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Dear Aude and Bruce: Can you help? My stress levels are through the roof!

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I’ve got a very stressful job and that compounded by the current climate in Hong Kong – the recent protests and the COVID-19 outbreak – has made it almost impossible for me to relax… ever! What can I do to calm down? STRUNG OUT IN DB

With all that is happening here in Hong Kong at the moment there is no doubt that stress levels are running high. The catch 22 here is that a body in stress is much more prone to sickness than a body at ease, so your question is timely. Right now, we all need to find a way to stay calm. Stepping away from stress may seem difficult, if not insurmountable, but hopefully the following discussion and tools will help.

In the work that we do we see so many people with symptoms of burnout, adrenal fatigue, exhaustion and low energy. These are certainly all calling cards of too much stress. So, if you are suffering from any of these symptoms, let us help you restore balance and health.

First and foremost, wherever you are and whenever you need to… just breathe. I don’t mean this to sound basic, or trivial – there is so much to gain through the simple act of slow, deep, mindful breathing, including an immediate reduction in stress. So, let’s start by working out what your breathing is like right now.

First, let’s look at your respiratory rate – the number of breaths you take per minute. Simply grab a stopwatch, hit start and count your total breaths in a minute. (This is a cycle of breath, so from exhale to exhale is one breath.) Don’t cheat yourself, just breath normally and see where you’re at. The lower your respiratory rate the better of course – think about the nature of a panic attack, the rate of respiration is well above 20 breaths per minute. Seven breaths per minute is a great target.

15+ breaths per minute: Your body is in a state of constant, latent stress and you are stuck in ‘flight or fight’ mode. It is exceptionally difficult for your body to relax, heal and find balance.

10-15 breaths per minute: You are still within the realm of fight or flight, so your body is still experiencing a stress response but you are moving in the right direction.

7-10 breaths per minute: You are approaching the natural biorhythms of the body (with the heart rate and cycles of breath in synch); your mind and body are in a relaxed space.

4-6 breaths per minute: You are getting into the deeper stages of relaxation. If this is your normal respiratory rate, your body is well  able to rest and restore itself. The average respiration rate is between 15 to 20 breaths per minute (too high for sure), so don’t fret if yours is way higher than the target seven breaths per minute. The good news is that by simply taking a minute to time your breathing and then work on slowing it down, you are triggering the rest and restore components of your parasympathetic nervous system and this is when true healing can begin to take place.

Now, let’s work out your BOLT score. With this, we want to see how effective you are at utilising oxygen. So, grab your stopwatch again and breathe normally. Once you’ve exhaled, hit start on your watch and hold your breath. You are letting the timer run until you first feel the need to take a breath (a pinch in the throat, the reflex of swallowing, tension in the chest etc). Note that the BOLT score is not a measure of how long you can hold your breath, it measures the sensitivity of your carbon dioxide receptors and the time it takes for your body to react to a lack of air. The average BOLT score is 20 seconds, with 40 seconds being a target for optimal oxygen utilisation.

So, what do your results look like and what do they tell you? What if your respiratory rate indicates that you are in a constant state of stress, and your BOLT score is well under 20?

If that’s where you’re at right now, then I’d advise you to work on your breath control. The great thing is that pranayama (mastery of your breath or breathwork) is really easy and it has an almost immediate impact on health and wellbeing. One of the simplest forms of pranayama,  that you can do anytime, is Box Breathing, and it works like this:  Inhale → Hold the breath → Exhale → Hold the breath. You need to inhale, exhale and hold your breath for the same amount  of time so, if you inhale for a count of five then you hold for a count of five and so on. Know that Box Breathing for a count of five seconds will bring you right down to only three breaths per minute – that’s like monk status! So, give that a go and see how much of a impact it has on your stress level, wellbeing, health and mindset.

We can’t escape our fears about COVID-19, or the stress of the protests, or the pressure of our jobs, but we can meet all of these external factors from a place of calm. When we are calm internally, the external will meet the internal; it is never the other way around. So, do take a few minutes to check in with your breath: There is a whole world of relaxation just a few slow breaths away. Slow the breath and you slow the mind, slow the mind and you slow the body, slow the body and you are able to restore balance and wellbeing. It’s as simple as that.

Aude Garderet is a Practitioner of Psychotherapy and Bruce Taylor is a Reiki Master Healer, both are DB residents. You can contact them at A and B Therapy, [email protected], www.aandbtherapy.com. For more on Aude, visit www.brieftherapyhk.com; for more on Bruce, visit www.brucechi.org.

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