By Mary Baron, RN, MS, iRNPA and Charlene Baron, RN, BSN, iRNPA
Have you been to the doctor to find out that your blood pressure is high, and received the recommendation to “reduce your stress?” Do you then wonder what exactly are you going to do to reduce your stress and what does “stress” have to do with blood pressure and heart health anyways? As humans, it can sometimes feel as if so many external factors and environmental concerns are outside of our control. We face stressors that come with relationships, major life events, or even minor changes. Although our lives come with unexpected events and constant change, the good news is that with practice and awareness, we have the ability to change how we will react during these situations that we call “stress.”
What is stress and is it bad?
Stress is a word we hear and use frequently, as it is something we experience every day. Thinking of stress as how the body or an organism responds to change can shed some light on its meaning in our lives. This includes any change whether it be viewed as a good thing, such as getting a promotion, or challenging such as the loss of a loved one or a new difficult diagnosis. If we just look at stress simply as the response to any change then, stress by itself is not the villain so many people make it out to be, but a natural and necessary occurrence we experience every day so that we may achieve a state of balance. It is how we know if we are in a dangerous situation and need to run, or drink more water because we are dehydrated. Our body is always sending us signals to help us stay healthy and balanced. The question then shifts to how do we respond to change and stressors so that we can achieve resiliency, resourcefulness and a sense of wellbeing?
Shifting from chronic fight or flight to resilient and resourceful
Stress is not exclusive to being human. For example, animals in the wild are able to run from a predator to escape, and then calm down and lay in the grass and relax once the threat is over. When they are escaping the predator, they are in the “fight or flight” response and are triggering the sympathetic nervous system that tells the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones increase blood pressure and heart rate. Some other changes that we see during the “fight or flight” response are: muscles contract, digestion slows, and glycogen from your liver converts into glucose for muscle energy consumption. It is clear that these responses are needed for only short periods of time when our attention and focus are needed to make a change. On the other hand, there is another system we call the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” mode. This is the main system at work when we are in a relaxed state. Some changes we see during this phase are: heart rate and blood pressure decreases, muscles relax, secretions increase in the stomach to aid digestion and the body is restored to a state of calm. Both of these systems are necessary for survival. However, for us humans we can become stuck in a state of “fight or flight” even after the threat is gone. We can also find ourselves in situations facing only a perceived threat such as a public speaking setting, or when we are stuck in traffic. When we are in a chronic stress response we face a situation where our heart rate and blood pressure are increasing, our digestion can slow, our muscles are tense and tight and we may just not feel as well as we could. The positive news is that we can work with our bodies to decrease the amount of time we are in the fight or flight response and increase our time spent in the rest and digest state.
Starting from this strengths-based line of questioning allows us to understand what we actually like to do so that we are more excited about making a change. Furthermore, seeing change as a process re-centers us when we have a tough day or when feel we have fallen short in some way. It takes us from the place of self-blame to self-knowledge and this shift in mindset is itself, a very healthy habit. It allows us to have compassion for our own unique process and ourselves.
Calling on our bodies to help us heal
In addition to Patient Advocates, we are also Roots Wellbeing Facilitators and as such, we frequently discuss ways to help our bodywork for us the best way it can. One such way is to practice techniques that strengthen the vagus nerve, a nerve that runs down along our spinal column. The vagus nerve is key to the parasympathetic nervous system. By strengthening the vagus nerve and increasing “vagal tone”, we can find it easier to move into the “rest and digest” relaxation mode. So, what are some techniques to strengthen this very important nerve?
-Breathing is one of the easiest and most important. Obviously, we breathe every day. If we did not, we would not be alive. However, many people may not know how to get the most out of their breath. Here is an easy way to begin: Sit in a comfortable position and breathe in deep through your nose, feel your rib cage expand. You may find it beneficial to first notice how you are breathing, before making any changes. Just having this awareness allows you to recognize any tension and be able to let that tension go. Now, try taking six deep breaths in and out of your nose focusing on filling the lower half of your rib cage while feeling your belly rise. This form of breathing helps us to center ourselves. We are also using all of our lung space instead of shallow breathing, which we tend to do when we are stressed.
-Laughter, that’s right, if you needed an excuse to laugh more, you just found one. There is a reason we like comedies and why laughing can help us to get through even the most difficult of situations. Who doesn’t love to get together with a group of friends and enjoy a good laugh? In a study, laughter yoga was shown to increase heart rate variability, an indicator of healthy vagus nerve function.*
The wonderful news is that your body’s own healing mechanisms are available to you whenever you are with yourself, which is always. The harder part may be remembering to do the strategies. The trick is to practice and find what strategies work for your schedule and to do what you ENJOY doing. Since no two people are the same, no two people’s personal wellbeing strategies will be the exact same either. Another trick? Just begin and the next day do it again. Just take it day by day and before you know it, your own personal strategies will become as second nature as, well…breathing. By being more in the “rest and digest” phase your whole body will thank you, including your heart, as your heart gets to spend more time relaxing as well.
Most importantly, remember it is a process and be gentle with yourself. But of course, not too gentle that you never start! We make it sound simple. It actually can be, with support and practice!!
Mary Baron, RN, MS, iRNPA and Charlene Baron, RN, BSN, iRNPA are co-owners of Inner Strength RN Health Advocates LLC. We two sisters together bring a varied nursing background, and a consistent passion to meet people where they are and support them in their own health journey. We both gained specialized training in RN Patient Advocacy from the University of Arizona’s School of Nursing. In addition, we are both Roots Wellbeing Facilitators, a program that emphasizes mind-body, strengths based strategies to enhance one’s personal wellbeing. Together, our passion for advocacy stems not just from their nursing careers, but also from the personal experiences we have had on our own health journeys and supporting our family members during illness. We are excited to bring this passion to our Collier and Lee County neighbors.
• Mary received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of Notre Dame, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Johns Hopkins University and Masters of Nursing Administration from Simmons College. Following a change in careers from public accounting to nursing, her nursing experience includes 8 years in the Cardiac ICU and 3 years as a Director of Patient Services, all at Boston Children’s Hospital.
•Charlene received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from the University of Notre Dame, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from New York University and a certificate in Mind-Body-Spirit nursing from Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professionals. Charlene practiced long-term acute care nursing at Spaulding Hospital, Cambridge in Cambridge, MA, community and chronic disease nurse case management at the South End Community Health Center in Boston, MA and Nurse Care Coordination at Long-Term Solutions in Natick, MA.