We’ve all heard this but we generally just leave it at that. We accept that that is how it is and it’s a part of life these days. No further explanation or investigation required. Even though it can cause high blood pressure and cause a change in brain function that can lead to anxiety, depression and addiction. So why does it do all these things to the body?
To understand this it is important to understand the nervous system. This is made up of two parts. The somatic system, responsible for voluntary reactions to exterior provocations and the autonomic, as the name suggests this is responsible for involuntary functions (auto). This is also the section affected by stress, which might seem strange at first glance. We tend to believe that we can control what stresses us out and therefore it should surely fall under the somatic system. But with the pressures of modern life it is easy to let things get on top of us and become involuntarily affected by them.
The autonomic system is made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. The surge of epinephrine (adrenaline) increases heart rate, to get blood to the muscles to respond quickly. Breathing becomes more rapid and the lungs open to increase oxygen, in turn increasing awareness due to enhanced brain function. Blood sugar and fats are released into the veins for increased energy. The parasympathetic nervous system or the ‘rest and digest’ response is the opposite. This is in charge of the relaxing mode, it allows muscle tension to ease, the mind to calm and the senses to dull and bring the body back after the ‘fight or flight’ situation is over.
Stress comes from a variety of ‘threats’, work, money, even traffic and causes a variety of problems.
Check out this Infographic from Officevibe
The body reacts to stress with the ‘fight or flight’ response and because our minds are constantly reminding us of the ‘threat’ our sympathetic nervous system keeps the volume turned up. So it is no wonder that when we are on ‘high alert’ from stress our muscles are tense, our breath is short and we are constantly on edge from the extra sugar coursing through our veins. Allowing our bodies to be in a constant state of high response is like over revving your car engine, eventually you’re going to do some damage.
This is why stress can be, in some cases at least, a precursor to addiction and self-medication. The body and mind are working in overdrive and the stresses become so great people feel they just don’t know how to calm down or switch off. This is where suppressants come in, for example alcohol, marijuana and in some cases opiates, to help force a relaxed state. In other instances people get so used to being on edge they don’t like to be calm or they want to carry on going when the mind and body have had enough. This is where stimulants like caffeine, amphetamines and cocaine come in. People can become reliant on these and, coupled with the nature of some, become addicted and therefore never really deal with the underlying problems causing the stress.
So how do you prevent stress?
Meditation to become more Aware and Calm Down.
Meditation helps you, through mindfulness, discover all the crap that floats around in your head and stresses you out. While in a state of calm and concentrating on your breath, thoughts will float into your mind. These are the things that are stressing you out, this space allows you to become aware of what your stressors are. When you know what those are you able to solve that problem, add that task to your to do list or release just how ridiculous that thought is and how negative that self-talk was that is causing you to stress. While meditating those thoughts will come up without provocation, let them, notice them and let them pass. Meditation also helps you be more present allowing you to concentrate at work and be more engaged in conversations. Apps such and Calm or Headspace are a great place to start.
Physical activity helps relieve muscle tension and makes you happy by producing endorphins. It can even have a calming effect as a form of meditation. While running, for example, I am completely focused on putting one foot in front of the other, the cars, others around me and everything else fades away, it allows me to get out of my head for a few minutes/kilometres. Exercise builds confidence and gives you a feeling of achievement, if you don’t manage anything else that day at least you got out there and exercised.
People need seven to eight hours of sleep as an average. Stress can cause lack of sleep, because we are up all night worrying about that mistake we made at work or something else we have no control over at that moment in time. Sleep deprivation can, in turn, cause anxiety and depression which increases stress levels, vicious cycle. The best and easiest place to start is with the bed. Make your bed as comfortable as possible, get a great pillow, comfortable sheets and an amazing mattress. Switch off all screens, cell phone, TV, computer at least an hour before going to bed. A study conducted by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden showed that heavy cell phone and computer use can increase sleep disorders as well as depressive symptoms.
These are just a few ways to help combat stress, others include social interaction and a great support network.
Everybody gets stressed and tense, but like anything it is about management and balance. Learn to identify stressors through meditation, increase confidence through exercise, hack your bed to get a great night’s sleep and count on our supporters. Then you will be able to deal with what life has to throw at you. Understand that life will always happen and things will go wrong but by having the stress deck stacked in your favour will allow you to handle anything life has to throw at you.