A few years ago, I used to be stressed out day in and day out. I had no idea the toll it was taking on my body and my overall well-being. I was exhausted all the time – relying on coffees and energy drinks to get me through the day (a habit I’m glad to say I’ve kicked completely!). I always had headaches and my digestion was a mess. I’d start trying to be healthier here and there but nothing really seemed to make a difference. I had no idea that not only can stress make you sick but it can also keep the good things you do for yourself from working like they should. Learning this was a huge game changer for me. My journey to good health had to be holistic in all senses of the word. Changing my diet, exercising, and starting better habits wouldn’t quite cut it if I couldn’t calm myself down. I had to take a good look at my life and see what all of the sources of stress were, ditch what I didn’t need, and work to change my perception of what I couldn’t leave behind. The problem with stress is that you get so wound up in what you are doing that you forget to take for what really matters – happiness. You may not be able to avoid every stressful situation but you can change how you handle them by making sure you have balance in your life. I learned spending time to make yourself happy every single day is the most powerful way to make the stressful situations less overwhelming, more manageable and possible not seem stressful at all.
Is stress effecting your life?
Here are a few of the common signs and symptoms that stress may be having an impact on your life:
Fatigue/exhaustion, lethargy, frequent headaches, feeling weaker, getting sick easily, digestive upset (indigestion, gas, bloating, constipaion, diarrhea, etc.), unstable emotions (depression, anxiety) and/or a pocket of abdominal fat
If you’re reading this and think it sounds like you – don’t worry, you are not alone! You can and will regain control of your life! I’m going to give you some easy tips on how to start reducing stress and start feeling better. Changes are best made one at a time so they are not overwhelming. So, at the end of this article I’ll recommend one tip to start helping with stress and each week I’ll post the next one in the series. That way you can slowly introduce new steps to de-stress.
What to expect in this article:
- What happens when we are stressed?
- How should the stress response work and what’s different today?
- What counts as stress?
- Conditions strongly linked to stress
- Tip 1 to help reduce stress
What happens when we are stressed?
Knowing what is going on in your body when you are stressed can make it easier to recognize stress. Recognizing stress is a powerful tool to help you overcome it. I also really believe that having an idea of what is happening in our body can help us develop a better relationship with our body and motivate healthy change. So I hope this helps!
Our autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system responsible for regulating unconscious actions like your heartbeat, breathe and digestive processes (etc.). There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system, both very important to us today:
- Parasympathetic nervous system = “rest and digest” and encourages growth and repair
- Sympathetic nervous system = “fight and flight” (our stress response) and puts our body in protection mode.
Both of these systems are essential to our well-being. The problem is that we are spending way too much time in “fight and flight” and not enough time in “rest and digest.” For the stress response to start the “rest and digest” has to stop, meaning that things like digestion and fighting a cold, for example, are no longer a priority.
There are three stages to the stress response:
- The alarm stage: Goal = mobilize resources for immediate physical activity.
- Heart rate and force of contraction increase to help push blood away from your internal organs to your extremities, making it easier to get moving
- Demand for oxygen increases so your rate of breathing increases and usually gets more shallow
- Your adrenal glands (the small glands that sit on top of your kidneys) begin to pump out stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to help increase energy
- Blood sugar levels rise dramatically as the liver converts stored glycogen to glucose for release into your blood stream because your muscles and brain need the energy
- You begin to sweat more to eliminate toxins
- The resistance stage: Goal = keep you going in the face of prolonged stress
- Your adrenals produce more and more hormones. These hormones can have effects such as:
- Hormones promote sodium retention to keep blood pressure elevated
- Hormones can stimulate the conversion of protein to energy. This means the breakdown of proteins (muscle, enzymes, etc.) to produce energy
- This is necessary in the face of danger but prolonged resistance reaction puts you at risk for disease
- The exhaustion stage: When your body can no longer cope with the stress response
- Partial or total breakdown of a body function or a specific organ
- Example: you could lose the ability to regulate blood sugar levels because the adrenal glands are exhausted and can’t produce the same hormones, leading to hypoglycemia
- Organ systems that may be affected: adrenals, heart, blood vessels, immune system
How should the stress response work and what is different today?
The stress response is designed to help save our lives in the face of danger. This used to mean helping us when we were faced with lions and tigers and bears – oh my. These were critical situations when we needed our primal instincts to kick in and needed as much energy as possible to get us out of there alive. These types of situations required that extra boost to help us deal with the danger at hand and usually would come with a distinct end point (ex. managing to run away from the lion).
The problem today is that, the stress we face is much different, much less dangerous and often has no distinct end point BUT our stress response is still the same. So, instead of needing that boost of energy to get us through a short lived situation, we continue (sometimes day in and day out) to signal to our body that we are in distress. The alarm stage is short lived, the resistance stage takes over, and when our bodies have had enough, long term stress can lead to the exhaustion stage.
What counts as stress?
We face many potential stressors on a day to day basis. Some that cause the stress reaction, others that put a stressful load on our body. Our body can handle a little bit of stress but when it comes non-stop and when we don’t do anything to counteract the stress (ie. Activities to bring happiness into our life) it becomes a real struggle. Here are some examples of modern day stressors:
Stressful job, stressful relationships with friends or family, events that cause extreme negative peaks in our emotions, caffeine (coffee, tea), alcohol, chemicals, additives, and preservatives in food, eating a highly processed diet filled with refined foods – especially a diet high in sugar, skipping meals, a lack of sleep, watching stressful tv shows and movies, electromagnetic fields (EMFs) given off from appliances, wifi, computers etc., environmental factors such as pollution, and negative thoughts/worries.
That list may look a little overwhelming, especially because there are areas that are out of our control (ex. pollution), but don’t worry! You don’t need to control them all, you simply need to make small manageable changes where possible – I recommend one thing at a time so the change sticks! And most importantly, work on your mindset and spend even 10 minutes a day doing something that makes you happy!
Conditions and diseases strongly linked to stress:
Being stressed doesn’t automatically equal one of these conditions. Stress, however, has been linked as a contributing cause to many of these issues. Stress management can be a useful preventative tool (most effective paired with other dietary and lifestyle changes) and is usually an important part of any treatment plan. Conditions linked to stress:
Asthma, autoimmune disease, adrenal fatigue, cancer, cardiovascular disease, common cold, digestive issues, depression, diabetes (type 2), headaches, high blood pressure, immune suppression, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), menstrual irregularities, pms, rheumatoid arthritis, and ulcers. (Murray 205)
Tip 1 to help reduce stress!
Here is tip 1 to help reduce stress. Each week I’ll post a new tip to destress so you can slowly work on making changes. Over time my hope is that you can pick a few of the tips that resonate with you to make a lasting, positive impact in your life. The main goal here is to help increase the amount of time your body spends in the “rest and digest” mode every day. It is important to work to bring happiness and joy back into your life in order to balance out the stress. If stress is leaving you feeling strapped for time, take a step back, do something to calm yourself down (like deep breathing) or do something that makes you happy (even if it’s a couple minutes) and then come back to the thing that was causing stress. You’ll see that often it is a combination of being stuck in a mindset and a lack of balance that makes everything feel so overwhelming.
1. Mindfulness: Perception is everything!
The way that you view your day to day events can determine whether or not something triggers the stress response in your body. Events are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, they are neutral. Instead we mentally place a label on nearly everything we do, determining what is good or bad, stressful or not. We can get stuck in our negative patterns of feeling that certain things always equal stress. If you can start to mindfully bring your attention towards your attitude and identify negative patterns, you can start evaluating whether or not that attitude makes the situation any better. If not – then work to change it. If you can’t change it, try to figure out an alternative for yourself, like removing yourself from the situation.
A simple example: having to do the dishes is enough to get some people worked up – “There’s always so much to do!” “The work never ends!” “I hate doing dishes” and so on. If you recognize that your internal track towards doing the dishes is so negative, you can start to change it. You can use the dishes as time to unwind. You can enjoy listening to music. You can put your attention into being fully present. You can remind yourself, you’re lucky to have dishes to wash. You can try saying a positive affirmation while you wash.
Remember: how stressful an event appears can change the level of reaction in your body.
Here is an incredible video about choosing your attitude. It does a great job at illustrating how you can have two completely differently outlooks on the same situation. It all comes down to making a choice.
In love and Light,
Murry, Michael, N.D, and Joseph Pizzorno, N.D. The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Third Edition. New York: Atria Paperback, 1998.