Stress much this year? For me and most of the people I talk to, this has been among the most stressful years of our lives. And because the pandemic and social unrest – and the effects it has on our lives -- doesn’t seem to be calming anytime soon, it has me thinking about what we can do to stay as healthy as possible in spite of the stressors.
One of the problems of constant stress is a state of chronic “fight-or-flight” that has far reaching impact. Here’s a quick summary of our body’s stress response and what that means for health, followed by three really concrete practices to mitigate chronic fight-or-flight.
Although we’ve evolved quite a bit from hunter-gatherers, whose common stressors were large animals chasing them, our stress responses have not evolved much – they are still quite primitive.
When we’re stressed, the body releases hormones such as cortisol, which causes us to activate our sympathetic nervous systems and go into a “fight or flight” mode. This means our body is preparing to run -- as fast as possible -- from imminent danger. When we’re becoming upset by the news, struggling to home-school our children, or worrying about our safety if we leave our homes, we’re usually not running fast. Even so, our bodies engage what is referred to as the sympathetic nervous system. It reacts by slowing digestion, keeping blood glucose levels elevated, blocking reproduction, keeping our minds ultra-vigilant, and tensing our muscles so we’re ready for action. This impacts well-being in so many ways, including changes in mood and depressed immunity, in addition to the other problems just stated. We don’t need to be adding any fuel to the fire these days!
The opposite of fight-or-flight mode is sometimes called “rest and digest,” “rest and restore,” or the “relaxation response.” When stress has passed or we’ve engaged in activities to calm our nervous systems, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This means our ability to digest returns, immune function begins to normalize, mood is stable, energy can be used for tasks at hand, we have a greater possibility of baby-making, muscles and brain relax, and more. Sounds good, right?
So, given that the stressors of the world and our personal lives may not be lifting anytime soon, what is there to do? Here are three antidotes to chronic fight-or-flight.
Eat three complete meals per day.
I know this may seem like a simple concept, though it can sometimes be hard to execute. We’re home more, the fridge is nearby, grazing is happening. At 3 p.m. we think, I must have eaten the equivalent of two meals already, right? But what did you eat? Was it nutritious and complete (i.e. did it include protein, healthy fat, complex carbs, fiber, fresh/non-packaged food, any color?).
If we’re skipping meals or binging on our latest sourdough creation, it can cause blood sugar imbalances, and add internal stress to all that we’re experiencing in our lives and the world. So stress becomes compounded.
Making a habit of preparing and sitting down for a meal calms our nervous systems, fuels our bodies, provides normalcy and cadence to a day that might otherwise feel scattered. Your body can relax knowing it can count on you to feed and nourish it at regular intervals (try for a max of 5 hours between eating). Protein grounds us and blood sugar remains balanced if we eat regularly. Bonus if you take a deep breath and express gratitude for your meal before eating. In this way, you’re calming your system and not creating internal stress to go with your external stress.
Connection with others is an excellent antidote to stress. Quick explanation of one reason why: the hormone oxytocin is released when we connect in a loving or positively emotional way with another who feels safe, familiar or touches our hearts in some way. Oxytocin buffers stress. Much of the research on oxytocin has been centered around physical touch and physical connection - when we hug, pet and animal, share with others, it releases oxytocin. Activities that release oxytocin are especially important for women due to their hormonal makeup.
Now, of course, many folks are way more isolated these days than ever before, which likely means our oxytocin levels are lower and stress levels even higher. So we have to get creative to combat chronic fight-or-flight. The neat thing is, although physical touch is the most effective way to release oxytocin, it is NOT required. Experts suggest that when meeting with someone via video, we can get to 80% oxytocin release (compared to in-person), provided we are making eye contact with the other person.
During this time of physical distancing, connecting with others is important for so many reasons. And if you connect via video, you’ll also combat chronic fight-or-flight.
Earthing, also referred to as Grounding, simply refers to the body being in contact with the Earth. It also happens to be an easy and free antidote to chronic fight-or-flight. The easiest way to practice Earthing is to take off your shoes and place your feet on the ground (dirt, grass, beach, etc).
When the electrical frequencies of the body connect with the earth’s electrical energy, changes begin to happen. One change is the movement toward dominance of the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response), rather than the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). While there are many methods of engaging the relaxation response, summer is a great time of year to connect, body to earth, and quickly experience the calming effect it has (barring air quality issues if you live in a wildfire state like I do). Studies show that Earthing can normalize cortisol responses, making us more resilient when responding to stressors.
These are difficult times. Everything seems to take extra effort, including self-care. If you’ve been working at it and are still not feeling great, get in touch for a complimentary chat to get immediate tips and learn what’s possible for your health.