Fall can be a stressful time for many of us.
School is back in session and brings with it an avalanche of deadlines and commitments.
Cold and flu season is brewing. (If you believe in such things.)
And of course, the big holiday season is just around the bend.
Stress can truly have a detrimental effect on your health if left unchecked.
But what is stress? And how do you mitigate its negative impact on your health?
First of all, stress is a good thing. In the short-term. You are here because of stress. At some point in your far-distant lineage, one of your ancestors relied upon his stress response to carry on the family name. It’s the classic fight or flight response to a life threatening situation.
When your life is on the line, you shift into survival mode. This is the part of your nervous system that says, “Oh, Crap!.” It’s called your Sympathetic Nervous System, and it kicks your body into high gear. You’ve witnessed your sympathetic nervous system at work. It’s your body’s natural, healthy response to danger, and it goes something like this:
You’re hiking in the deep woods and startle a mama bear with her cubs. Mama bear rises up full force – teeth bared, claws slashing at the air, her putrid bear breath blanketing you in its heavy stench. And then she advances…
While you inspect your shorts, we’ll examine what else happens to your body: Your blood pressure and heart rate rise. Your breath becomes short and choppy. Your blood sugar skyrockets. Your adrenaline shoots up. Your digestion slows down. Sleep? Not at a time like this! And if you’re even thinking about reproducing, clearly you have other issues.
In short, your body is immediately prepped to either have a go with mama bear or to hightail it out of there. Amp up everything you need for a short, quick getaway and shut down all the nonessential bodily functions. Your sympathetic nervous system is the perfect driver for short-term survival. But what if your short-term is not so short?
Our stresses today differ greatly from our ancestors. We are no longer faced with the day to day task of physical survival. Instead, we face unrelenting deadlines, meetings, financial crises. All while living on a increasingly toxic planet. Instead of infrequent bursts of stress, we are now living out our entire lives on high alert.
Revisit the above list of physiological effects of stress. With so many of us living in a prolonged stress state, we begin to see how our current health trends have taken shape. High blood pressure and heart disease are running rampant. Diabetes is off the charts. Digestive issues, insomnia, infertility…and the list goes on. Your fight or flight response will save your life in a perilous moment. But if it remains engaged over the long haul it will kill you.
So how do we counteract the potential harm inflicted by long-term stress? Enter the Parasympathetic Nervous System. While your sympathetic nervous system kicks you into high gear, your parasympathetic nervous system says, “Chillax, Dude.” A healthy life requires a harmonious balance between the two.
So how do we strike a healthy balance? The answer lies in optimizing the function of your parasympathetic nervous system so that your body can efficiently return to a calm, relaxed state.
Do the following 5 things with regularity and your stress level will go from shrill to chill:
(These 5 activities warrant further discussion than this post allows. Future posts will dive into more detail regarding each of these habits.)
The nerves that comprise your Parasympathetic Nervous System primarily originate in the cranial (head and upper neck) and sacral (tailbone) areas of the spinal column. Spinal bones that are stuck or out of alignment in these areas can adversely impact the function of your parasympathetic nerves. Remember, while chiropractic adjustments can alleviate pain and other symptoms, chiropractic’s primary purpose is to free the nerve system of interference and allow your body to express life to its full potential. Irritated spinal nerves can exacerbate the effects of stress and prevent your body from fully reaching a state of healthy balance.
We know that the sympathetic nervous system and its fight or flight response prime us for action. But when we’re fighting an intangible opponent like emotional upset or anxiety, it’s hard to know where to direct that action. Sometimes the best counter to stress is a physical release. Use up that cortisol and adrenaline. Deplete your body of those high sugar stores. Since stress is so pervasive, it’s a good idea to move your body daily to help counteract the effects of stress and to establish a more relaxed state. 30 minutes of rigorous exercise daily will suffice for most people. For the sake of variety, change up your exercise routine often. Ride a bike. Jump rope. Do a body weight workout. Hit a heavy bag. Even a brisk walk qualifies. The key is to do something daily and head off the negative effects of stress before they have a chance to balloon into a more serious health concern.
Your diet can either serve as a source of replenishment or it can undermine your health from the inside out. The last thing a stressed body needs is more stress on top of it. Consuming large amounts highly inflammatory foods is one of the worse things you can do for your health, and it can exacerbate the already devastating effects of chronic stress. Avoid or limit foods high in sugars and refined sweeteners, chemical preservatives, excessive sodium and MSG, and artificial colors and flavorings. In short, eliminate processed foods and stick with real, whole food sources as much as possible. Consume large amounts of fresh veggies of every color, fresh fruit, properly sourced proteins (locally raised if possible), healthy omega-3 fats such as those found in olive oil, avocados, coconut oil, macadamia nuts, almonds, etc. And drink plenty of pure water.
This is the most underrated health hack out there. It almost seems too simple that getting adequate amounts of rest can boost your health, but this should be at or near the top of everyone’s list. We are a sleep deprived nation. We are continually trying to get away with more and more on less and less sleep. And it is taking a huge toll on our health. Sleep is therapeutic and regenerative, and it should not be overlooked. Commit to getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Concerned that you’ll lose valuable “active time” to sleep? Don’t worry – when you optimize your sleep you’ll be way more productive during your waking hours.
Change Your Mindset
As tough as stress can be on the body, it’s even worse when it is fueled by your own toxic thoughts. Living through a trying experience is bad enough. Why force yourself to relive it a thousand more times? This is exactly what we do when we dwell on painful events and continually rehash them in our minds. Research shows that emotionally and physiologically, your brain can’t distinguish between the actual event and the vivid replay. Now, instead of enduring one embarrassing event you’re suddenly buried under the weight of hundreds. Instead, learn to let things go. Stuff goes wrong. For everybody. It’s part of life. Learn to face the fact that adversity is going to meet you head on. Handle what’s within your control and let everything else take care of itself. When you develop the habit of focusing forward with expectancy rather than looking back with regret, everything becomes just a little more manageable.
Stress is neither inherently good nor bad. It is what it is. It’s just part of the cost of running this business we call life. What quantifies stress is our reaction to it. Practicing these 5 simple habits with consistency is a great start toward neutralizing the potentially hazardous effects of stress on your health and well-being.
To Your Health,