What is stress and what is happening in our bodies when we experience it?
Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure. Stress describes a person’s physical or emotional response to the demands or pressures of daily life.
Some of the common causes of stress include:
Relationships – arguments with partners, parents or children.
Personal beliefs – arguments about personal, religious or political beliefs or major life events that cause you to question your beliefs.
Emotional problems – when you feel unable to relate to someone or you need to express your
emotions but can’t. This can also include mental health disorders including depression and anxiety.
Life changes – death of a loved one, changing jobs, moving, pandemics…!
Money – do I have enough?
Occupation – pressure and conflict from a job or work environment.
Discrimination – this is something that many people are confronted with daily.
Environment – both immediate and global.
Traumatic events – these could be personal, physical, emotional, social.
Social media/media in general – as long as we are dependent on receiving our sense of self worth from the outside world, we have a sense of being under threat – not being part of a group, fear of being rejected or abandoned by a group, not being enough.
Research shows that experiencing a low grade sense of uncertainty over a long period of time has significant effects on the body.
Physiologically, stress causes our sympathetic nervous system to be triggered. This readies our body for the flight or fight response in which blood is directed away from our organs to the voluntary muscles in our limbs, our breathing becomes faster and occurs primarily in the upper chest, the heart rate increases, our fascia tightens (in essence armours up), our immune system function decreases and our senses heighten. A cascade of neurotransmitters are released, and a great deal of energy is readied so we can explode into the fight or flight response. In essence, the entire chemistry of our bodies change as the whole body and all of it’s systems prepare to survive imminent danger. This is awesome if we come face to face with an immediate threat to our life. However, the stressors that most of us face these days are quite different to those our ancestors dealt with. Stressors these days aren’t typically those that we can deal with by implementing the fight or flight reactions. Our stress tends to be more mental in nature, meaning that when we experience a stressor, our sympathetic nervous system is triggered and all of that energy is made available but we are left unable to transfer that massive surge of energy into action. That feels uncomfortable in our bodies and unfortunately since we are unable to discharge this surge of energy, it remains in the body. We soldier on though until that next stressor shows up and the pattern repeats. Pretty soon, we are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, have a sense that we are in a state of hyper-vigilance (being in a state of constantly scanning our environment for perceived threats). We begin to feel exhausted but at the same time feel edgy and antsy. Eventually this can lead to a state of feeling shut down or disconnected from ourselves and our communities. This state does not feel good at all and so we find ourselves wanting desperately to escape from this state or this pain. The brain does
not make a distinction between emotional and physical pain, it is all processed in the same area of the brain. We therefore find an escape. This may come in the form of alcohol, drugs, food, retail therapy, gambling, binge watching tv shows, excessive work (workaholic), compulsively exercising – anything that will allow us to escape the discomfort and give us a hit of dopamine or serotonin (feel good neurotransmitters). In the short term, these strategies all work (if they didn’t we wouldn’t keep doing them). However, in the long run, as we continue to ignore the root causes of what sends us into or keeps us in our sympathetic nervous system, that sense of suffering returns and we look for the next chance to escape. It becomes a viscious cycle.
The big question therefore is, how do you better manage stress and bring your body and mind back into a state of harmony. In essence how do you balance the sympathetic and the parasympathetic (rest and digest, growth and repair) nervous system?
Learning to recognize sources of stress in your life is the first step in managing them. Noticing how and what your body is feeling (not turning away from the discomfort which is the beginning of trying to escape it). Understanding, that as much as we’d love to believe that there is a magic cure out there that will solve all our problems, maybe a product or pill, there isn’t. As long as we are dependent on receiving our sense of self worth from the outside world, we will have a sense of being under threat – not being part of a group, fear of being rejected or abandoned by a group, not being enough. What we need to do instead is to develop, create and cultivate tools and techniques to help us cope with what we are feeling and to essentially hack into and break the fear-tension-pain cycle. Some examples of tools that can help with this include the following:
Mindful breathing – this is a great starting point since the breath is the one part of our autonomic nervous system that we can exert some control over. Stay tuned for next month’s post from Lisa about breathing.
Meditation – there are many great apps available to help you get started and making this a regular practice.
Mindful exercise – the aim here is not exercising in an effort to create a ‘perfect body’ that you think will make all your problems go away, but rather to connect to your body with gratitude. Research also shows that mindful exercise in nature is extra beneficial!
Adequete sleep – banish the idea or thought that there is ‘too much to do’ or ‘you can sleep when your dead’. Sleep is essential in recovery and restoring your mind and body. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep begin by setting up a good sleep routine. No screen time for 90 minutes before bedtime, make your bedroom a sleep oasis, do a progressive relaxation once you get into bed, read a book, listen to a sleep meditation, do a restful yoga routine. The important thing is to set up a routine that works for you.
Progressive relaxation – one method of doing progressive relaxation is to start at your toes and
gently contract and release the muscles at your toes, feet, ankles. Continue with this technique up through your whole body right up to your head and face.
Massage – there are so many wonderful benefits to massage, but one of its important benefits can be relieving stress. Through touch, we can gain insight and begin to notice where we are holding tension. This is generally where our bodies are holding onto that energy driven by being in our sympathetic nervous system. In collaboration with your massage therapist, you can learn to release tension through the use of breath and mindfulness with better awareness and feeling of the way your body is responding to stress.
Acupuncture – Traditional Chinese Medicine Acupuncture is an excellent technique in helping to manage emotional stress through the use of specific acupuncture points
Talking to your friends (your tribe) or to a professional
Yoga – this can be excellent in helping to manage stress on both a physical and emotional/mental health level
Eating a well balanced diet – Don’t underestimate the power of good nutrition. Foods can have a profound effect on our mood, mental health and our nervous system
Developing a community of caregivers who are willing to listen to you and work with you to acheive optimum health
Establishing a schedule of self care – set aside time devoted to your self care and write it down in your schedule/calendar. Treat it like an important, must attend appointment or meeting.
Monitor your self talk – we all have an inner dialogue going on in our minds. Take the time to listen to what that dialogue is. If there is a lot of negative self talk, take note of that. Is that how you would talk to a friend or a loved one? We can be so incredibly harsh and judgemental with ourselves.
Finally, it all comes down to perception. When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change. Is there a simple, one size fits all solution out there that will make us feel magically better? Well, yes and no. If we are focusing outwardly to find inner peace, then no. For example, by spending money on things, having a few drinks to unwind, posting on social media or comparing ourselves to other peoples posts, expending our valuable energy by being angry at or trying to control other people in an effort to feel better about ourselves. With these strategies we will continue to feel hollow and anxious. Instead, if we focus on building our own internal resources and self worth then yes, we can make positive change. We need to stop looking outside of ourselves for our sense of self worth because as long as we do that we will feel a constant, underlying sense of threat that at any moment our entire foundation can be pulled out from underneath us i.e. with something as simple as a comment, a dislike or even an ad that indicates we are not enough. If that is our reality we will constantly feel the need to remain vigilant. If instead we can place a strong sense of importance on spending our time and energy on cultivating our inner resources we will almost immediately begin to feel a shift within ourselves, away from the sympathetic state and into the parasympathetic state that will help to alleviate stress and anxiety.