We live in an age of constant demands, to-dos, and psychological pressures. And while we might off-handedly say, “I am stressed,” the long-term consequences of living in a state of hyperarousal are devastating—both physically and mentally. Most of our modern-day health problems (i.e., digestive disorders, obesity, insomnia, mental fog, depression, premature aging, diabetes, cancer) are either caused or exacerbated by stress. To take the necessary steps needed to calm your nervous system and revel in a stress-free body, you must learn how the stress response works.
When we experience real or perceived threat (either to one’s body or sense of self-worth), the sympathetic nervous system initiates the fight-or-flight response and our blood is flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. In the short term, cortisol gives us a jolt of energy and focus. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, breath becomes quick and shallow, and energy is diverted away from the maintenance and repair system of the body to our major muscles. Ever wondered how you stay up all night when facing a deadline? Thank you, cortisol.
For our cave ancestors, having a hypersensitive fight-or-flight response was adaptive because threat came in the form of immediate physical danger (i.e., saber tooth tiger crouching in the bushes). Today, facing constant psychological “threats” (related to our perceptions about ourselves and our livelihoods), we are living in a state of constant, low-grade sympathetic arousal. We run on the artificial energy supplied by cortisol until our bodies literally break down. And when our body is broken from the excessive cortisol energy pumped into our system, that is when we get sick, physically, emotionally, and/or mentally.
Think of stress like fire—so all-powerful that it must be used both wisely and with deliberate control. Left unbridled, stress, like fire, burns everything in its path. Over time, elevated levels of cortisol literally “burn” through muscle, immune, heart, and brain tissues, as well as disrupting the hormonal balance needed for a good mood. The reactive, reptilian part of the brain takes over and the rational, thinking part of the brain shuts down. No time to contemplate what makes life worth living when you are running from a tiger! Consequently, our thoughts become self-focused and fearful, and our behavior becomes impulsive and aggressive. Under stress, we become the worst version of ourselves.
While life in modern society is always filled with demands and pressures, the good news is we can alleviate unnecessary stress responses. If caught in unproductive worry or overreacting to life’s daily stressors, implement a calming practice to de-stress. A calm body tells the brain that we are safe (no tigers here), allowing the fight-or-flight response to turn off, blood and energy to return to our healing and maintenance systems, and the hormones required for a good mood to flow freely. Amen!
- Slow your breath. Inhale though your nose for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, and exhale through your mouth for 8 counts. A rate of 4 to 6 breaths per minute arrests the stress response.
- Relax your muscles. Begin by relaxing your jaw, eyes, and facial muscles.Systematically relax your entire body, working down. A relaxed muscle tells your brain’s alarm circuits you are safe.
- Practice soothing touch. To stimulate the production of a calming hormone called oxytocin, place your hand on your chest and feel the warmth of your palm. Even better, give yourself or someone you love a hug that lasts at least 6 seconds.