The S Word
Take a seat, we're going to talk about stress.
We all know what it’s like to feel stressed. Some of us, perhaps too well. I wanted to write a little about stress, its effect on our health, our body and thus our experience of life. However, the thing about talking about stress and its long term effects is that it becomes, well… stressful.
Stress is not all bad. In fact a little bit of stress is very good for us, it sharpens our thinking, dilates our pupils to see better, sends more blood to our heart and sugar into our blood for an extra serving of energy. Chronic stress, however, is a very different ball game. The tricky thing to take into account as well is, as Dr Gabor Mate explains- we can feel stressed, but our body may not be in a stress response, or we cannot feel stressed but our body is in a state of stress. The latter is likely the case for someone who has become accustomed to a highly demanding lifestyle and now has a default setting of undercurrent stress. When stress does take over, it's a whole body experience down to a cellular level. A prolonged stress response will deplete our body’s resources and our immune system will become suppressed. In some situations, the immune system may even start to attack itself in the case of developing autoimmune disease. Chronic stress is now clearly linked to the development of cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, Diabetes.. the list goes on, but i’ll try not to stress you out.
So what can we do about it? Well, first we need to acknowledge that our brains are 2 million years old and thus designed for a very different way of living. In any given stressful situation we have 3 choices of how we will react - Flight, Flight or Freeze. Our stress response was designed for situation like being chased by a wild animal, which back then was a genuine possibility. You would switch into a Sympathetic Nervous system response (just the fancy pants term for Fight, Flight or Freeze), your body would be pumped with adrenaline and cortisol, your pupils would dilate, blood pressure would increase, your digestive system would temporarily shut down and breathing would become heavier to feed oxygen to our muscles all in preparation to fight the rascal, run to safety or in some cases freeze completely. Let’s say in this case, you’re lucky, you’ve been eating your spinach and you manage to escape from said rascal. Your nervous system can now begin to down regulate, blood pressure begins to drop, breathing returns to a shallower rhythm, digestive system begins churning again, we return to what is called a Parasympathetic Nervous System state, commonly known as Rest & Digest.
Now skip forward thousands of years to present day. You’re still you, only with nicer teeth and a (potentially) better smelling armpits. But your brain is still the same as caveman/ woman you. We still have this incredibly high functioning nervous system response, only now the ‘threat’ isn’t a wild animal, it’s an email you forgot to reply to, an argument with a loved one, the missing of the train meaning you’ll be late, anxiety over an important meeting or interview. The beast is now every part of your day that could potentially lead to inconvenience, hurt or pain.
On top of this, a lot of our stresses are simply predictions or projections these days. Did I forget to reply to that email? What happens if a loved one gets sick? Am I going to make enough money to pay the bills this month? We’re keeping our body in a low level state of stress simply by predicting things that may or may not happen. Our bodies will be constantly sending stress hormones into our blood thinking that we need to be fighting, fleeing or freezing. The price we pay for this is our health; mental and physical, and left un dealt with can manifest into depression, heart disease, cancer, thinning bones, diabetes, etc.
This is where practices such as yoga, meditation, Thai Chi, walking, doing a puzzle, writing etc come in. When we give ourselves time to become present with our bodies and minds and totally focus on the reality of the moment, we can start to differentiate between what is really a threat and what is speculation. When we begin to be an observer of our thoughts we can choose to believe them and invest in them, or decide they don’t serve us and nip it in the bud before our whole body begins to tip into a stress response. Of course, there are life choices and environmental factors we can implement as well; choosing not to pack our weeks fully, a social media purge, carving out time to take a bath and read a book. Never ever underestimate the importance of rest. It is often the best and most productive way you can spend your time.
The more you commit to these practices and begin to understand the characteristics of your mind the more you can begin to find control. The brain is like any other muscle in the body- it will get stronger and more efficient at whatever you continually do. If you take time to focus and become aware of your thoughts and surroundings regularly, you begin to notice quicker when unhelpful thoughts come into play. It’s not that we will never experience stress. I mean it would be lovely if we could be assured that we will not be visited by painful or challenging situations, but that’s not the nature of life. Life comes in all shades of colours with challenges, pleasures, peaks and troughs. We can’t control what may come our way, but what we can do is learn to manage our response and be equipped to bounce back quicker rather than get stuck in a stress rabbit hole.
Simply put, and summed up in one sentence, i’ll leave you with a Jon Kabat-Zinn quote
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf