting off the SNS and switching on the PNS on a daily basis.
The best way to switch on the PNS? Diaphragmatic breathing.
At least once a day for ten minutes or more. Lay down. Get comfortable. Relax your shoulders and jaw. Let the weight of your body sink into the sofa of bed.
Close your mouth and breathe quietly through your nose. Ensure your diaphragm is working. Your tummy should be rising and falling. Your chest still. If you can’t do this place your hands on top of your head. Drop your elbows out to the side. This will kick your diaphragm in to action. Breathe into your tummy.
Aim to slow your breath. Quieten your mind. Focus on your breath.
The key here is to breathe this way always. Through your nose and low into your tummy. Try it.
Secondly, we need to exercise regularly. Exercise is different for every person so I’m not going to tell you what to do but just move. Walk outside. Be with nature. Do yoga. Run. Cycle. Dance. Swim. Lift heavy shit. Whatever works for you.
It restores you to a physiological normal. You get a rush of feel good chemicals. A natural high. A legal drug. Use its superpower.
Thirdly, use your individual stress management tools. Be with friends. Be alone. Go to the beach. Watch a Netflix series. Eat a burger. Eat a salad. Write a to do list. Burn your to do list. Whatever helps you manage stress. Do it. Make the time for it. Make the time to look after you.
Final thoughts………..during these weird and stressful times we have to step up and take responsibility for our wellbeing. We can’t change what’s happening in the world, but we can change how we cope with it. We aren’t machines who can just keep going. Without maintenance we will break.
Anxiety is on the rise and with all the stress in today’s world it’s hardly surprising. Getting your foundations right with your breathing is so important. It alone can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Check in on it daily. So many people are unaware of how significantly poor breathing can impact their health. We must get better at spotting and managing it.
If you have noticed changes in your breathing at rest or during activity and you have any of the symptoms I’ve discussed, then get in touch. If your breathing pattern is to blame, we can manage it together and get you feeling well again!
If you have any questions drop me a DM or email – email@example.com