We have been through a trying year to say the least. If we have learned nothing else this past year, hopefully we have come to realize the incredible impact stress can have on our day to day well-being. Chronic stress is not only an emotional vise, but it can have very real and devastating physical consequences as well.
A Primer on Stress
Stress itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a life saver.
When faced with a difficult or dangerous situation, your stress response is engineered to kick in and carry you through. It’s your classic fight or flight response. At its most pressing, it functions to literally save your life.
Let’s take a quick look at how the physiology of stress can keep you on the top side of the turf.
Gearing Up for Battle
Imagine you suddenly find yourself in a dire situation, like say, coming across a mama bear and her cubs while hiking a remote trail. How would your physical body react? What would it feel like?
As your body is flooded with stress hormones, particularly cortisol and adrenaline, your physiology preps for attack.
First, your pupils would probably dilate. This is a response not only born in fear, but also alertness. You want to be as visually receptive as possible to any imminent danger.
Next, your blood pressure would elevate, and your heartbeat and respiration would quicken. You would want to maximize circulation and oxygen to muscles and other tissues to fuel either a hasty retreat or an ill-advised tussle.
And speaking of fuel, your blood sugar would also skyrocket, providing your body with much needed quick energy. Cholesterol production would increase as well, as it is critical to wound repair.
You know what your encounter with the bear would shut down temporarily? Your sex drive and reproduction. (Now is neither the time nor the place!) Serotonin, melatonin, and other calming hormones. Digestion would slow. (Although maybe not elimination.) Your immune response would be blunted. (Survive now, fight the flu later.)
You can see how your physiology gets you perfectly primed to face the danger at hand.
Your fight or flight response is controlled by a part of your nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. It is beautifully designed to work in concert with your parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system. The two factions work together to balance one another out. When the balance shifts too far in one direction, your body will start trending the other way. Therefore, the skew toward super-alertness and hyper-reactivity brought on by your fight or flight response is self limiting. Until it’s not.
Always on Alert
There was a time when we had to be extremely vigilant about our surroundings. In generations past we lived as nomads or in open settlements. We didn’t have large, protective walls, security systems, and cameras on every corner. Survival meant being on alerts at all times. A rustling in the brush behind you could have simply been a harmless squirrel. But it could have also meant a predatory wolf was stalking you. Or that an enemy was staking claim to your property. Our brains have developed the acute ability to tune into certain sounds, sights, or smells that tip us off to danger. And until the threat is either neutralized or invalidated, letting your guard down was not an option.
Our environment has changed drastically over the past several generations, but our brains are still wired the same. We still react vigilantly toward stimuli and threats all around us, but today those triggers look a little different. The text alerts and notifications on our phones induce an endorphin rush that not only gets us reacting, but anticipating the next one. Navigating a busy highway during rush hour can incite rage and anxiety. A constant, underlying fear can result from the unrelenting stream of sensationalism propagated by mass media.
It is rare nowadays that we are not within arm’s reach or earshot of an abundance of seemingly pressing stimuli. And while it is extremely unlikely that any of these presents a impending lethal threat, our brains still treat them as rustling in the brush. As a result, we are almost always on high alert. The finger of your sympathetic nervous system is always hovering over the flashing red Fight of Flight button, ready to fire at the most benign provocation.
Too Much of a Good Thing is Not a Good Thing
Remember all those great, life-saving benefits of your fight or flight response we talked about earlier? Increased blood pressure and blood sugar. Increased cholesterol production. Decreased digestion and reproduction. Lowered immunity. Those are all absolutely essential for short-term survival.
Over the long haul, however, they can literally kill you. Just look at the effects of chronically high blood pressure. Or of living with high blood glucose and diabetes, or clinically elevated cholesterol. A compromised immune system is never a good thing. And then there is the infertility and digestive issues.
Your stress response simply is not designed to be enacted 24/7. But for many of us, the switch is never turned off. We’re constantly looking to see who hit the Like button. Or who responded to our group text. Or concerned about what Instagram filter makes us look our best.
Even when we’re sleeping, we’re not sleeping. Elevated cortisol levels abound. Resting heart rates are not really at rest. Our minds are racing to the next thought before we give ourselves time to process the present one.
It’s Time to Slow Down
Let’s be real. It is impossible to eliminate stress from our lives. And even if we could banish stress, it would be dangerous to do so. Stress serves us well when it is tempered correctly. The key is to strike a healthy balance between stress-inducing situations and periods of solitude and recovery.
It is critical that you carve our periods of quiet awareness. I call it awareness because the point is just to be. Not to worry. Or to plan your day. Not even to think. But just to be aware in the present moment.
Get yourself away from distractions. Remove yourself from your daily legion of contraptions and devices designed to monopolize your attention and control your decisions. If you’re well aged like me, you’ll know what I mean when I say that you need to give yourself a Calgon moment. In fact, several of them. And often.
How do you free yourself from the crushing grip of your day to day grind? Here are a few suggestions.
Meditate or Pray. Daily.
Wait! Before you skip over this section, meditation isn’t what you think it is.
Like you, I once thought meditation was mystical, hokey, or was only for those aspiring to live alone in a robe on a secluded mountain top. It is none of those things. Although, you can still wear the robe if you like.
My attitude about meditation changed after reading Emily Fletcher’s book Stress Less, Accomplish More. After seeking out solutions for her own personal challenges, Emily eventually demystified meditation by developing the Ziva Method. With the Ziva Method you can reap the benefits of a deep session of meditation without the pressure of feeling like you have to become a master meditator. As Emily likes to put it, you don’t meditate to get good at meditation. You meditate to get good at life.
Two 15 minute sessions of meditation daily can be an amazing escape from the turmoil around you. Believe it or not, a deep meditative session can actually be a more powerful mental reset than a full night’s sleep.
But in addition to the external chaos, there is also a constant internal struggle that each of us has to navigate. And in many instances, this self-induced stress can dwarf anything that the outside world throws at us. Doubt and negative self-talk can plague even the most successful of us.
In Winning the War in Your Mind, Craig Groeschel helps you expose your internal dialogue and provides you with effective strategies to turn your defeatist attitude around. It doesn’t matter how good you get at navigating your world, if at the end of the day you default to beating yourself up on the inside.
Get Out in Nature
Probably the easiest way to dissolve stress is to simply get yourself out in nature. Put the electronics down and just get quiet.
You might want to take a leisurely walk, or simply get still and listen to the sounds around you. It would be fantastic to go to a park and hike into the woods to find a secluded place to sit. But even just sitting on your deck or porch stoop will do if that’s your only option.
Take the time to relish the small things like the songs of the birds around you. Feel the light breeze on your skin and the warm sun on your face. See what other sounds and smells you can identify.
It sounds simple, but that’s the point. Put down the distractions and get in touch with your senses and just be in the moment.
Phone a Friend
Sometimes the best ways to diffuse a stressful situation is to talk it out with someone who really gets you.
Watch out here, though. If you’re not careful, this can quickly devolve into a gripe session. Try not to gravitate toward that person that is eager to jump down into your pit with you and commiserate about how terrible the world is. Instead, lean on that friend who has a knack for lifting you up. The one who is willing to tell you what you need to hear, even when you don’t want to hear it.
The point here is to make a deep connection and to temporarily be free of the world around you.
Yes, the E word.
Get into the habit of moving your body on a daily basis. Even if it’s just a walk on the treadmill to start.
Your cortisol levels naturally start ramping up in the morning to get you primed for the day’s activities. It’s your body’s way of transitioning from sleep to active movement. Even in the absence of additional stress, you’re already making cortisol. And you’re expected to move.
Throw some stress into the mix, and those excess hormones you’re pumping out are begging you for physical activity. Consistently engaging in moderately rigorous exercise allows your body to balance your nervous system. Think of it as emptying your sympathetic tank so that you can tap into the parasympathetic.
Just don’t overdo it. Exercise is a good stress when utilized correctly. But taken to the extreme, it can quickly lead to burnout. Focus on the movement and the process. Immerse yourself in the challenge. When viewed with the right attitude, exercise can be a great departure from the world’s stresses.
Stress is inevitable. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But when the effects feel like they are becoming overwhelming, remember that there are several effective, easily accessible techniques to draw you back toward a healthy balance.