Have you ever found yourself sweating before a meeting, felt your heart racing during a difficult conversation or physically jumped during a scary movie? If so, you have witnessed firsthand that stress can be experienced both in the mind and the body.
This automatic response we experience via our nervous system is primarily due to adrenaline, our acute stress hormone. Intended to protect us from predators and threats, it signals danger to the body when it is circulating in the blood. Faced with “danger”, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) − the fight or flight response − flooding the body with hormones that elevate your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, increase your blood glucose to fuel your “escape”, and prepare you to fight, or get out of there, quick smart. Physically, this increase in adrenaline also sends blood to our periphery − to our arms and legs − to assist us with our ability to run away. However, these days it’s a different story. You’re (thankfully) unlikely to be chased by a predator, but you are likely to face stressful challenges every day, such as meeting work deadlines, paying bills and juggling the multiple interests that make up modern lives. Yet your nervous system still reacts in the way it has for the 200,000 years that humans have been on the planet − as if your life is in danger. As a result, the fight or flight response may get stuck in the “on” position, which, in the long term can have serious consequences for your health. Being SNS dominant is a major contributor to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), feeling anxious, as well as high blood pressure, heart conditions and even type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, when the body gets the message that it needs to help you escape, it uses glucose − rather than body fat − as its preferred fuel, which can lead to changes in weight and other body issues. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There so many ways you can support your stress response, many of which require only simple shifts in daily habits, nutrition and even our thought processes.
What’s causing your stress?
Start by identifying where your stress is coming from. While there are obvious triggers such as work deadlines, financial pressures and relationship concerns, there are also less obvious ones, like your daily commute, or people in your life who stress you out. Try monitoring your stress. When you start to feel stressed, write down the cause, your thoughts and your mood. Once you can identify your sources of stress you can develop your own plan for addressing these factors. For instance, if you’re an introvert but you work in a large, open-plan office, with loud and dominating people, you might need to incorporate more solitude into your day. If you can’t change your work environment, try getting up 15 minutes earlier than your household and enjoying some quiet time over a cup of tea or by doing a simple meditation.
If you do have friends, relatives or colleagues you find stressful, be honest with yourself about how you interact with them. Do you feel they expect too much from you? Do you need to limit your time with them? Identifying what causes you stress may mean setting more reasonable expectations for yourself and others or asking for help with work assignments, household responsibilities, and other tasks. Remember, it’s always OK to ask for help.
Swap out the coffee
When you live consistently in SNS dominance, your body is constantly producing adrenaline and, as a result, your energy tends to be inconsistent. You fire up and then crash and you might be tempted to reach for unhealthy snacks and caffeine. SNS dominance can be a reason why, even though you have good nutrition knowledge, you don’t actually follow through on that knowledge. Let’s face it, you don’t polish off a packet of chocolate biscuits thinking you are going to feel amazing afterwards. You don’t do that from a lack of knowledge. You do it for biochemical or emotional reasons, or both. And one of the biochemical reasons can be living in a SNS-dominant state. Consuming too much caffeine is also a surefire way to feel stressed and rushed as it results in the release of adrenaline. Many people feel tired but wired because they continue to consume coffee, which stimulates adrenaline production. Try swapping coffee for green or herbal tea for a week and see if you feel calmer and more energised.
Focus on your body
When you feel like you have a one-way ticket on the stress express, it’s not uncommon to be drawn to high-intensity exercise in an effort to “sweat it out.” While that can definitely feel good for some people, it might be the opposite of what your body and mind need, so consider investigating some calming activities. Try incorporating a breath-focused practice, like meditation, yoga, tai chi or Pilates, into your life. It is one of the best ways to switch off your stress response. This isn’t being indulgent − it is incredibly necessary for your health.
Above all, listen to your body. If you’ve made plans for a big night out, but you’re craving a quiet night in, cancel! Far too often we ignore our own intuition about what we need in each moment. Make a conscious effort to tune into this and you’ll be well on your way to reducing your stress.
For more on tips on managing stress, go to drlibby.com
Words by Dr Libby Weaver
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