A little stress is a good thing. Imagine you have just stepped off the curb and are walking across the road headed for your favorite coffee shop to grab a mocha latte. You have made it to the centerline when an out-of-control eighteen-wheeler rounds the corner heading straight toward you at 75 mph.
Immediately, before your head can fully register what is happening, the rest of you shifts into fast-forward mode. Your adrenaline factory goes to work flooding your nerves, brain, muscles… your entire body with high-octane hormones, transforming you into a superhuman with lightening quick reflexes, sharpened vision, and monster strength capable of making an impossible leap to safety at warp speed.
Once out of danger, your limbs feel like limp spaghetti, your muscles quiver, your breathing double-timing it for minutes.
Whether you know it or not the stress response just saved your life.
Now, here’s where it gets kind of tricky. Imagine you are trapped in a Groundhog Day scenario, where no sooner have you reached safety than you find yourself once again in the middle of the road with a semi tractor-trailer threatening you with extinction. Here comes more adrenaline, one more leap, again the weak-kneed quivering shaking panting reaction and then…. The scenario begins again, over and over and over in a never-ending loop.
In this case, it’s not the truck that will kill you—it’s the stress.
Like so many things in life… a little stress is okay, but too much could do you in.
The stress response is an essential part of our bodies’ survival tool kit, encoded into the most ancient portion of our brains, allowing us to escape from things that we perceive as threatening so we can live long enough to pass our precious genetic payload on to our progeny.
It is fairly easy to see a runaway Mack truck or a snarling lion hurtling straight toward you as an immediate threat worthy of reaction. However, modern life is filled with stuff much less obvious yet just as stress producing.
Things like the constant bone-jarring traffic and construction noise serving as background music in towns and cities across this earth, mission impossible deadlines that just keep coming, the nerve shattering frequencies of alarm bells, whistles, rock and rap tunes, screaming children, insane traffic jams, toxic EMF fields invading every inch of our environment, horror-movie worthy news headlines coming at us on an hourly basis, non-stop bills and not enough money…. Just reading this list could set your teeth on edge and push the “go” button on your adrenal glands. The stress bell starts ringing and just doesn’t stop. Ever.
The body has built-in ways to quickly recover from brief episodes of stress separated by much longer calm periods of recalibration and rest. But in today’s reality when stress has become 24/7 chronic, when there are little-to-no calm periods or rest, that’s where we get in trouble.
Stress can kill you—and that’s not hyperbole
When stress moves into the long-term extended-stay hotel and starts to party non-stop, it can rapidly compromise your body systems, destroy your health and even kill you.
Adrenaline and cortisol—the two primary stress hormones—can cause a breakdown of all body systems if their levels remain high for extended periods. This powerful hormone cocktail can actually alter brain structure, increasing the size and reactivity of the amygdala—the origination point of the fight-or-flight response—and shrinking the hippocampus, responsible for learning and memory. This leads to the development of anxiety and panic disorders, insomnia, emotional instability, depression, and irritability.
Stress stimulates rapid shallow breathing. This can trigger episodes of asthma and lead to other respiratory problems, as well as drastically cut back on the amount of available oxygen, an essential element your body tissues need to properly function. Adrenaline and cortisol stimulate an increase in heart rate and a constriction of blood vessels. This causes a rise in blood pressure that can eventually become permanent, along with heart and blood vessel damage, heart attack and stroke.
Another function of the stress hormones is to prompt the liver to produce more glucose. This flood of glucose fuel is required by your body to successfully respond to the perceived “threat”. Over time this constant elevation of glucose can actually bring about the development of Type 2 diabetes. Chronic stress can also open the door to other digestive issues such as acid reflux, intestinal problems, nausea and heartburn.
Long-term stress can interfere with sexual function, causing a decrease in testosterone levels, low sperm count, and fertility issues. It can magnify symptoms of menopause, as well as worsen irregular and painful periods. It is also known to be a contributing factor in the development of prostate problems.
Finally, although stress can speed up the process of wound healing, when it becomes chronic, it actually inhibits that same healing process, weakening the immune response of the body. This leads to an increase in the incidence of infections, leaving you more vulnerable to colds, flu, and other viral illnesses.
Now, for some good news: even it today’s environment, you can mitigate stress and reclaim your health
In the pre-industrial age we used to be able to go for a long walk in the woods, swim in the ocean or sit just staring for hours at nothing – no cell phone, no crowds – and quickly rejuvenate from stress. Not any more. For most of us, finding an untouched uninhabited piece of nature is about as impossible as spotting a unicorn in the middle of Times Square.
Thankfully there are steps you can take to decrease the stress factor in your life. Here are a few tips. Just add a little determination and a generous helping of discipline, along with a dash of self-care-is-important attitude, and you will be good to go. It still probably won’t be as amazing as having access to your own private off-the-grid tropical island.., but you will feel much better, add years to your life and and bounce to your step.
Make your meditation time as critical as brushing your teeth and you will live longer, feel awesome, stay calmer and think more clearly. Studies at Harvard University proved that regular meditation—even if you are a neophyte—can reverse the brain changes that come with long term stress, reducing or eliminating all-together anxiety, insomnia and other unwelcome side effects of chronic on-edgeness. So relax. Breathe deeply. Get your Zen on.
2. Spend time in nature
Take a daily walk down a quiet path through the forest or a wooded park; find a body of water to sit by. Stroll barefoot along a sandy beach. Get a bird feeder and sit outside watching those cute little winged creatures party down. Make a permanent standing date with the sunrise or sunset. Sit in the sun. Moon bathe. Whatever you do, do it without your cell phone.
Just be. Let it all go… even if for a short time every day. Soak in the peaceful harmonious gifts to be found in the sights and sounds of the natural world.
3. Get in water
Stand under a waterfall. If you can’t find one handy, then a shower will do. Immerse yourself in the ocean, or a tub of warm water scented with lavender essential oil or Epsom salts. Close the door. Light candles. Let your body and mind relax and release everything you are holding in your tense muscles and frantic non-stop brain.
Sweating facilitates a release of the constant toxin overload that comes with chronic stress. Find a sauna or engage in aerobic exercise until you are dripping wet. Just be sure you shower off within 15 minutes. Otherwise you will reabsorb what you just eliminated.
5. Listen to music
Not just any music. Certain genres will actually send your stress level into the stratosphere. There have been studies that prove our cells and nervous systems are shredded by heavy metal and rap, while they absolutely adore classical music. They love the sound of human chanting even more.
The right music at the appropriate sound frequencies can swiftly lift your spirits and deeply relax your body and mind.
6. Turn off your devices
At this point most of the modern world has been imprisoned by devices. These bossy digital slave-masters demand constant attention, with their bings and pings, bells and whistles and other assorted ring tones, doing their job to keep you on high alert for every incoming text, email, phone call, voice message, random social media post, and reminder. If you try to escape by switching to vibrate in a vain attempt at a virtual reality prison break, you will more than likely discover you are now programmed rather like Pavlov’s dog, frantically compelled to stop everything you are doing and check out that buzz in your pocket.
Bite the bullet. Turn these bullies off. (I know this is going to be challenging for most of you. But whether you go cold turkey and pull the plug on virtual-reality 24/7 accessibility or gradually work up to freedom-from-cellphone-slavery an hour at a time, a day at a time, you will be so glad you did.
Remember you are dealing with an addiction – this has been verified by reams of studies – so although the beginning of the unplugged walk can be rough the peace of mind you receive as a result will be priceless.
7. Take a break from the news
Self-explanatory. If you need to know it, someone will tell you about it. Instead, find something to laugh about on a daily basis. Enough said.
8. Find a hobby
Discover something that you love, that fires your passion, that challenges you to learn in all the best ways. Something you look forward to every day that you can totally lose yourself in. Something you do simply because it brings you joy. That magical thing capable of keeping you so enthralled that those past and future worry monsters in your head are forced to take a back seat. And then do that thing. A lot!
9. Get some sleep
Insomnia can kill you. Literally. Learn and then implement some new ridiculously simple sleep hacks. Like be sure you sleep in a space that is totally absolutely dark. Move all devices, televisions, and electronic alarm clocks out of the room. Do not watch television, check your twitter account, use your computer or eat at least three hours before bed. Make certain you are not low in magnesium. Listen to soothing music before bed (see #5). For more tips check out this article: Lack of Sleep Is Turning Us Into A Zombie Nation
10. Get a massage
Humans are hard-wired to melt like butter when touched in a soothing caring way by other humans. An accomplished therapeutic massage therapist is trained to know how to smooth out your tense tight muscles, coaxing them to release pent up tension and the stress toxins held in the tissue.
11. Let the sun in
We are all children of the sun. Our bodies and minds need regular sun exposure in order to produce Vitamin D and other hormones essential for a balanced, healthy body firing on all cylinders, capable of relaxing when needed. Make sure you expose yourself to the direct sun on a daily basis, preferably for twenty minutes at a time. No sunglasses. Be sure to show some skin so that nothing interferes with your absorption of light.
12. Confess it all to your journal – write out your fears and then torch them
So much of our stress and tension arises from mental clutter, tangled up thoughts and unexamined ideas waiting to be heard, unacknowledged or unexpressed emotional pain and suffering.
One of the best therapy sessions can be had at the breakfast table accompanied by a cup of tea and a journal or on a blanket in the park with a pen and notebook. And it’s free, available whenever you need to “talk and sort things through.”
By pouring your thoughts onto a page you move them out of your mind and body. You allow your emotions to speak to you and deliver the gift of awareness, your creative self to reveal to you the ideas that have been building energy. You give yourself the opportunity to develop clarity out of internal stress and chaos.
Don’t worry about being a literary genius here. You don’t even have to spell correctly or use punctuation. No one will ever read this but you – unless you discover through this journaling process that you actually ARE a literary genius, in which case you just might turn your verbal musings into a best seller for all the world to see.
You can also write all your worries and fears down on a piece of paper and then light them on fire, turning those internal demons into nothing more than smoke and ashes. Believe it or not this sends a powerful message to your subconscious to relax because the boogy man has gone bye-bye.
13. Express yourself
If something is bothering you, lit your fuse, made you cry, inspired you…. Then say something! The more you don’t talk about things the more stressed you will be.
Here’s a handy factoid: When you fail to express an emotion or a thought, the energy of that emotion, that thought, doesn’t just evaporate. No. It hangs around, building steam… sometimes for months, years even. Until one day something happens and the internal volcano of stress caused by unexpressed emotion erupts, pretty much always at an inappropriate time and at out-of-control levels.
And if that doesn’t happen and it stays trapped inside your body, what was once a smoldering fire can eventually become a raging inferno and totally destroy your health. So speak. Yell if you have to. Get it out. Just try not to get arrested in the process.
14. Make some noise
Sing (even if you think you sound like a drunken tone deaf frog). Learn a traditional chant, or make up one of your own (as long as it consists of a short repetitive phrase or melody.) It doesn’t even have to be real words. Just toning will do nicely.
You can drum, clash cymbals, ring bells or play any percussive instrument to accompany your vocalizing. As long as you do this on a regular basis for at least twenty minutes a day, you will literally transform your life.
Think I’m kidding? Try it. We are formed and held together by frequency. The right sound frequency can recalibrate us even when we are a jangled mess. A harmonized body and mind leads to a stress-free life.
15. Love over fear
Love is expansive and open. Fear is contracted and tense. We may not always have control over what happens to us, but we always have a choice as to how we respond to those experiences. Every one of us has the freedom to choose how we move through our life. I choose love. How about you?
If you want to learn more about the effects of stress on the body and what you can do to counter it check out the links below: