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Self-care Tips for People with Stress-linked Conditions

Private: Natalie Dattilo, PhD
Contributor Natalie Dattilo, PhD

Managing stress is important for people with inflammatory disease or stress-linked conditions under any circumstance, but especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to anxiety being triggered by uncertainty and change, for those with chronic conditions prone to flare-ups under stress (like asthma, chronic pain and high blood pressure), it’s more important now than ever to understand the mind-body connection and how the nervous system works to keep us healthy.

How the brain responds to extreme stress

When the brain perceives a threat in the environment, either physical or psychological, it automatically launches the “fight, flight or freeze” response. This is our biologically pre-programmed “better to be safe than sorry” reaction and the goal is to prepare us to fight or run away. Sometimes, in the face of extreme stress, we do neither, and instead we freeze. When triggered, our brain sends a flood of neuro-chemicals and hormones to constrict blood flow, activate our muscles and halt digestion. It can also affect our ability to think clearly. We go into survival mode and become reactive instead of responsive.

Because our fight-or-flight response activates a cascade of neuro-hormones to protect our internal organs, over an extended period of time, our immune system produces inflammation. This can exacerbate conditions like chronic pain, asthma, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. For an already over-taxed healthcare system, the more we can prevent the worsening of other health conditions requiring treatment, the better.

Using deep breathing to manage stress

One of the very best things you can do to self-regulate the nervous system, and prevent a fight-or-fight response, is breathe. Our breath is connected to our brain through the vagus nerve. How quickly or slowly we are breathing sends important messages back to the brain about how we are doing. When we are anxious or stressed, we tend to breathe quick and shallow. When we are relaxed, we tend to breathe slow and deep. When we are stressed, then, if we slow our breathing and extend our exhale, the brain will essentially re-calibrate and activate what’s known as the “Relaxation Response.” We can literally hack our brain and trick it into relaxing. You can train yourself to be calm under stress. This is called counter-conditioning, and like anything – the more you practice, the better you get. And, for some, good health is dependent on it.

Private: Natalie Dattilo, PhD
Natalie Dattilo, PhD

Natalie Dattilo, PhD, is director of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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Get additional tips on keeping your family healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more COVID-19 articles.