Stressed out? I Got You.
When was the last time someone asked you how you were doing in passing and you replied, “Calm, inspired, and totally energized!” In fact, have you ever responded like this besides that time you were fresh off your two week vacation in the Maldives?
Typically, the response goes something like this, “Sooooo busy.” If it’s a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend, it could have a hopeful lilt, “Good! Soooo busy though.”
As a culture, we tend to deify stress and busyness, wearing it like a badge of honor or something. God forbid we have margins of time, energy, and rest laying around everywhere.
In my experience, running on fumes of stress and anxiety eventually left me immobilized—an insomniac bobble head at certain low points along the way. However, over the last several years, I’ve made it a mission to fully understand what it means to live consciously and in soft balance, connected to myself as opposed to running like hell. It’s not perfect, but I’ve had some incredible findings along the way.
One of the biggest lessons learned is this vital need to balance out my relationship with all three centers of intelligence: mind, body, and spirit. So often, we either live “out there” in some future state, running ops on everything that could go wrong in our minds or we’re letting our emotions drive us around all day while we ride shotgun. Both scenarios feel powerless.
Today, I want to briefly unpack why stress is so harmful to our overall neurobiology and physicality. Hopefully, it will be a wakeup call for those of us proudly touting our epic workloads, deadlines, and lack of sleep around like we’ve just won a Nobel Peace Prize.
First off, not all stress is bad, nor are the hormones stress creates in the body as a result. They ebb and flow throughout the day in order to help us adjust to the stressors of normal, everyday life. Moments like waking up (no joke!), getting to work on time, giving a presentation, getting a traffic ticket, and even being surprised on your birthday all require shifts in our internal ecosystem to stay regulated.
More good news, stress is highly manageable. We’ll look at ways to do so a bit later.
Long-term stress left unchecked, however, is a different beast. Our bodies and brains weren’t created to undergo this brand of stress and anxiety. In fact, in as much as we think we’re being responsible and hardworking, we are directly inflicting ongoing toxic wounds on ourselves. This eventually will show in the form of negative, noticeable emotional and physical symptoms.
Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered that chronic stress produces long-term changes in brain structure and function. This sheds light on the fact that youngsters exposed to ongoing stress early in life likely will develop mental illness and mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, and even learning difficulties.
As a natural line of defense, our adrenal glands produce a hormone called Cortisol when we’re met with stressful situations as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. With good stress (eustress) these levels balance out once the threat of danger has passed and the body and brain return to normal.
However, in a state of chronic stress (distress), our friend Cortisol has no outlet to release and the body stays locked in this hyper fight-or-flight mechanism. This survival mechanism must be released physically from the body and when it’s not, cortisol levels skyrocket in the blood, declaring war on our mind and body.
The wreckage? Lower immunity and bone density, weight gain, sleep problems, memory loss, learning disability, irritability (duh), increased blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, and inflammation throughout the body.
If that list doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. Bottom line my friend, we must be vigilant in listening to the needs of our bodies and emotions and practice actively getting them met.
Here are a few helpful tips that will reduce the effects of chronic stress and resulting cortisol levels in the body:
1. Regular physical activity: I’m an exercise evangelist. This blew past vanity a long time ago as I experienced the direct positive effect daily exercise has on my mood and overall experience. It is my anti-depressant of choice. We absolutely must move our bodies regularly to aid the release of cortisol from our bodies and support emotional processing.
2. Mindfulness practices: Mindfulness practices such as meditation and deep breathing are vital in reducing stress and cortisol levels. Why? They engage the Vagus nerve which signals your nervous system to chill out, slow the heart rate as well as cortisol levels. Next time you’re in the death grip of stress, take ten deep breaths. Panic cannot co-exist with a relaxed state. Click here for one of my favorite meditation resources.
3. Community: Social interaction is a powerful antidote for stress and anxiety. In fact, human bonding also triggers that Vagus nerve mentioned earlier, relaxing the parasympathetic nervous system. Not only that, social connectivity releases that yummy hormone called oxytocin, which directly lowers the fight-or-flight mechanism. That whole eight hugs in a day thing is real!
4. Laughter and music: Both are game changers and have been proven to lower cortisol levels. Not only that, but they invite us into the experience of the present moment, the most desirable real estate on the planet when it comes to experiencing more levity and joy.
This list isn’t meant to overwhelm you, but to offer you several two-degree shifts you can bake into your everyday experience in order to manage stress a bit better. Often times, community can be the toughest need to meet. I get it, and that's why I have created a couple of upcoming opportunities for you to gain a greater sense of connection and support. Click here for more on that.
Last thing I’ll say before I land this plane: you are created to thrive, not merely survive. If you find yourself needing to upgrade some self-defeating beliefs, please reach out. I’m here to support you in any way I can. Often times it takes just a small tweak in direction to course-correct and bring you safely home where you belong: Love.
Love & Gratitude,