Stress. Not only have we all got it, but it seems we’re experiencing it chronically and in increasing amounts. Chronic stress takes a huge toll physically, emotionally and mentally.
Because it is linked to inflammation, it contributes to many degenerative diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and arthritis. On top of all that, stress actually rewires our brain: It compromises our ability to think clearly and make good decisions. Under stress, we tend to repeat habitual behaviors, even when they don’t serve us well and perpetuate the very circumstances in which we are stuck.
Our nervous systems are designed to handle some stress. That’s the “fight or flight” response, and it is protective and beneficial in the short term. It is meant to pump you up and get you out of immediate danger. After all, if you are running from a saber-toothed tiger, the outcome is likely to be determined fairly quickly: You’re either dinner, or you’re safe.
Modern stresses are different. They can go on for days, months, even years. Symptoms of stress include depression, inability to sleep through the night, insulin resistance, and cravings. With chronic stress, add anxiety, low energy in the morning with inability to sleep at night, and periodic palpitations.
Our bodies don’t discriminate between the stress that puts our lives in imminent danger, and worries about money, relationships or traffic on Route 17. Physiologically, we can’t even discern between running from the tiger and running on a treadmill. It is all stress, and it produces the same stress hormones circulating in our system, including adrenaline, catacholamines and cortisol.
Stress hormones are catabolic. They tell our system to break things down so that we can use available energy to escape to safety. This works well if there are short periods of stress and long periods of calm. If we are chronically in a catabolic state, the impact on health can be serious.
But the part our brain plays is good news, too. It can be rewired in either direction, to perpetuate stress, or to decrease the stress response. Here are some ways you can stop perpetuating the stress cycle.
Our brains are wired to know that we couldn’t possibly be running from a saber-toothed tiger and taking nice slow deep breaths at the same time. Breathing deeply in the middle of stress helps reset your chemistry out of stress mode.
Meditation invokes a relaxation response, changing our brain and body chemistry. We don’t always have control over the stress in our lives, but we can change our relationship to it. Meditation helps to do that. People are often leery about meditation, but it is a very simple and natural process in which we simply focus our thoughts, gathering our scattered attentions into one place and time. (I invite you to listen to my free guided meditations here.)
3. Don’t feed the frenzy
# Minimize coffee and other caffeinated beverages that push hard on our adrenals. Tea has some caffeine but is a better choice because it has a slower uptake and drop, making it less of a jolt to your system, plus green tea has many health benefits. If you are tired when you cut back on caffeine, realize that the caffeine was masking fatigue that was there all along. The solution? Get more rest and sleep!
# Go easy on the sugar. When you have sugar highs and lows, your mental focus and emotional stability are compromised, and your adrenals have less of chance of functioning optimally to get you through your stress. You may feel as if you need something sweet to get you by, but short-term relief quickly turns into another down cycle, and you’re craving again. Much better to combine protein, carbs and a little healthy fat for a balanced snack or meal. That will keep you feeling much more stable through the course of the day.
There are many supplements that effectively lower stress response. One of my favorites is phosphatidyl serine, which lowers cortisol, helping to bring our whole nervous system back into balance. Other nutrients can help lower our reactivity to stress. As always, for individual help, consult a qualified health professional.
5. Don’t add on
As Mark Twain said, “I have known a great many troubles in my life, and most of them never happened.” Our minds create stress, with our expectations, anticipation, fear, regret and doubt, even when things are actually OK. If you can’t do anything about it in the present moment, take a deep breath, and let it go. “Worry gives a small thing a big shadow.”
There is so much we can’t control in this life, but much that we can, too. Take a few moments throughout the day to stop, breathe and center yourself. Say a prayer, meditate, call a loved one, take in a view. Get enough rest and sleep, allowing your stress hormones to drop. Have fun. You’d be amazed at the positive biochemical effects of pleasure, laughter, closeness and affection. Let it go: Holding on to past anger and resentment can keep you going, but over time it is poisonous fuel. Nurture yourself. Make a commitment to do something positive for yourself today: Take a walk, eat a healthy meal, get to bed earlier. It doesn’t have to be big to make a big difference.