2020 was supposed to be the Year of the Rat....and well, if you want to go down that rabbit hole, rats live in sewers and dumpsters and yes, 2020 has been EXACTLY like that. Also, the year of HIGH stress.
Add to that the approaching holidays, "the. MOST. stressful time....of the YEAR and with COVID, and cancelled holiday plans, and all of the emotions that the holidays bring, it's going to look and feel a lot different this year. It's something we need to mentally prepare for.
… and I also know a lot of you think you should just toughen up and “push through it” but
Spoiler alert: Bad idea...You can’t do it. That’s because stress isn’t all “in your mind.” It’s also in your body.
Your stress response system is a primal reaction... it’s hardwired into your system to keep you safe and alive.
Here are a few important things you need to know about stress and how it affects you and also info that will help you:
1. Use stress to your best advantage and 2. Learn how to conquer it so it doesn’t run (and ruin) your life.
Stress can actually be a GOOD thing. (You're thinking I'm crazy, I know...be patient...)
Let's go back (back to Cali, Cali...wait, no, wrong song..) to when your ancestors were under threat – whether it was fighting off a predator or dealing with everyday problems like feeding a growing family – their bodies responded with energy to keep them out of harm’s way.
Our culture has changed a lot since then, but our body’s wiring hasn’t.
We react to stress the same way, except our stressors don’t require us to outrun a tiger or worry about where our next meal is coming from. And that can have a major impact on your health!
Your Body's Response To Stress
Here's what happens to your body during a typically stressful situation. Hang in there with me, because it’s pretty eye-opening.
Saw you have an interview for a potentially life-changing job at 8 a.m. next Tuesday.
You really want this job, so you spend a lot of time researching and preparing.
But then Tuesday morning you wake up and look at your clock, and your eyes see that it’s 7:15 a.m. Your alarm didn’t go off!
Here’s a quick outline of what happens in your body.
1. Your eyes send that information to your brain’s amygdala, which helps you interpret what you see and hear.
2. Your amygdala basically says, “What the #@*&!!!!?”
3. It sends a distress call to your brain’s command center, your hypothalamus, which talks to the rest of your body through your autonomic nervous system.
Important background info: This system handles all of your involuntary functions, like the beating of your heart, your breathing, and your blood pressure. It works in two parts – the “sympathetic,” which is like a gas pedal, flooding your body with fuel to outpace danger, and “parasympathetic,” which is like a brake, calming things down after danger passes.
4. As soon as your hypothalamus hears the distress call, it flips on the sympathetic nervous system, telling your adrenal glands to release epinephrine (aka adrenaline) into your bloodstream.
This is basically your body’s “GO!” juice.
5. Your heart beats faster, sending blood to your muscles and other organs. Your airways open wide as your breathing speeds up, allowing more oxygen into your system. Some of that extra oxygen goes to your brain, sharpening your senses and making you more alert.
6. To power all that action, the epinephrine also prompts your body to release fuel, in the form of extra blood sugar and stored fat.
7. All of that happens lightning-fast before you even have a chance to fully register that your alarm didn’t go off! Your body does this to either give you the fuel you need to run away fast … or go to battle.
8. Which is exactly what you do, by jumping out of bed and springing to action. You have a LOT to do in a short period of time, and so much is riding on this interview!
9. Your body kicks on its second stress-response layer, your HPA axis, which consists of your hypothalamus, your pituitary gland, and your adrenal glands.
10. Your adrenal glands dump cortisol (and more fuel) into your system, to keep your accelerator on until the stress passes.
11. When you finally hop into your car, you relax a little, triggering your parasympathetic system, which puts the brakes on your stress response so you can start to relax.
12. But at the interview (which somehow, miraculously, you arrive at on-time!), your sympathetic response kicks back on, keeping you sharp so you can nail the interview.
13. On the drive back home, your cortisol levels dip back down, once again triggering your parasympathetic “recovery” system.
14. As your blood sugar levels dip because your body releases insulin to gobble it up from your system, you feel yourself becoming hungry and tired, or maybe even “hangry” until you can get something to eat.
15. If this is an isolated issue, you’ll go on your way, having a normal day.
16. But if this is just the latest thing to happen in a series of stressful events – or if you never learned stress-management techniques – your body might not know how to put on your anti-stress brake.
Over time, this constant revving of your sympathetic nervous system can lead to health problems that can damage your blood vessels, cause high blood pressure and increase your risk of stroke or heart attack! As you can see, learning how to trigger your body’s parasympathetic (aka “rest & digest”) system is an important part of learning how to de-stress.
Take a Break
One of the most important things you can do to help destress is to take short “breathing breaks” during the course of the day where you sit quietly and focus on your breathing. Here are some other quick and easy practical tips: go outside for a short walk, listen to calming music, take a half-hour technology break, or read (from a real book!). You’ll find yourself relaxing almost immediately. Taking a few stress breaks during the course of the day isn’t “weak.” It’s actually STRONG because it helps you take back control. Working out and eating right also helps your body recover from stress. Plus, I’m always here to help!