It seems like lately, all I hear from clients, friends and family is how “stressed out” they are.
“I can’t go to that meeting. I am too busy and I’m totally stressed out.”
“The end of that basketball game really stressed me out.”
“I’m always in the car fighting traffic, and it stresses me out.”
“My boss is so demanding; she is stressing me out.”
Even my 10-year-old son says it. “Don’t tell me to clean my room, Mom. It stresses me out.”
It’s on everyone’s lips, so I often wonder if we mis-judge our reactions to these everyday demands.
If we are stressed out all the time, how do we “calm in?”
I’d like to take a look at the science of stress. What exactly is this thing that plagues us daily?
Stress is our nervous system’s response to “perceived threats.”
In caveman days, those threats were things like running from a bear, fighting another caveman over food, keeping our family and offspring alive—real life-and-death stuff.
When we felt threatened, our sympathetic nervous system responded. This is known more commonly as “fight or flight.” We chose to fight the other caveman or run from the bear. How does our body do this? Any perceived threat will trigger the sympathetic nervous response. Our brain sees danger and sends signals via neurotransmitters and hormones throughout our body to respond. The diaphragm, the muscle in charge of our breathing, pushes up on our heart wall. The heart then starts to pump more blood, and the brain sends the signal to distribute that blood to our muscles and to shut down production from other organs until the threat is over and we can relax.
Once the threat is over, our body goes back to a normal response. When we feel relaxed, things like digestion and sleep can occur. Essentially, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over.
The beauty of our body’s systems is that these two opposing yet essential aspects of our nervous system are constantly balancing each other to maintain homeostasis.
However, that is not the case for most of us. Most of us are operating on the equivalent of hyper-drive for our sympathetic nervous system.
The fight-or-flight response can happen in an instant, with no ramp-up time. It takes just a second for the body to go from calm to panic.
When our vital organs are being ignored and the blood that carries oxygen, nutrients and life prioritizes our muscles instead of our gut, that’s when things can go bad in the long term. Chronic stress causes not only high blood pressure but also digestive problems and a suppression of your immune system. You know your immune system—the thing that fights off infections? Basically, chronic stress leaves all your vital organs vulnerable to disease.
And right now, you are thinking, “Oh shit, this is me. I’m vulnerable! Oh God, no…” and here we go again.
There is more to this riveting scientific story; if you want to dive deeper, watch this.
When it comes to our day to day, there really isn’t much in the category of caveman threats. In comparison, we live in a fairly safe society. However, our brain is a busy-body and an equivalent to a high-strung border collie with an intense need to be working. The brain is a problem solver; it’s the main reason we have the society we do. We made tools, we created fire and learned to tend to it. We built huts then homes, then cities….the iPhone and Buzzfeed.
It has served us well; perhaps too well. In fact, the brain has over-taken our bodies. It has tirelessly worked us up into various scenarios and horrific details of what could go wrong, what needs to be done, which problems have to be solved. Events that haven’t arisen, problems that aren’t there. Even worse, when we run out of problems in our lives, we start to obsess about other people’s problems or possible problems. Just look at the checkout stand at your grocery store.
All the while, the brain says, “WE ARE IN STRESS……FIGHT OR FLIGHT?” “My team didn’t win, my homework isn’t done, and another main character was killed off on Game of Thrones.” Basically, these physiological responses to non-immediate threats are the same as if we were running or fighting for our lives.
It has gotten so bad that even tying our toddler’s shoes can be stressful. We’ve all been there.
What can we do about this? Here are five simple strategies to get started:
1. You can start with one of those lovely mindful apps. They teach meditation and give insight into how our mind chatter works against us. There are many to choose from: Headspace, Calm, Breathe, Mindful. Pick one, if you don’t like it, try another. I have 3 and use all of them at different times. Sometimes, I use them to start my day or other times, right before bed. You can set up timers to remind you to breathe or relax, which can be helpful during stressful times.
2. Take an exercise class that isn’t competitive or strenuous. YES, I am looking at you, CrossFit and Orange theory. These are great exercise trends but they don’t put you in a state of calm. They are built to put you in a competitive mode, which fires up your fight-or-flight response big time and feeds the cycle. Try a yoga class or a Pilates class that focuses on the mind-body connection and on deep breath. You can still get a great workout and you will be doing your body a huge service in teaching it to exercise differently.
3. Take a long walk daily. Walking is by far one of my favorite activities. I am like that border collie and my mind and body need a lot of activity. When I go for a long walk, I get that energy out. I listen to music or a podcast. Fresh air is so relaxing, and so is looking out on the horizon, which uses different muscles in the eyes to look long distance. Our short distance eye muscles are governed by the sympathetic nervous system which runs our fight-or-flight responses. So, take a break from your screens and get up and go for a walk.
4. Sleep. Our bodies need rest to recharge and reset. Every morning we wake is a new opportunity to get it right. When you have restful sleep, the world looks very different in the morning. I love to sleep. I have an enormous comfy bed with lots of pillows, and I look forward to getting in to it every night and relaxing and falling asleep. Keep the blue light and electronics away from your bed. If you have problems sleeping, it usually means you are over-worked and over-stressed, but if you do the 3 things above, it will start to help and put your mind at ease so you can have a restful sleep.
5. Get to know your triggers and do something about them. Not everyone gets stressed over the same things. We are all different, and you can’t tell someone to relax; that doesn’t work. They have to tell themselves. Each person has to learn his or her triggers, and that can take some time. If it is your boss or traffic, can you change that? If you can’t change the outside, you have to figure out how to change your response to it. No one can do that but you. If you need help, seek a therapist who works in mindfulness training to get your started.
Most importantly, have perspective. Remember, it’s your perception, not reality. Your mind will pull you into the cycle time and time again if you let it. Give yourself a break by letting go and looking at the bigger picture. It’s a way to teach your mind to relax. As my dad used to say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”