Like most people in the modern world, I have struggled a lot with feelings of chronic stress. In fact, it’s highly likely that the detrimental physiological and psychological impacts of stress have contributed significantly to my ill health over the last decade. Thankfully, I’m fairly well these days, and I am much better at keeping my stress levels in check. That hasn’t happened by accident, though. It has happened through a deliberate and conscious change in the way I approach life, and as per usual it all comes back to the importance of self-care.
So what is stress?
Well, there’s a number of types. We all need a bit of stress to survive and thrive. The positive type of stress is called ‘eustress’ and it usually relates to events in life that are exciting and joyful. Can you imagine how boring life would be without anything to get us up and moving? I’m sure you can think of a number of times in your life where you felt a bit of pressure to perform, but you enjoyed it and probably felt that you might not perform so well without that heightened sense of awareness. So a little bit of stress is actually quite good!
It’s ‘distress’ that we usually mean when we complain about feeling stressed. But even ‘distress’ is good for us, in small amounts. Our bodies are always working to keep us safe and alive. So even though it might not feel very nice, that adrenalin rush when you have a ‘near miss’ while driving in traffic, or the muscle tension and hyper-alertness you feel when you hear a noise in the backyard late at night are actually a good thing. They are your body’s way of making sure you are alerted to and respond appropriately to danger.
These uncomfortable sensations were first described by a scientist named Walter Cannon in 1915, but they are much older than that. It’s called the ‘fight-or-flight’ response and it’s one of the things that we share with other living creatures: an inbuilt survival mechanism, part of the sympathetic nervous system, that sees the body act first and think later. Within seconds of perceiving a threat, the body’s full energy potential is realised so that a person (or an animal!) can either fight or flee. It’s easy to imagine the scenario of a predator approaching and needing to fight for your life or run away and avoid the predator altogether. But it can also be about other threats to life, such as accidents and natural disasters, when you might have to fight a fire, hide from a cyclone or flee from a flood.
In any and all of these situations, the ‘distress’ we feel is extremely beneficial.
Without it, our conscious mind might take too long to respond and we might die! Our body is clearly operating from the perspective of “it’s better to be safe than sorry” when immediate physical danger is concerned.
The problem is that these days we don’t face a lot of immediate physical danger. Our basic survival is more certain than it probably ever has been in history.
We do, however, encounter a lot of mental and emotional circumstances that our bodies perceive to be emergencies.
A deadline at work, an angry interaction with a fellow human, a pile of bills in the mail, rush hour traffic and many other modern situations that pose no real threat to our lives still upset our mental and emotional equilibrium. Remembering that the fight-or-flight response involves the body acting first and thinking later, it’s hardly surprising that as soon as we perceive an emergency, despite it being no physical threat, our body immediately propels us into a heightened state of arousal so that we are ready to get physical (fight or flee), just in case.
Suddenly we experience a cascade of symptoms: eyes widening, heart racing, blood pressure spiking, muscles tensing, breath shortening and attention narrowing in on whatever it is that has triggered the response.
We usually are unaware of these symptoms at the time, but I’m sure they sound familiar to you. At one point or another you have probably noticed one or all of them. Yet, there are other responses in the body during fight-or-flight that you probably have never felt or noticed. Digestion stops, sexual function is inhibited and the body’s healing processes are shut down. After all, digesting food and producing sperm/releasing eggs is hardly a priority when one might be about to be eaten by a lion or crushed by a landslide. The body diverts all its energy and nutrients and endocrine function to basic survival, which is good…as long as it’s only for a short period of time.
The problem is chronic stress: our modern world bombards us multiple times a day with deadlines and pressures and frustrations that continually trigger our fight-or-flight stress response.
But we can’t fight or flee! Most of the time we have to just ‘suck it up’ and ‘deal with it’. So we are walking around in a chronic state of low- to mid-level fight-or-flight response. Our sympathetic nervous system is continually activated, which basically just makes us feel like crap.
It also means our digestion, sexual function and healing processes are constantly impaired.
That’s a big problem because our bodies are essentially not able to do what they need to do to keep us well. Is it any wonder then that stress related illnesses are so common?
Thankfully, there is a solution that is natural, free and relatively simple.
In an ideal world, after the fight-or-flight response gets triggered and the danger has been successfully fought or fled from, the body will go back to its natural state of homeostasis. This is when the parasympathetic nervous system is in control and it’s a state that is sometimes called ‘rest and digest’.
From that nickname alone, it’s easy to see why it’s important — that’s the state our bodies need to be in so that digestion, sexual function and healing can happen. It was discovered by Harvard scientist Dr Herbert Benson in the 1970s and it is literally the opposite of the fight-or-flight response in the body. It decreases the heart rate and blood pressure, decreases muscle tension, reduces the amount of adrenal hormones in the blood and builds happiness. Dr Benson called it ‘the relaxation response’.
The best thing is that although fight-or-flight is an unconscious response, the relaxation response can be triggered consciously and with volition. One of the best ways to do this is through meditation and purposeful muscle relaxation. Both techniques will slow down the breathing and this tells the body that it is safe and it can switch back on the rest-and-digest functions that are so important for our long term health. Of course there are other activities that can trigger the relaxation response too, like yoga and other exercise, doing something you love and spending time with people who make you happy.
And that’s why I come back to self-care: a regular habit of consciously triggering my relaxation response is vital for my health and happiness.
Just like brushing my teeth helps me manage tooth decay, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation help me manage my stress. Actually, some types of meditation can even be done while brushing teeth! By deliberately switching on the relaxation response, I am able to switch off the stress response and get my body back to doing what it’s gotta do to be well.
If you are struggling with the uncomfortable physical and emotional symptoms of chronic stress, know that there is a powerful and simple solution that you can build into your self-care routine. Whether you do yoga or meditation, a favourite sport or hobby, or simply decide to spend more time with your favourite people, know that when you do so you are combating the negative effects of chronic stress by triggering the relaxation response. And best of all, it’s completely free!