The Stress Response
Stress…I spent a couple hours at a coffee shop last weekend writing an entire blog post on the topic of stress, had just a few details to add, went to save my draft, and the entire thing disappeared. The times before I had written my posts in a word document and transferred them to wordpress, but this time I had tried writing straight into the wordpress website so I could format it as I went. I guess I had written the entire thing without officially logging in to the website. So I went to save it and it took me to the login page, my 1,000 words gone, vanishing into the ethers. Grrrr. The irony being of course that the topic was stress, I had been stressed the entire time writing the post feeling like I wasn’t getting across what I was trying to say, feeling forced to try and get a blog post out that week. Everything in my intuition was telling me the time wasn’t right. Of course I also blame mercury being in retrograde.
It seems as though everything is tense in the world these days. Politically, socially, environmentally with Hurricane Harvey upon us, even astrologically with there being a lunar eclipse followed by a solar eclipse this month, there is a lot of built up energy. If you’re anything like me, all this negativity and hatred in the world really affects your stress levels. While it’s important to stay involved and stand up for the rights of others, donate to causes, volunteer, educate people, and whatever else you feel a push toward right now, don’t forget to take some time to recharge yourself and de-stress in these crazy times. Just like the airplane oxygen mask analogy, we must first take care of ourselves in order to bring a more loving, positive version of ourselves that is so needed in the world right now.
We are living in reactive times. Everything is based on stimulus-response, stimulus-response without taking the time to feel through our words or actions. There is so much pressure placed on people to perform and to be perfect. There is stress placed on us to go to college, get a good paying job, make a lot of money, have more material items, look good, get married, have kids, provide for our families, make a difference in the world, save for retirement, etc. And when these things don’t work out there is even greater added stress because we feel in some way ashamed and discouraged.
In my time working in healthcare I’ve seen firsthand the effects that stress has on people. Long-term stress is something that most people have in common when it comes to declining health. Now there is more and more research showing the detrimental effects that long-term stress has on the human body. But stress, along with nutrition and movement, are things that a lot of people aren’t willing to change because they have to put in the work, changing thoughts and patterns that have been rooted in them for so long.
The Stress Response
In the eyes of our bodies, being chased by a tiger and somebody cutting us off in traffic are experienced exactly the same way. Back in caveman days we would experience acute stress every so often, having to hunt for food or finding shelter among scary animals. But then our bodies would regulate back to normal once we felt safe again. In modern days we are constantly having stimulus thrown at us, putting our bodies into a chronic state of stress. While it might not seem as intense as a tiger chasing after us, our bodies go into fight or flight mode whether it’s having to deal with a mean boss, seeing something terrible on the news, somebody bashing us on social media, or jumping away from a car that’s about to hit us. Here’s a video that explains this further. These kinds of things are happening all the time, but it’s our reactions to events that show whether our body can come back down to normal or stays elevated in fight or flight mode.
What is Happening in our Bodies?
Okay so this is complicated but I’ll try to explain it without being too confusing. Our bodies are composed of the central nervous system which consists of our brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which is the connection of our brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body via a system of nerves. The peripheral nervous system also has 2 parts-the somatic nervous system which controls voluntary actions such as movement of muscles where we can consciously have a say in what our bodies are about to do, and the autonomic nervous system which is involuntary or as I like to think about it, the automatic nervous system which unconsciously controls things like heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate-things that just happen automatically without us thinking about them. The automatic nervous system plays the biggest part in our stress response, and is also divided into 2 parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
This system is actually not very sympathetic which is confusing. This is what controls the “fight or flight” response. While it is active all the time to keep us alive, it is responsible for responding to a perceived threat. This is what creates the accelerated heart rate, sweating, hyperventilating, butterflies in our stomach, etc. that we feel when we are anxious. Whether that is due to being chased by a big scary animal, being angry at someone, about to give a presentation, being late for an appointment and stuck in traffic, our not-so-sympathetic sympathetic nervous system is at play. In our bodies eyes it is just trying to keep us out of danger. Our immune system is temporarily put on hold so things like proper digestion, fighting infection, and fending off disease are put on the back burner. You can see why this would be a problem in the long-run.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
This is the nice guy that controls our “rest and digest” mechanisms. The opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system slows down our bodies helping us to relax. This system slows down our heart and breath rate, helps us digest our food and go to the bathroom, is responsible for sexual arousal, decreasing blood pressure, and help us to get a good night’s rest. I don’t know about you, but these are all things that I want to be a part of!
The Stress Response
The body has a series of alarms and is basically like a domino effect of signals from one part to the other when we’re in perceived threat.
The amygdala in our brains is the emotional center which perceives a threat and sends a signal to the hypothalamus
The hypothalamus is the command center of our brain that communicates with the autonomic nervous system and activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight)
The adrenal glands pump epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream triggering increased heart rate, breathing, alertness, heightened senses, and release of glucose (blood sugar) and fats from temporary storage sites supplying energy to the body
If there is still a perceived threat, the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal) goes into effect, keeping the sympathetic nervous system activated.
In the HPA axis, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which activates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which travels to the adrenal glands prompting them to release cortisol (the stress hormone)
When the threat passes, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to put a brake on the stress response
The problem is many people, especially in society today, experience chronic low-level stress and are unable to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, keeping the HPA axis elevated. Chronic elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol create damaging effects on the body.
Effects of Long-Term Stress
Type II Diabetes
Ways to Combat Stress
Only when the body is relaxed can it heal itself
Deep breathing- This is one of the best ways to relieve stress in the body. When you take deep, long breaths this signals the brain to calm down and relax, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious, take a few deep belly breaths. Count to 7 on the way in, feeling the air filling your lungs and your belly expanding, visualizing the air going all the way to the crown of your head. Count to 7 on the way out, releasing all your air as your belly tightens, visualizing the air releasing down to your toes.
Meditation- Many people are turned away by the term meditation because it sounds hippy-dippy, picturing monks sitting cross-legged and not moving or eating for hours at a time in order to reach enlightenment. But meditation is actually quite simple and more and more studies are coming out showing the positive effects including decreased depression, anxiety, blood pressure, heart disease, insomnia and a host of other benefits. The purpose of meditation is not to completely eliminate your thoughts, but to become aware of the thoughts you are having and to go back to focusing on your breath the minute you become aware of these thoughts. All you have to do is sit, close your eyes, and focus on your breath for as long as you want. Some people find it easier to have a guided meditation, count their breaths, have a mantra to focus on, or scan down through their body. Yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are also forms of moving meditation. My favorite app to use for meditation is Headspace.
Nutrition- Steer clear of stimulating foods such as sugar, caffeine, and processed foods which affect your stress and energy levels. When you nourish your body with lots of plants (vegetables and fruits), healthy fats (eg. nuts, avocado, coconut/olive oil), proteins, vitamins and minerals, you will avoid the up and down cycles of your blood sugar increasing and then crashing throughout the day. This in turn will help to stabilize your stress response. Have you ever noticed you’re more anxious after having too much sugar or coffee? I definitely have.
Mindful movement- When you move your body in a way that serves you and feels good, you will automatically breathe deeper, relieve tension, and fall into your parasympathetic nervous system easier. Choose a form of movement that you enjoy, whether it’s yoga, TaiChi, hiking, spinning, swimming, Crossfit. Make sure that you are coming from a place of enjoyment and focusing on how you feel. If you are doing exercise in a stressed state because you are shaming yourself for eating too much or trying to lose weight, it is just going to make you more stressed. Like Elle Woods says “exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t kill their husbands. They just don’t.”
Nature/Grounding- This is one of my favorite ways to relax. We are so caught up in technology, city-life, traffic, and that constant mentality to work harder, do more, and go-go-go. Taking the time to get out in nature can bring us back to simplicity. Take some time to go on a hike, or go to a park and go barefoot, feeling the grass under your feet, smell some flowers, lay down and look up at the sky or the moon and stars. We are actually so small in this world and there is so much beauty all around. We are lucky to live on this beautiful Earth.
Journaling- Checking in with yourself and “brain dumping” anything that is on your mind is a great way to de-stress. Journaling is kind of like a therapy session for yourself. Try writing 3 full pages in the mornings which I got from Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way (awesome book!). Just write whatever comes to your mind without judgement. It doesn’t matter whether it comes out as a poem, a boring account of your day, or a full-on angry curse-word filled rant. Sometimes I even have a change of heart halfway through writing down my problems, solving them or telling myself it will all be okay and I am awesome. We can be our own therapists!
Letting Go- Will the thing that you’re stressing about really matter a week from now, a year from now, 10 years from now, as you lay on your death bed? There is so much that we stress about that truly doesn’t matter in the long run. And we have no idea what will happen to us or to our loved ones in the future. Living in the present is all we can do. Is there really any immediate threat to us at this exact moment? The next time you’re feeling stressed about an event that happened in your life or in the world, ask yourself if it’s really going to help solve anything to stay stressed and upset about the situation. We will help more people when we step out of a place of anger and stress, and into a place of tranquility and love.