Have you heard that stress is deadly? Jeeze that’s stressful to think about.
Stress is kind of a vague term so let’s explore the meaning a bit and then look at a few ways to get your system back to baseline.
Stress is not a problem when it is a short-term response to a stressor (like a sudden loud noise) which you quickly recover from and release form your physical body through movement or shouting.
The issue with stress is when it becomes a habit which becomes a way of life. When our stress hormones are chronically elevated from thing like non-stop caffeine guzzling or stressing over things we cannot control or change at this moment. This kind of stress makes life a living hell both for our emotions and our body.
Two Types of Stress
Stress causes physiological changes, like a heightened state of awareness, faster breathing and heart rates, elevated blood pressure, a rise in blood cholesterol, and an increase in muscle tension — Everyday Health
Emotional stress (fear, anxiety, anger, tension). This is the one we all know well. Someone cutting us off in traffic. Forgetting to pay a bill. Circular thoughts when we need to be out of bed and alert and 3 hours.
Physiological stress (illness, pain, infection, injury). These stresses are a bit less known but are every bit as draining, if not more so, than emotional stress. Pain is worse than anger from a stress hormone standpoint because anger is an easy state to get out of, while pain is more constant. Even with pain killers, the pain signals are still there stressing the body and keeping it in fight or flight mode.
Chronic Stress Hurts Us
Digestion and mood issues. Honestly, should your body concern itself with digesting a hunk of woolly mammoth as you are running away from a sabretooth tiger? Nope. But times have changed. Now days, what happens to that bag of buttery popcorn and sack of chocolate-dipped raisins as you kick back and freak out over the 1,000th newest demon film? It does your beautiful body even less good than usual.
Nausea, constipation, increased stomach acid, diarrhea, are more common. Ulcers, Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can be caused or made worse by chronic stress.
The intestines are very synced with the brain, they even look alike. You’ve maybe heard the gut called our second brain because nearly all of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin is produced or not produced in the gut, depending on the quality of our diet and overall nutrient absorption. Without enough serotonin we have trouble connecting emotionally with others, have more anxiety, anger, and memory problems. We binge more, have less energy, and mostly just want to sit around at Castle Sadness and eat junk food.
Weight gain. Ever heard of stress eating? It does its dirty work in a few different ways. For one, stress hormones signal the brain to increase energy by making you feel hungry. Because the body wants quick energy it ain’t looking for salad or a lentil burger, it wants quick digesting stuff like sports drinks or cookies. Next, the body releases insulin to rapidly break down all the dangerous sugar flowing through your veins, leading to a much higher chance of fat storage while also causing more hunger. See, insulin works too well and clears out too much blood sugar. A vicious cycle.
Weakened immune system. The immune system is not some autonomous thing that allows sickness to set in and take hold only when it feels like it, like when seasons change or a week after getting a flu shot. Nope, the immune system is extremely responsive to what is going on in the brain, which in turn is extremely responsive to our thoughts, our social support, the foods we eat and don’t eat, and our self-care routine. According to Psychology Today “Stress is responsible for as much as 90% of all illnesses and diseases, including cancer and heart disease.”
If numbers like this are even half-right it is clear that our health is far more than a genetic lottery.
Higher blood sugar. The brain dumps stress hormones into the bloodstream to release glucose for energy. In the good old ferocious days this meant energy to outrun a tiger or a tribe of cannibals…nowadays it is being stuck in traffic or forgetting a phone charger. Prolonged elevated blood-sugar can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, nerve damage and heart issues.
Google has approximately one zillion articles on reducing stress, so I’ll just tell you what works for me.
At the end of the day it is about altering brain waves. We spend too much time in the beta state, overstimulating our reptilian brain, which thinks in fight or flight. Like anything the body does repeatedly, it gets good at it. Obsessive thoughts, shallow breathing, all kinds of muscular tension are signs that it is time to switch gears, literally.
Yoga. Stress is exhausting. The problem is although we feel whipped, the brain continues squirting out “go go” hormones like adrenaline into the body and all that energy has nowhere to go. The answer is movement. It opens our bodies to reverse lack of movement and balance any repetitive motions. And by deepening our breath it brings us into an alpha state of consciousness.
Meditation. Some just do not believe they can benefit from a 10-15 minute activity. But it is more than that, consistent meditation retrains the brain to be more calm throughout the day. Entering the alpha/theta state is like turning off your phone; things get to cool down and defragment. And our brains being the supercomputers they are don’t need much to reset and get back to optimal performance. And nope sleep does not count. Sleeping puts the brain in the mysterious delta state; in my opinion dreaming is when we leave our bodies and play out another interdimensional drama. But even if sleep is just the brain doing the day’s receptionist work, this is not restful. If your dreams are as insane as mine each night then you will know there is nothing inactive going on during the slumbering hours.
Writing. Or the more hip spiritual term, journaling. Our brains, they think a lot. And although they think a lot of these thoughts are important, they aren’t. But thanks in part to our education, our technology, and our fear of silence, our brains feel they must always be doing something, even if it’s thinking about those pants you felt fat in on that fieldtrip to the ice cream parlor in 6th grade. Wait you say, that thought is important because it feels important. I still get sad when I think about it. Exactly. You get sad when you think about it. So stop thinking about it.
Writing clears the brain like a spring rain clears misquotes. It shows you (and your) brain what is actually important and what is clutter. Remember those stimulating stress hormones with nothing to do—since we got no sabretooth to outrun—your brain puts them to use by scrapping up old pointless hogwash. Thoughts create feelings, that is why retraining the brain to focus on positivity is very important if you want a happy existence.
Nature. When volunteers looked at photos of nature MRIs showed increased blood flow to the insula and anterior cingulate cortex areas of the brain which process altruism and empathy. While photos of cityscapes showed more blood flow to the amygdala, which processes anxiety and fear. In another study “green activities” such as reading or walking in an outdoor natural setting were shown to be “widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children” diagnosed with ADHD. These same activities done indoors showed no improvement in symptoms.
Nature heals. Nature restores. Nature brings clarity. Look at animals in the zoo; being disconnected from the earth’s energy destroys them. And we are just animals in fancy clothes.