Feeling stressed out? Understand what’s actually going on in your body
The sunset turns the sky a soft lilac outside, while inside candle flames dance in small glass holders on the window sill. The sound of breathing fills the room and for a moment, all movement has paused and silence fills the air.
The scene I just described is one you may find in a yoga class. Yoga engages the parasympathetic nervous system (sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system), which calms the body, and activates a “relaxation response”, a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, the founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute. The relaxation response encourages the body to release chemicals and brain signals that make muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain. Without a parasympathetic balance and stress management techniques, we would be in a perpetual state of stress.
SO WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress is a term referring to “harmful” situations that put the body at unease. These harmful or stressful situations can be both real, like crossing a busy street into traffic, or perceived, like checking your inbox and noticing 30 new unread emails. But is stress something that we actually need? And if so, how much stress is too much stress? The truth is, stress is an inevitable part of life. Sometimes it can be helpful, for example to get us to complete a long to-do list, or in a more acute context, to jump out of the way of a car that’s heading directly your way as you cross the street. Stress isn’t the enemy, as we have been trained to believe, it’s in fact a vital part of life.
Issues arise however, when we live in a state of stress for too long. The sympathetic nervous system, which activates the “fight or flight” response when we’re stressed, becomes predominant when we are constantly in a state of stress. Staying in this state has some short term, acute effects, such as poor digestion or feelings of anxiety, but it’s when we are constantly stressed that it’s particularly detrimental to the body.
HOW DOES STRESS MANIFEST IN THE BODY?
When we are stressed and in “fight or flight” mode, nerve and hormonal signals cause the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, which increase heart rate and blood pressure, cause our breath to quicken, etc. Our digestive system is also affected, causing it to slow or even stop working properly. A lot of energy goes into digesting food, and we can only do so properly when in the parasympathetic mode (hence the term “rest and digest”).
All of these physical effects are due to our primitive reaction to danger. Imagine our ancestors running away from an animal out of fear, they would want their muscles to pump with blood, their heart rate to increase and their digestive system (and any other “non-essential” functions) to stop working in order to send the body’s internal energy to help them escape. What many of us don’t realize is that our body can’t actually distinguish where stress is coming from, so whether we’re running away from an animal or are about to give a speech in front of a lot of people, our body will react in the same way.
When our “fight or flight” response is constantly activated, cortisol and other stress hormones are always pumping through our body, which can lead to many long-term health concerns like increased blood-sugar levels, weight gain, a suppressed immune system, and even heart disease.
HOW CAN WE MANAGE STRESS?
Stress cannot be avoided, but it can be noticed and stress management is possible. Practices such as yoga, meditation or simple breathing exercises significantly reduce stress in the body and can help us engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Reading before sleep, or plugging your phone in far away from your bed so you don’t look at it first thing in the morning are other ways to reduce stress. We can’t remove ourselves from society and live in the forest, but we can mitigate stress by staying healthy and becoming aware of our needs. This includes eating well and keeping the blood sugar balanced. It also includes getting enough sleep and noticing if you need down time.
So take a bath, sit and breathe, or sip mindfully on a cup of tea. Use our tips for stress managament and notice how the body responds! Need more? 3 tips to simplify your life.