The Chronic Stress Cycle
“Unless we regain the ability to notice, to save, we will be sucked ever more into unrewarding and unsustainable busyness.” -Tony Crabbe, Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much
Something amazing happened when I went on vacation and was just relaxing and catching some sunshine at Myrtle Beach…my digestion and chronic pain got so much better! My food choices didn’t change because we were blessed with a room that included a kitchen and I was still exercising while out there. The only thing that differed was my stress levels. While stress may not cause chronic illnesses or other diseases (jury always seems to be out on this one), it definitely isn’t helping matters and may be exacerbating them. In my case, I’d been going, going, going so much that I didn’t realize how stressed I was. Stress and anxiety can be insidious that way. It comes on so slowly it becomes your new status quo without you even realizing it.
Life is stressful. There’s no way around that, but there are things you can do to help yourself deal with the stress in a healthy manner. When you become stuck in a place of chronic stress it can be really difficult to pull yourself out of it, especially when you don’t realize you’re in it in the first place! When you’re in that chronic stress brainspace you allow your sympathetic nervous system to run rampant. Your sympathetic nervous system is in charge of your flight or fight response so when it’s allowed to have free reign it will keep you on edge constantly. Imagine how your body feels when someone is following too closely behind you in a dark alley (don’t go in dark alleys, people) and how keyed up you feel as you ready yourself to run or fight if they get much closer. Chronic stress puts you in the place constantly.
If you’re in flight or fight mode constantly your parasympathetic nervous system is never allowed to do it’s thing, which includes: regulating digestion, urination and defecation. It also controls sexual arousal and takes control of slowing the heart rate and blood pressure after something spikes the sympathetic nervous system causing your flight or fight response to activate. The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system are meant to work together like yin and yang. The majority of the time your parasympathetic should be the one in charge as it works on digesting the breakfast you ate and the sympathetic comes out only when you need to defend yourself.
Unfortunately, our lifestyles of go, go, go is not only something we brag about, but it’s something that is expected. It starts when you’re young as your parents sign you up for multiple sports, you try to tackle honor’s English homework, hang with your friends and finish up your chores. Then there’s adulthood where humblebragging about your busy schedule is a point of pride despite how rundown you feel. Sure, there are times when working hard is necessary and burning both ends of the candle is needed to achieve your goals, but this should be the exception and not the rule! We have set ourselves up to be stressed putting our sympathetic nervous system into hyperdrive.
So what can you do to kick stresses butt and still achieve your goals?
Learn to say no. You are not obligated to say yes to every invite or attend every event. I learned this lesson acutely after I became sick and I only had enough energy to take care of myself and even then I was struggling. If someone asks you for a favor you can say no if you really don’t have the time or energy. This isn’t permission to be an unhelpful sack of nothing, but you don’t have to say yes every time your friend asks you for a ride to the airport or wants to borrow a book you know they won’t give back. Saying no does NOT make you a bad person.
Take time for yourself. You are worthless to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself first! So make sure you take an hour for yourself each day and do something that is just for you. It can mean going to the gym to lift some weights, lounging at the local pool or taking a walk around your neighborhood with the dog. Just do something that is solely about you and lets you recharge.
Let it go. Not referencing Frozen here. Sorry! Frequently, people hold onto grudges with an animalistic ferocity, and I’m guilty of that too, but being angry, resentful, etc. all takes energy. Energy that I don’t care to spend on anyone who pissed me off and more than likely that person doesn’t give two figs if you’re pissed at them or not so the only person you’re punishing is yourself. Let your grudges go. Forgive the other person for whatever slight they committed. It doesn’t mean you need to ever trust them again. It just means that you get to finally let go and put your attention elsewhere.
In the same vein, stop worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. Easier said than done, right? I’d take home the gold for worrying about things that never ended up occurring. What a waste of my time! Understanding that I worry because it gives me something to do when there’s a situation I can do nothing about has gone a long way in helping me understand why I use it as a coping mechanism (even though it ends up doing the opposite), but it’s not an easy habit to stop. I’ve found that meditation and really trying to be mindful and live in my present moment a lot. If you’re living the present there’s no time to worry about the future!
Meditate. I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but meditation is one of the most helpful things you can do to give your parasympathetic nervous system a leg up. Check out this video for a simple instructional on parasympathetic breathing and the world is really your oyster from there since youtube has literally tons of different meditation videos or you can just go it alone once you learn the breathing technique. Check out my posts here and here about my experiences with meditation and some beginner’s information on how to get started!
Get your yoga on. Yoga can be a great stress reliever because while you’re bringing awareness to your body you are also helping minimize the tons of random thoughts bouncing around in your head that keep you up at night. The different poses themselves can be super relaxing and finding the ones that work for you is key. I found that inversions are extremely relaxing for me. Maybe it’s the change of view! Others find that corpse pose at the end of an hour long yoga session is the best feeling ever. Yoga brings your attention to the present and that’s a good thing when so many of our stressors lay in the past or the future.
Eat to nourish your body. Crap food that’s full of sugar or is overly processed is not supporting your body’s nutritional needs. While it’s fine to indulge in a doughnut or two or three during the week if you find yourself constantly indulging in less than healthy foods you may be damaging the healthy bacteria in your body and feeding the bad bacteria. All of this leads to an unhealthy microbiome and since we know now that a huge portion of serotonin comes from the gut an unhealthy microbiome can be detrimental to your overall wellbeing. See here if you want more information on what the heck a microbiome is and why you need to be taking care of yours!
Get enough sleep. Again with the broken record. I know, I know. That’s just how important sleep is though! Deep sleep is when your sympathetic nervous system is usually at its lowest and the parasympathetic system is in charge. Sleep deprivation or not enough sleep can lead to more activity within the sympathetic nervous system and less in the parasympathetic nervous system. No bueno! So make sure you’re sawing enough logs!
Put something fun on your calendar! Do you love horses, but never seem to make the time to go out and ride? Put that baby on your calendar! Do you love reading, but never seem to have the time? Make the time and cut something else out. What really helped me was looking at my list of priorities and picking out what the top ones were. I realized how much time I’d been spending just surfing the internet or watching tv when there was more rewarding things I wanted to be doing like writing this blog or learning photography. So I ended up limiting my tv time and internet surfing and put my attention towards activities I knew I loved, but had been putting off because after long days at work I just wanted to vegetate and watch tv. I am honestly so much happier spending my free time actually doing something and making memories rather than just browsing Reddit. Don’t get me wrong….I’m still going to have my days were I straight up binge a new show on Netflix (House of Cards ::cough cough::), but it’s no longer an everyday thing for me.
I urge you to try some of the above because even if you don’t feel like you’re stressed you may be suffering from chronic stress and not even realize it, just like me!