An Amazing Amount of Stress
“We are taught to ignore our gut instincts and to be polite instead. We are taught to ignore physical hunger and to strive to be stick thin if we are women. We are rewarded for overworking, often at the expense of our health – raising our stress levels even more. We are taught to live in our heads and to ignore the body’s wisdom. As we lose touch with our bodies, our healthy resilience suffers. The expression “speed kills” refers to more than highway statistics. The speed of modern technology, combined with the sheer volume of information thrown at us on any given day, is enough to make us feel as though we cannot slow down and breathe if we want to keep up. The complexity in our lives can be overwhelming.”
Suzanne Scurlock-Durana, Full Body Presence
We humans are a real piece of work. Yes, in many ways, but I was referring to our ability to stress ourselves out more than any other creature.
I’ve been learning about the physiological effects of stress on the human body – you know, a little light reading in my abundant spare time – and the information is fascinating and concerning. I just can’t believe how powerful our thoughts are on our bodies! Unlike everything else on the planet that responds to threat with a completely understandable stress response and then recovers from that response, we humans are a little more, well, tightly strung. We can experience stress at appropriate times too, like if we are involved in a serious car accident. But, unlike everyone else, we don’t shake it off and move on. We tend to remain stressed, as though we’ve forgotten how to climb down the ladder of stress once we climbed up. And then we can do another interesting trick – we can remember the experience and COMPLETELY REACTIVATE THE STRESS RESPONSE! And whenever we visit back to that disturbing memory, we can bathe in the neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and hormones our physical body produces, whether the threat producing the response is real or imagined. Yes, just you imagining a serious car accident might have been enough to get your heart up and your palms sweating. Sorry about that.
So we humans tend to prolong the stress response, revisit it often, and trigger it with our incredible imaginations. Do we have any other tricks? Why yes we do! We also seem to react with a pretty big response to pretty small things. A big physiological reaction like the stress response was designed for sincere emergency, when our lives are on the line. But now a days research finds that we can go full panic mode over getting cut off in traffic, getting yelled at by our boss, forgetting an appointment, or being snubbed in a social gathering. In other words, we’re VERY regularly bathing in chemical cocktails meant for dire emergencies, and our physiology wasn’t designed for it. Feeling like we’re under threat 24/7 causes significant wear and tear all the way to the cellular level. So ‘feeling stressed’ isn’t just disharmony in our thoughts, it can be felt in the body. Every single system and organ in the body is affected by stress.
But don’t get stressed about getting stressed! There is some good news. There are things we can do to lighten the pressure on that stress trigger finger, and ways to help ourselves down off the stress ledge if we find ourselves there. And you don’t have to shave your head and live on a mountaintop, unless that’s been a life goal for you.
There a variety of things we can do that positively affect our resilience – that is, our ability to be less reactive to everyday events, and more capable of down regulating our sympathetic nervous system once it’s been activated. It can be as straightforward as regularly partaking in a hobby you enjoy. And of course a regular meditation practice is fantastic! Simple breathing awareness and exercises can be extraordinary for a whole bunch of reasons. Even getting enough sleep can be an effective form of stress management.
And we’ve all heard that exercise helps reduce stress. And it’s true! Movement is essential for health, both in body and mind. But not all exercise affects our bodies the same way. High intensity workouts and heavy cardio tends to excite the sympathetic nervous system, in charge of the ‘fight or flight’ of stress. The parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ system is the real hero of managing stress, and that is something that requires attention and mindful participation to do. Yoga and T’ai Chi are two very well known examples of slow, mindful movement positively effecting our ability to withstand and overcome stress, but they are by no means the only ones. Any movement done with awareness, attention, moderation of pace, and mindful form can produce benefits in our stress response. A simple walk in nature has shown to be very powerful in lowering the stress hormones in our bodies and providing a feeling of well-being.
If you ‘re interested in learning more about the ways we can take care of ourselves and down regulate the nervous system for health you should join us on Saturday, July 15 for Breathe in, Bliss out: The Physiology of Stress with Kirstin Bergman. Kirstin is a multitalented body specialist with a whole world of experience that will lead us through simple ways we can use breath and movement to lower the stress response and feel fantastic!
But in any case, I hope you get a chance to unplug, unwind, and take a nice walk in the beautiful summer evenings we’ve been having. And maybe a long bath (my favorite). Whatever you do, find a time to de-stress!