What do you think when you hear the words “stress management?”
Yoga class? Meditation?
Maybe. But when you’re totally stressed out, the sheer thought of adding things to your schedule is maddening.
In this article we’re going to dive into the heart of what your stress response is all about and learn how to dial it down…without necessarily adding to your to-do list.
Did you know that your body has a dedicated stress response team?
Just like you have a digestive system to handle the food you eat, you have a sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis to handle the stress that you are confronted with.
In brief, a small part of your brain (the hypothalamus) perceives stress. It could be a tiger about to pounce or your commuter train running late. Either way, your hypothalamus activates your “fight or flight” response. Your pupils dilate. Your blood pressure increases. Glucose is released into the bloodstream to give you quick energy in case you need to fight or run away. If the brain continues to perceive danger, your adrenal glands release cortisol to keep you on high alert.
But the emotional stress we feel around our jobs, families and finances have nothing to do with running as fast as we can.
The dilated pupils? Blood sugar increase? It’s overkill. Practically useless to our modern lives.
The other problem is that this rapid, intense stress response works best when there are significant periods of rest in between. Sure, you escaped the tiger. But now you can lie in the sun, pick berries and nap for the rest of the day. Right? Right??
No, there’s no rest.
Ask any woman how many hours per day she simply relaxes and enjoys herself. She’ll probably laugh.
Her primitive stress response is getting triggered over and over and over, with no time to recuperate in between.
The train is late. These pants don’t fit. There’s mold in the basement. The bake sale is tomorrow.
(Even things you may not consider “stressors” contribute to the body’s perceived stress, like chronic infections, environmental toxins, food triggers and extreme exercise.)
Her cortisol levels remain high, keeping her hyper-vigilant and on the lookout. The body shunts energy and resources away from non-essential survival functions like digestion and fertility.
She feels overwhelmed and has trouble sleeping. Trouble conceiving. She has IBS. Sugar cravings. Low sex drive. She relies on coffee to wake up. Her body holds onto weight as a crisis-mode energy reserve.
Can you see?
The stress response system that’s designed to keep us safe actually backfires and makes us sick.
Start by evaluating your stress response system.
Are your systems balanced and working properly? Is your stress response tilting overboard and you’re starting to show symptoms? Or, is your body completely exhausted and your stress response actively working against you?
Next, understand that the goal isn’t to eliminate all stress.
It sure would be nice to quit your job, move to the beach and have Channing Tatum deliver fresh coconuts for you to sip from.
But happy lives are rarely devoid of stress. In fact, too little stress can lead to depression and lack of interest in life.
The goal is to hover in the center part of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, where performance and satisfaction are optimal:
1. Limit the firing of your fight-or-flight response (sympathetic nervous system).
These are things that say to your brain, “Oh shit, we’re in trouble!” I’ve starred the ones that are easiest to do and create the quickest results:
– Keep your blood sugar balanced*
– Uncover and avoid trigger foods*
– Reduce environmental toxins*
– Avoid extreme, “all-out” exercise*
– Reduce or eliminate caffeine*
– Get support and outsource tasks when possible*
– Avoid stressful situations and people as much as possible
– Draw boundaries around stressful situations you cannot avoid
– Cure underlying chronic infections
2. Purposefully activate your rest-and-digest response (parasympathetic nervous system).
These are things that say to your brain, “We’re ok. We’re safe.” I’ve starred the ones that take minimal time/effort but have a big impact:
– Let Channing Tatum bring you fresh coconuts on the beach. I’m just saying.
– Activate the vagus nerve through abdominal breathing, singing, sleeping or lying on your right side*
– Time in nature (even just a few minutes per day)*
– Moderate exercise (even just a few minutes per day)*
– Supplement with magnesium (I’m partial to banana peel tea)*
– Yoga, Qi Gong, meditation
– Get regular massages