Like it or not, there is a cultural expectation that we should just give out and give out until there is nothing left. Our modern lives require us to tolerate degrees of stress so profound that we end up feeling burned out, overwhelmed, with no free time and ever growing tasks and to-do lists. In order to thrive, we need to examine the stressors in our lives and our responses to them.
The stress response cycle
To set the stage it is first helpful to understand how the body deals with stressors. The stress response cycle is a natural biological response that has a beginning, middle, and an end, which allows the body to regulate, a state known as homeostasis.
When the brain perceives something as a threat, the neuroendocrine system reacts. This is known as the “fight-or-flight response, which occurs when the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) takes over, releasing hormones that cause dramatic physical and emotional responses in the body. Once the immediate threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) kicks in and the body systems are returned to normal. This relaxed, balanced state is known as “rest and digest,” in which the cycle is completed.
But what happens when feelings of stress don’t subside? The nervous system is governed by the brain and the thoughts and emotions we have are inextricably linked to the physiological processes that take place in the body. When the body and mind are frequently in stress mode, the delicate balance of homeostasis is disrupted, eventually leading to symptoms of burnout where we learn to survive rather than thrive in our lives.
The reality is that many of us spend our lives in an almost constant state of fight-or-flight, where the brain is on red alert, priming the body to release more than 30 stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Continuously high levels of these hormones can lead to physical and mental exhaustion, constant fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, poor digestion function, chronic inflammation, weakened immunity and hormonal imbalances.
Recent research indicates that 90% of us have stress but we don’t know it because we are in survival mode. The most important stress factors are; work, high expectations of oneself, a full schedule outside of work, relationship problems, traumatic past experiences, symptoms of a disease (especially pain), sleep deprivation, the feeling that life is ‘meaningless,’ and constant digital availability. Believe it or not, chronic long term stress can get “stuck” in the body and may even contribute to serious conditions down the line such as autoimmune disease, heart disease, and cancer.
Long term stress also impacts on our mental wellbeing. When the mind races with thoughts, we may feel anxious and our sleep is disrupted, which in turn causes fatigue and may eventually lead to depression. Over time, the adrenal glands (which produce and excrete stress hormones) become exhausted, leading to chronic fatigue, perpetuating a vicious circle.
What do we do with these findings? It’s hardly possible to lead a life without stress; and a little bit is both good and necessary. The goal isn’t to live in a state of perpetual peace and calm, but rather to move through the stress to calm by completing the cycle. The good news is that our bodies are masters of adaptability. A healthy stress response should allow us to experience doses of stress as stimulating, or even invigorating (i.e positive, controlled stress). But when stress is unrelenting and there is no period of relaxation, the body becomes overwhelmed and homeostasis is thrown off balance. This is when stress has a weakening and sickening effect (i.e negative, uncontrolled distress).
How to beat overwhelm
For external stressors within our control, we need to challenge our assumptions of what we have to do and get brutally honest about where we truly want to devote our time. Because, like it or not, time is not a renewable resource and the only person responsible for deciding how you invest it is you. It is vitally important, especially for our mind-body health, that we learn how to deal with the ever growing demands of our modern lives and learn to say no to the people and circumstances that are causing us stress.
How to reclaim your time
A useful exercise is to take a blank piece of paper and spend 10 minutes writing down anything in your head. This might include all the things on your to-do list, the things that keep you awake at night, especially those that you feel guilty about, all the things you tell yourself you “should” be doing. Write it all down. No judgment, just get it all down. Next, cross out anything you have no control over, such as a comment somebody may have made about you. Then, cross out all the things you feel you should do, but never do, and anything you’re not passionate about. Be honest with yourself. Identify the things you love to do, it could be a hobby, being around people you enjoy etc. These are often moved to the bottom of the priority list when our focus is taken up in other categories. Re-prioritise what is left on the page, so you choose where you will direct your energy.
How to thrive, not survive
Mind-body medicine focuses on building a positive effect on the inter-relationships between the psyche, the immune system and the nervous system by exercising techniques that support the body’s ability of self-regulation (homeostasis) and self-healing. Traditional healing methods such as yoga and meditation, or modern practices including mindfulness and breath work help us to reconnect with our bodies, and start taking responsibility.
Internal stressors usually stir up intense emotions around “failure” and “guilt,” which prevent us from getting the help and support we need. Self-driven stressors also drive the feeling of lack of control and lack of clarity, which can paralyse us from moving forward in our lives. When harsh self-criticism sets in we can burn out faster when we are constantly punishing ourselves for being imperfect.
Letting go of the idea that you have to be all things to all people doesn’t happen overnight and in some cases, where past trauma is involved, may require more specific support and guidance. Surrounding ourselves with people who have a positive, upbuilding influence in our lives and distancing ourselves from others who drain our energy and self-esteem is a good place to start, whilst adopting one of the mind body approaches below.
Creating a place or an environment that’s just for you is an essential way to nourish your soul, process emotions, and experience spiritual growth. How and where you do it isn’t nearly as important as making space for it each day.
Implementing a morning routine is an easy to implement, powerful way to build your resilience to stress. Try this:
Get up 10-20 minutes earlier each morning to practice one of the following:
- Spend 10-20 minutes practicing mindfulness, meditation, or breath work techniques. Don’t deliberate, just choose one that resonates for you
- Spend 10-20 minutes in movement to help connect with your body – such as sun salutations, shaking out your arms and legs, or standing body rolls – all help to stimulate the lymphatic system and release negative emotions
- Spend 10-20 minutes reading a few pages of a stimulating book, some poetry, practice journaling, or speaking out some positive affirmations such as “I am enough,” “I’m calm,” “I’m stress free” – short, positive statements in the present tense that raise your positive vibration.
Studies show that committing to a daily practice takes 6 weeks before it becomes habitual. Don’t give up. Stick with it.
When we are stressed we tend to gravitate towards foods that don’t nourish us, such as high-carb and sugary foods. This is especially true when the adrenal glands are exhausted and we aren’t sleeping well. Nourishing the body with a nutrient dense diet that focuses mostly on plants, a small amount of protein, healthy fats and fibre will ensure that you are providing your body with the essential nutrients it needs to function optimally. For more guidance on how to put together a nutrient dense meal download my Game Changers Guide to optimal eating to help get you started.
It’s not yet been scientifically clarified exactly what the optimal fluid requirement is. Currently, the estimation is 2 to 3 litres a day, depending on the outside temperature and your activity level. When we don’t drink enough water we get dehydrated, which effects our mood, energy, and our ability to think clearly. The moment you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated and many important body functions start to go haywire. Try to get into the habit of starting your day with 2 or 3 glasses of water and carry your own reusable, refillable bottle, (preferably with a filter) throughout the day. Avoid plastic bottles of course, as they contain BPA, which is toxic to the body.
Connect to nature
Going into nature and being present with all five senses is a powerful antidote to stress and has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate, depression and fatigue. Spending some time outdoors in daylight hours also supports the hypothalamus gland, which regulates hormones, alertness, mood, and sleep patterns
Regular sleep routine
Be consistent. Get at least 8 hours of sleep a night and maintain a steady sleep and wake schedule. This honours the internal bodily mechanisms that regulate sleep and helps to establish healthy habits. If getting to sleep is a struggle, start a bedtime ritual:
- Take a warm shower or bath
- Make your bedroom as dark as possible and avoid any blue light (TV’s, computer screens, smart phones etc)
- Wherever possible, switch off the wifi at least an hour before bed
- Eat light and not late – consider a small whole foods based meal and avoid caffeine and alcohol
- Clear your mind – by journaling or meditating before you get into bed
Regular exercise is important for keeping the body healthy, but it also plays an important role in managing stress by increasing the production of endorphins – the neurotransmitters in the brain that make us feel good. The most important thing is to choose a form of exercise that you enjoy and commit to it. Use every opportunity you get to walk a few extra steps during the day – ignore lifts and escalators – take the stairs instead; ride your bike to work; don’t wait at the bus stop but walk the next two or three stops instead. Listen to your body and don’t overdo it if you are feeling exhausted, choose lower impact movement instead, such as yoga and pilates.
Schedule time to play
In order to thrive, we need to have fun! Allow yourself regular, unstructured free time to enjoy a hobby, travel, connect with friends, dance, or whatever it is that feeds you. Be creative, immerse yourself, and fully recharge. Our souls comes alive through joy. Make fun a non-negotiable part of your schedule.
Be kind to yourself
It has been said many times before, by many people, but it bears repeating – social media and advertising bombard us with images of the seemingly perfect lives of others, which often has the effect of making us feel inadequate and miserable by comparison to an illusion of perfection. No one’s life is perfect, so avoid falling into this trap. Instead, be kind to yourself and appreciate yourself as you are, whatever is going on in your life. Prioritise what needs to be done, then relax a little and accept the perfection of imperfection.
Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease and achieve optimal health? Sign up to the 3 Sources newsletter and receive your FREE Game Changers Guide to start eating more optimally.