Stress, you hear about it all the time, you’re told to reduce it, but what is it??
Stress is an acute response by the body when faced with a threat – be it physical, emotional, chemical, or spiritual. The body responds by activating what is called the sympathetic nervous system. This response prepares you to fight, or flee.
When the danger passes, we return to a parasympathetic state, which is where we rest, digest, heal and rejuvenate. This is the opposite arm of the autonomic nervous system, and this operates below the level of conscious awareness, meaning, you don’t have any control over it.
When it comes to stress, it can be caused by more obvious things such as a car coming at you, or less obvious things, like your perception, or even your imagination.
Imagined stressors usually stem from early childhood where we formed beliefs, which are now deeply rooted into our nervous system, and those beliefs are now running the show. So for example if you believe deep down that you’re unworthy or unlovable, you may make terrible food choices, or work yourself to the bone in order to ‘rectify’ that wound and ‘prove yourself’ to the world around you.
Most often, this leads to chronic stress, and it can impact our lives greatly.
When in stress mode, we have issues with creativity, rationality, maintaining health, digestion, nutrient assimilation, sleep, relationships/friendships and more. If the body is in stress all the time, then our lives and bodies tend to fall apart.
So, what to do? Here are 5 tips to support a healthy nervous system.
- Learn what a stressor is, and what it feels like
You need to identify what stress is, and like I mentioned earlier, it can be physical, emotional, chemical, or spiritual. If you don’t know what stress is, then you have no hope of rectifying it!
Everyone tells me they’re not stressed, but what we are usually saying is we are not overloaded with stress. The symptoms are still there.
For example, if you have a health condition, this is a stressor, if you have a high-stakes job, then this is a stressor. If you ruminate or experience a lot of negative emotion, then this too, is a stressor.
The first thing to do once you identify where your stress is coming from, is to assess whether these stressors are necessary in your life. Work out if they are coming from you, or if it is coming externally to you. Work out how to navigate it from there. Maybe you need to change your work conditions, set more boundaries, or change your lifestyle. It’s an exploration process that takes time but is 100% worthwhile.
The image below outlines what we call sympathetic dominance, which I posted on my Instagram. You can check that post out here.
Do any of those on the left-hand side resonate for you?
- Intentionally teach the body how to switch back
We need to teach the body how to switch back to parasympathetic ‘mode’, meaning, we need to learn to activate the rest and digest system. Tools for this include eating healthier food, starting the day off with a wholesome breakfast, learning how to meditate, introducing breathing exercises, and finding activities that help you ‘switch off’.
- Correct your circadian rhythm
This is your sleep-wake cycle. We all run on a 24-hour clock, with hormones dictating how we feel and what we do at certain times of day. In the evening, hormone fluctuations make us sleepy, in the morning these very same fluctuations wake us up.
The biggest thing that interferes with this rhythm is light – namely, blue light. Blue light blocking glasses are a great start, and if you wear them after dark, you essentially block the blue rays from signalling to your brain that it is daytime, when it is in fact, night time. Warm lighting for the home and blue-light screen protection or ‘night mode’ functions are helpful too.
- Eat proper food and be intentional about it
Eating a high protein diet is highly protective as when under stress, the body requires more protein to sustain what you are doing. We also require more magnesium, salt, and zinc when we are pushing the limits, even under mild stress.
If your diet is heavily processed, then this is a stressor, both in the inflammatory nature of the food, as well as its lack of nutritional value. The body needs nutrition and if you’re chronically stressed, these nutritional stores will be drained and need to be replenished with a proper diet.
- Take ownership
This one is a tricky one, as it involves you having to accept that it’s your fault you’re highly strung out, even if a lot of what has contributed to this situation was out of your control at the time. It is common to blame other people – husband, kids, job, friends, study, but at the end of the day it’s your life and you decide how that is going to look.
Oftentimes a lack of self-esteem, and lack of boundaries creates toxic relationships that are highly stressful. Learn to set boundaries. If you find yourself constantly ending up in stressful interpersonal situations, seek professional guidance – a councillor, psychologist – anyone who can point out your own behaviour and help you change it.
So those are my top tips, it’s obviously a super complicated subject and everyone has unique stressors and solutions that may work for them.
At this end of the day, you are the only person who can reduce stress in your life, and you need to want to do it. We are often so used to being stressed out that it is an addiction, and when it is low, we often seek it out so we can feel ‘high’ again.
Don’t get me wrong, stress is a great tool to have if you rely on it when it’s really needed, but then return to rest and digest mode after the stressful event – presentation, exam, wedding, awkward conversation with your child, etc – has passed.
If you want to learn more about stress, I’m running a mini course from Monday November 1st. Click here for more information!