A Typical Morning
Alarm Goes Off. Guy hits snooze until he reluctantly arises from his slumber.
With juuuuust enough time, he throws on some clothes and grabs his bagel for the road. Between bites and shifting gears, he weaves and zips in and out of traffic.
His heart pounds, his palms sweat, he is going be late! Drivers in the way get a dirty look, a honk, or a finger depending on the offense. He arrives to work late, and of course, blames it on the traffic and everyone around him (though it’s his 3rd time being late for the week)!
But is it really just the traffic?
CHRONIC STRESS & The Lives We Lead
These lives we lead are stressful! The status of the economy directly impacts each of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. The pressure to perform, produce, and earn are real stressors that are effecting every member of the family in a unique way.
The dollar isn’t worth as much as it once was so we must work HARDER to achieve the same dollar. Most of us don’t even consider the economy, we just assume we aren’t doing enough.
In most families, both parents have to work to support the family while the more important things like our relationships, health, and time take the back seat.
In addition, because we are so strapped for cash and pressed for time, many of us eat less than ideal foods to properly fuel the body to adequately handle all of this stress, so it just adds to the deterioration.
So, naturally, we wake up tired and deprived (spiritually, physically, mentally, financially), much like the scenario above!
Stress is NO joke. Nor is it JUST mental.
The Autonomic Nervous System: The Body & Stress
Within each of our bodies is the Autonomic Nervous system (ANS). The ANS is part of the peripheral nervous system and is very intimately involved with how we cope with stress AND the function of our organs/organ systems.
The autonomic nervous system regulates our involuntary actions. Look below at the chart to see everything relating to the ANS.
The ANS takes cues from the brain (by thoughts and perceived levels of stress) and reacts accordingly. So in other words, whatever “talk” you’re giving yourself in the morning will direct the rest of your day as your cells follow suit.
Just a Few Things Regulated by the Autonomic Nervous System (therefore, dictated by stress):
- Heart and breathing rates
- Blood pressure
- Body temperature
- Metabolism (thus affecting body weight)
- The balance of water and electrolytes (such as sodium and calcium)
- The production of body fluids (saliva, sweat, and tears)
- Sexual response
Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic
There are two primary states in which the Autonomic Nervous System Exists: sympathetic (“fight or flight”) and parasympathetic (“feed/breed, rest/digest”).
In order for us to live balanced, happy lives–we must live in both parasympathetic and sympathetic states when the moment calls for it. Below you can see the various organs involved/affected when we are in each state.
Sympathetic Nervous System, Where Most of Us Live
Believe it or not, the body does not discriminate when it comes to stress. So, whether you are running a few minutes late in the morning OR it’s a life or death situation, your body has the same reaction–it goes into a sympathetic state, also known as “fight or flight” mode.
Think of being in a “sympathetic” state as your body’s way of understanding that you’re going through “stress”. It “up-shifts” and releases stimulatory stress hormones (cortisol, norepinephrine, adrenaline) to prepare you for battle. It is sympathizing and giving you everything it has to keep you alive and out of the way of your perceived stressors.
Below are some of the things that happen to Your Body in a “Sympathetic (Fight or Flight) State”:
- Your body releases norepinephrine to get you amped and ready to run stronger and faster away from your perceived stressors
- Your heart rate and blood pressure go up
- You start sweating
- Your body creates extra glucose to provide you with a burst of energy for your “fight”
- Your bronchial passages widen (this is why we use “epi-pens” when people have allergic reactions, they contain the stress hormone norepinephrine which helps to widen the breathing passages, helping us to “fight” and “survive”)
- You experience decreased motility in the large intestine (your bowels don’t move because that’s no longer important, keeping you alive IS most important)
- Your blood vessels constrict, reducing blood flow to various organ systems throughout the body
- Heartburn, due to increased peristalsis (contractions) in the esophagus
- Your pupils dilate
- You may get goose bumps
The sympathetic nervous system helps us to stay alive in compromising situations and can even give a slight boost in immunity. However, chronic stress is draining and nutritionally depleting to the body.
Believe it or not, there are some other surprising things that might put you into a sympathetic state like not eating enough or fasting (the body has to break down your tissues to make glucose and it releases stress hormones to do so), too much caffeine, over exercising, being around toxic people, and not giving yourself adequate time.
Chronic stress has a cascade of side effects: diabetes, lowered immune function, poor digestion, heart burn, plaque buildup in the arteries, depression, schizophrenia, tumor development, etc.
Parasympathetic State: Not JUST for Vacation
Isn’t it amazing how when we go on vacation and disengage from day-to-day life, everything improves? Our digestion gets better, we sleep better, we have better sex, heck–the whole quality of life improves! There is actually no coincidence there. It is known as “feed & breed, rest & digest” state for a reason!
Think of being in a “parasympathetic state” as your body’s ability to relax and do “business as usual”. Many of our most basic bodily functions are regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system (such as digestion, reproduction, and rebuilding our cells). “Generally, the parasympathetic division conserves and restores. It slows the heart rate and decreases blood pressure. It stimulates the digestive tract to process food and eliminate wastes. Energy from the processed food is used to restore and build tissues.” (1)
Some of the things that happen to the body in a parasympathetic state:
- Gets Your Juices Flowing –The parasympathetic nervous system helps to release salivary enzymes, aids in producing stomach acid to break down your food, and it promotes small and large intestine secretions. If these juices don’t flow, neither do your bowels! If your bowels don’t work, you can’t get properly nourished!
- Allows Digestion To Resume — In general, parasympathetic outflow promotes peristalsis (movement of your intestines to digest food). It also relaxes the SEVEN sphincters located throughout your digestive tract. If we are stressed, these sphincters all constrict, keeping your partially digested food where it is to putrefy, go rancid, and ferment.
- Reduces the heart rate and cardiac output (less stress on your heart and in turn, other organs)
- Relaxed breathing by increased airflow resistance (slowed breathing)
- Relaxed urethra and bladder (Think about nervous bladder)
- Better Sex–The parasympathetic nervous system is critical for triggering and maintaining an erection or getting the female juices flowing. In addition, when we are stressed, our stress hormones steal nutrients from our sex hormones (which means only our stress hormones are getting nutrition, aka the “pregnenalone steal“).
- Eyes: Promotes pupillary constriction by stimulating contraction of the circular muscle of the iris. Parasympathetic fibers also stimulate contraction of the ciliary muscle which leads to relaxation of the lens, thus allowing for focusing on near objects.
When we are in a parasympathetic state (relaxed), the body can do what it was built to do (heal you and keep you alive). But most of us are rarely ever in a parasympathetic state…which is why we have so many problems with sleep, digestion, infertility, and overall health! Just think of the way we all hit the ground running in the morning, just like the Guy mentioned above.
How To Get Off The Hamster Wheel
While small bursts of stress can be good for immunity, prolonged chronic stress prevents the body from restoring and rebuilding.
I saw this a few years ago, and it has so many good nuggets of advice!
Control Your Breath
Last breaths, first breaths…the moments that truly “take our breaths”, they have deep significance to each of us. These moments are etched into our souls.
Breath is powerful. Breath is life. It’s quite an amazing voluntary yet involuntary process that keeps us alive every day…until the very last one.
When we get stressed, our breath becomes shallow and rapid. However, if we can physically slow and deepen our breaths, we can shift the body back to a parasympathetic state.
“When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace.”
Own your breath. I have loved this techniques since I first learned it.
4,7,8 Breathing Technique
- Press the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, just behind your front teeth.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose filling your lungs for 4 full seconds
(tip: Place your hand on your stomach and try to consciously expand it into a large “belly breath”. Many of us who suffer from anxiety or stress are “shallow breathers”. Belly breaths ensure proper technique which will maximize results.)
- Hold this breath in your fully inflated lungs for seven full seconds.
- Exhale from your mouth for 8 full seconds.
- Without a break, repeat this 4 times.
Many of us are our own worst enemies. For me, personally, I used to be a poor planner. I didn’t take note of anything. My bills wouldn’t get paid late, I would miss flights, I would be late to work. I never understood why I couldn’t get out the door on time or why I experienced such “bad luck”.
But the truth is, I was never prepared. I always flew by the seat of my pants. Now I know, there is true value in being prepared. IT ALLEVIATES a lot of stress. Better habits = A lot less stress!
If possible, know before you go. Do your research. Plan ahead. A simple extra five to fifteen minutes in the morning could set your day in a whole new direction. There tends to be this illusion that when we are busy–we just don’t have time for anything. So we steal time from ourselves by doing things that disengage us, like looking at our phones, watching TV, or even sleeping in to the point of being late or just procrastination in general.
However, just think if you MADE time and planned to spend some time every day that was specifically to nourish yourself (i.e. planning to sleep in on the weekend because your body MAY really need that!).
Could You Be Addicted To Stress?
Adrenaline junkies aren’t just those who like to jump out of planes or off of cliffs. There is also another kind of adrenaline junkie, the LESS obvious ones who instead seek out situations that fuel the stress hormones.
This second type of adrenaline junkie will subconsciously seek the most stressful jobs, relationships, and situations to get their stress-hormone fix. Chronic states of stress are like a slow drip of cortisol and adrenaline into the blood. People seek the “high” achieved from stress hormones. EVERYthing becomes a crisis.
“If we’re dancing as fast as we can, then we don’t have to think or get immersed in what’s not being satisfied in our lives,” says Debbie Mandel, author of Addicted to Stress.
Seek Your Joy
It is crucial to MAKE time for the things that bring you JOY! Even if it’s just an hour a week–getting lost in something you love is a sure-fire way to help your body relax and get you back into the “parasympathetic” swing of things.
Where do you find joy? When was the last time you got so engulfed in something you forgot the time? Go and do more things like that and be around people that bring that out of you!
If exercise is your thing, seek gentle restorative exercises like yoga or tai chi. The idea is to mentally get lost in a space doing what you love.
We gotta slow down and say more “thank you’s”. Literally. If we aren’t grateful for what we currently have, what makes us think we’ll be grateful for things to come? Isn’t what you have now what you once dreamt of?
This study, The Proximal Experience of Gratitude “revealed that gratitude exercises actually elicit a mixed emotional experience, one that simultaneously leads individuals to feel uplifted and indebted.”
To experience a change in your day, don’t rush out of bed. Instead, lie there for five minutes and think deliberately about something you are deeply grateful for. Do this for one week and see if you can tell a difference in the quality of your days, I know I do!
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Our stress hormones blow through nutrients. It is very important to carve aside some time for properly fueling your body. Eat as many whole foods as you can and try to steer clear of packaged and processed foods. Speak to a natural health practitioner of some sort and find out what supplements may work best for you! It never hurts to add in what we are very likely missing from our diet.
Choose A Different Lifestyle
If you are suffering from chronic stress, never be afraid to think outside of the box or find a new path. Stress isn’t just a feeling but a physiological response in the body.
We all buy into the rat race lifestyle. But we don’t have to. We also don’t have to put SO much pressure on ourselves to keep up with societal demands (as I mentioned, we have to work even harder for our dollars). What’s your time and health worth to you?
So what if things don’t go perfect? Do they ever, actually? Yes, but rarely. And aren’t the most perfect moments the ones where we slow down, “let go” and lose ourselves? Don’t take it all too seriously. Nothing is ever set in stone.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
― Lao Tzu
- Merck Manuals, “Overview of the Autonomic Nervous System”
- Autonomic Nervous System, Scholarpedia
- Life Event, Stress and Illness, Pub Med
- The Proximal Experience of Gratitude, PLOS One
- Trading Economics, United States Dollar
- Living in Harmony