I bet if you and I were to sit down to a cup of tea and chat, you would have at least a dozen reasons why you're stressed out.
Stress is so common, we think we have no control over it. And as more and more health studies come out stating stress is a major factor for everything from obesity to death – just thinking about the need to reduce it is stressful.
You may feel like you have no control and yet, it can kill you.
I cannot say you can remove all stress from your life let alone for a whole hour of your life, but you do have some control of how it affects you.
To understand how you can exert some control over stress, lets first look at what stress is and why it affects your health.
What is stress?
Stress is the result of a condition or situation that triggers a release of hormones which prepare your body to fight, flee or freeze.
The two primary hormones are epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, and cortisol. Epinephrine is responsible for immediate action while cortisol supports sustained action. These hormones are necessary when facing danger and can be critical to your survival under extreme circumstances.
The Role of Epinephrine, Adrenaline
When epinephrine is released it alerts your entire body to prepare and respond to danger:
- Your heartbeat increases
- Your breathing rate increases
- Glucose is sent to your muscles for an immediate burst of energy
- You start to sweat to help regulate body temperature
- It slows or shuts down insulin production to maintain high-levels of blood sugar for immediate energy
The Role of Cortisol
Cortisol plays a supporting role to adrenaline and helps you to maintain a high-level of functionality when danger is continuous:
- Glucose continues to be released into the bloodstream for energy
- Supports the brain's efficiency of using glucose
- Diverts resources from nonessential functions like digestion and immune function to essential functions such as blood pressure, respiration, eyesight, hearing, muscles, and the brain
- Decreases pain responses
- Decreases inflammation
- Affects areas of the brain that control fear, motivation and mood
Distress vs. Eustress
The hormonal responses described above can be beneficial and in times of need can save your life. Also, there are times, even when your life is not in danger, that stress triggering these responses can be positive. For instance, if you are running a race, performing a challenging task or nervous while preparing for a date.
In fact, being excited or feeling nervous is a from of short-term stress that can be good for you. Itâ€™s called eustress. Short bursts of eustress can improve brain function, concentration and general feelings of alertness.
Problems arise when these short bursts are no longer short and become sustained. Now those positive effects can lead to weight gain, damaged blood vessels, high blood pressure, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, brain fog, weakened immune system, digestive dysfunction, chronic inflammation, type 2 diabetes, cardio vascular disease, and more. Now instead of healthy eustress, you are in a state of distress.
Internal vs. External Stress
You probably recognize external stressors such as arguments, a heavy workload with long hours, driving in traffic, and too many responsibilities.
But external stressors are not the only ones to be aware of. You could also have internal stressors such as eating foods that you are sensitive to, having a pathogen infection you're not aware of, imbalanced hormones, or structural imbalances to name a few.
Often, we ignore simple symptoms such as feeling bloated after a meal or waking up in the middle of the night to pee. Headaches mean take an aspirin. An upset stomach means take a Tums. Dry skin means more lotions, etc.
Not all of these are indicators that you have a major problem on hand, but they can add up leading to chronic stress if not addressed. And chronic stress leads to stress response dysfunction which can lead to major health complications.
Reclaim Your Power Over Stress
To control how stress affects you, the first thing you want to develop is your sense of self care and the priority of rest. Rest is not only about getting adequate amounts of sleep, though this is important. Making rest and yourself a priority means you take time out to calm down, to release tension and clear your head. It's about letting your breathing become slower and deeper, finding more moments of joy, feeling safe and comfortable, and using your brain and body in enjoyable ways.
You also want to get curious and be mindful of different environments in your life and strive to improve them in a calm and purposeful way.
Environments are layers in which you live. Some are internal and some external, and you have some degree of influence over them all – this is your superpower over stress. It's important to remember, that though you have the ability to influence all of them for your own benefit, you don't want to drive yourself to distraction. This will only cause you to feel overwhelmed and stressed. You want to take it a step at a time, and be mindful and purposeful in your decisions and enjoy the process – along with the results.
Why Environments Matter
Your environments help to shape your actions. What you see, hear, smell, taste and touch provide information to your brain, mostly subconsciously. Your senses are always scanning your environments, looking for possible threats. Your brain is always asking if you are safe, this is its number one job – to ensure your safety.
If something feels off or is a known threat, or if it doesn't – your brain responds. Your brain responds by setting a tone, called the hedonic tone which determines how you feel. How you feel then in turn affects the thoughts that pop up in your mind.
These fleeting thoughts trigger your internal dialogue, the conversation you have with yourself. And it is this dialogue which will ultimately direct your actions.
Can you now see why your environments matter?
What is in your environment ultimately determines how you feel, think and act.
If you are in a happy place where you are surrounded by a sense of safety, your actions will reflect this. On the other hand, if you feel uncomfortable or face a known threat, your actions will also reflect this.
Your Internal Physical Environment
Your internal physical environment is comprised of everything within your physical self. When addressing this environment, your most influential activities are to be aware of how you move, rest and breathe, what you eat and what possible toxins you come in contact with.
You can also have regular physical checkups with your health practitioner and practice healthy lifestyle choices;
Eat whole foods while minimizing processed foods, food additives, added sugars and sugar substitutes.
Sleep 7 – 9 hours a night.
Include restorative practices such as meditation, journaling, yoga, Tai Chi, walking in nature, calming hobbies and spending time with loved ones.
Move your body, you don't want to overdo or under do exercise and you want to enjoy it. Try not to stress out how you get it done. Instead, find ways to work it in by parking farther out, using the stairs, or dancing with your kids before dinner.
Seek assistance when you notice symptoms. Broad spectrum hormone panels, digestive function and intestinal permeability testing, and intestinal pathogen testing are good places to start.
Your Internal Emotional Environment – Your Inner Self
This refers to what your think, feel, say to yourself and how you interpret what's going on. Your brain loves patterns and habits. It's how it reduces energy requirements and speeds up responses. However, if your pattern is to see negatives and habits are to create harsh dialogues, especially ones that that criticize you – then you may want to influence this environment.
The easiest way I have found to change my thinking and therefore my actions is to get curious. When you are curious, you're not happy, sad, or angry. You put your thinking cap on and work on solving a puzzle.
Whenever you catch yourself thinking “negatively” or criticizing yourself don't try to brush it away. Rather, ask yourself what's going on. What is affecting how you feel right now?
For instance, if I find myself being judgmental it's usually due to myself feeling uncomfortable. Maybe I feel like my clothes aren't fitting right and are too tight, or I don't feel like I'm wearing the right type of clothing (overdressed or under-dressed for the occasion). Maybe I'm walking funny because my hip is hurting, and I feel like people may see my “defect.”
It's likely I'm not aware of any of this consciously, but subconsciously I feel threatened.
Once I become aware of the trigger, I can either change my environment or work it out rationally (re-frame my experience) to change the way I internalize it.
When you find yourself thinking negatively or having a rough conversation with yourself it's a signal from your subconscious brain letting you know there is a threat. The threat doesn't have to be a physical threat. It could be a perceived emotional or a societal positioning threat as well.
Ways you can positively influence your internal-self other than being curious are by listening to music, reading feel-good materials, gazing at art or people you love, and basically being around stimulus that make you feel safe.
Your External Outer Self
Above I gave an example of what can trigger me to become judgmental is not feeling comfortable in my body. This is the first external environment to consider, your physical appearance to include body composition, posture, teeth, skin, hair, etc.
It may take longer to influence these areas, but for more immediate influence you can do some simple things such as good hygiene and learning to appreciate your body. For example, how did you feel the last time you got a great haircut?
Your Projected Self
This is how you show up in the world. How you dress, the jewelry you wear, the car you drive – everything that you use to create who you seem to be to the world.
What clothes make you stand up taller, feel more confident?
Do you have a favorite piece of jewelry?
Are you wearing pants that are too tight, too loose or just don't fit right and you have to keep adjusting them?
Other External Environments
There are many environments in which you could categorize, for instance your home, your bedroom, your office space, your car, your commutes, etc. All of these affect you and all of them you can influence.
When I moved into the house I live in now, I kept two recliner chairs that I inherited from my mother. When my mother bought these chairs, she was so excited and she loved them. She picked out special fabrics that matched her livingroom and they were not overly large and yet very comfortable.
However, they were causing me stress. For one, they separated my husband and I. We couldn't cuddle like we can on a couch, and the table between the chairs separated us further.
Additionally, my cats would run up and over them pulling threads from the designs making them look shabby. These two things were creating a sense of isolation and loneliness and a feeling of guilt for not taking better care of something my mother was so pleased with.
The moment I decided to give them away to charity and purchase a new couch – I felt better. I felt better the moment I recognize what was making me feel bad, triggering actions that were not in my best interests. Of course, once they were gone and the couch was in, I felt even better. But it was the moment of awareness and the decision to make a change that empowered me.
Another example is when I changed my commute route. I used to take the freeway to work. Lots of traffic, but it was still the fastest way to work.
However, one day I decided to ride a classic motorcycle to work which was not easy to ride. To get to work, I chose a longer, less traveled route, that winded through a forest. When I got to work, I felt great.
The next day, I was back in the car taking the freeway, and I was stressed and a bit pissed off when I arrived at work.
Considering the difference is my attitude and how my overall day went, I decided to take the car and drive the longer route. My day was better, and from that day forward I continued to take the more enjoyable route to work.
It may feel like you have no influence over external stressors, but if you allow yourself time to consider options you can do it. You have a lot more power than often you allow yourself.
If you want support or advice on how to address your environments or to get a complete hormone and digestive/gut check-up, you can contact my office.
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To reduce the risks associated with chronic stress so you can have more energy, feel more confident and be more like yourself, you want to make yourself a priority and focus on rest and improving your environments. But there's no need to try and do this all at once. Small and simple steps can lead to big changes.
Your partner in health,
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