Not everything about stress is bad – it’s basically a state of arousal which can give us the drive, focus and energy to get things done. The butterfly stomach we feel on a first date, the nervous excitement of the first day of a new job or the tight muscular tension before public speaking are all signs of stress, but these are positive life events and challenges we actively seek. Yet, according to a YouGove study* 74% of people in the UK have felt so overwhelmed with stress in the past year that they’re unable to cope. And it is a fact that many on-the-rise modern malaises from IBS and eczema to diabetes, obesity and heart disease are related to the pressure cooker of 24/7 life.
So what turns good stress into bad? First, it helps to understand a little bit about the cascade of chemicals and hormones involved in the stress response and their effects on our minds and bodies. It starts in a part of the brain called the amygdala which regulates the autonomic nervous system and controls the automatic responses in the body including breathing, heart rate, digestion and sleep. There are two sides to the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic or ‘fight or flight’ which effectively revs us up and the para sympathetic or ‘rest and digest’ which slows us back down.
When we go into ‘fight or flight’ mode, our adrenal glands release adrenaline into the bloodstream which causes heart rate, blood pressure and pulse to quicken. Breathing gets faster, increasing oxygen in the brain for higher alertness, also, adrenaline triggers the release of blood sugar and fats to increase energy levels. Because it’s an automatic response, these physiological changes happen before we’re even aware. A second stage kicks in where cortisol, another stress hormone, is released to keep us revved up until the ‘threat’ passes and the ‘rest and digest’ phase comes in to dampen the stress response.
The trouble is, things which trigger the stress response are rarely life threatening situations – it could be the ping of an email, opening a bank statement, or the train being late. Even so, we are wired to have that bodily response and because we so often override the ‘rest and digest’ response we end up accumulating stress. We’re on the go all day, pushing through fuelled with stimulants such as sugar and caffeine, subtly self-medicating to unwind whether that’s with a glass of wine in front of the TV, or pounding out tension on the running machine or at a sweat inducing yoga class. This can seem normal until we start to realise these tactics don’t work any more; it’s increasingly difficult to slow down and relax; our minds full of thoughts making it harder to sleep, which can become a vicious circle leading to feelings of anxiety, worry and even depression. We literally become adrenaline junkies – hooked on the highs of stress.
This can manifest in so many ways that it’s not necessarily easy to identify in our own lives. For me, I hadn’t realised that this continual hyper stimulation of the nervous system was the energy I was feeding off. Now looking back at my 20s and 30s I can see that I was running on adrenaline. I was enjoying the highs of what scientists call eustress or the good ‘seize the day’ motivational stress. I loved my job and so it felt good to enjoy every moment of it – and even on holiday I would like to keep active – rarely did I stop and just do nothing. And I got away with it until my late thirties when gradually it seemed I couldn’t bounce back from late nights, I’d have niggling health issues – poor digestion, reactive skin, inflexible body. I instinctively knew I needed to slow down somehow and took up yoga. But in the beginning, I was taking the ‘push through’ mentality into my practice – I would rush from work to push myself through extreme hot yoga classes, which would relax me in the moment, but never completely.
It took years to gradually realise that I was living off the highs of stress fuelled energy because it was a subtle form of enjoyable drive which gradually threw my body and brain chemistry out of kilter over the years. What did surprise me was how, once I’d accepted I needed to slow down, it was a relief and I began to feel the benefits straight away. For me, the big catalyst was discovering meditation which allowed me to ‘not do’, although it’s not a magic bullet. Good support from friends, family, a nourishing work network, doing something creative, and to feel that we’re contributing something all matter. What’s great to know is that given the chance, our nervous system will naturally re-balance itself, and when that happens we’re no longer fire fighting through, and that impacts positively on our health all round: physically, mentally and emotionally.
Simple ways to break the stress cycle:
- Ask yourself why you can’t allow yourself a lunch break/holiday/yoga class/massage when prioritising your own health and wellbeing will impact positively at work, and at home.
- Think of not doing as making a choice to just be – it is an action.
- Avoid multi-tasking as it has been proven to stimulate cortisol.
- Know that sitting with your eyes closed is meditation and that cutting out visual stimulation will help bring about calm fast.
- The out breath is associated with the para sympathetic nervous system, so whenever you feel anxious or stressed try to lengthen your out breath.
- Spend quality time with like minded people – we are hard wired to release happy chemicals such as oxytocin when are face to face with those who support us.