Your body experiences stress CONSTANTLY. Stress is your body’s response to anything that requires action. Whether you perceive it or not, your body is continuously encountering stimuli (good and bad) that activate the response of your sympathetic nervous system. It actually is one of our most pivotal survival tools... when you encounter something causing “stress”, your body wants to either make it stop (fight) or avoid it (flight). That served us really well when the stressor was a bear in the woods and our body primed for action by increasing our cardiovascular output (heart rate and blood pressure), tensing the muscles in preparation for action, and directing the enhanced blood flow to the muscles to supply enough fuel (oxygen) to run away as fast as possible. Your body is hardwired for this exact response.
Sometimes that system can activate a little too often, especially in situations where it is not appropriate to “fight” or “flee”. It can be small (like waiting in a long line for coffee) or something heavier (like working under a deadline), but your body’s response activates just like it does in the woods. Blood flowing to tensed muscles... ready to act. But when you can’t act (because ya know... modern society) two things happen:
- your muscles stay tense
- blood flow is not getting to your digestive tract and other internal organs, restricting those functions (including inhibiting cell repair)
Part 1 may seem both more relatable (raise your hand if you have a knot in your back/neck/hip right now), and easier to remedy of the two. Exercise and massage can each fulfill the movement that those muscles are craving. Part 2 is a little trickier.
Essentially, we are robbing our metabolism of the chance to do it’s job by spending too much time in that “activated” mode. Blood is flowing to muscles (that aren’t about to follow through with action) and away from your vital organs. All the functions that your body performs to regulate and repair itself get put on the backburner. That sounds... less than ideal.
But there is good news. Your body is also equipped with a complementary system which works with the sympathetic to keep you in balance. The parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) promotes all the functions that you need to recover from the stress response. So, how do we get back to parasympathetic? Or to put in another way, how do we “deactivate” our stress response?
One of the most effective ways is something you are doing all the time anyways… breathing. Slow, deep breaths in and out through your nose can signal the parasympathetic nervous system that it’s safe to relax. Other activities like yoga, tai chi and meditation can also kick you back into “rest and digest”, but if that doesn’t sound like your speed, fear not. Activities like gardening, reading/writing and walking in nature can also help you be more present and less focused on the stressors out of your control.
Practicing these strategies more often can help you not just reduce your stress and anxiety, you may also experience some long term benefits including improved biometrics like HR and BP, improved cognitive function, strengthened immune system, increased metabolism, reduced pain and inflammation, improved attention span (if you’re still reading you may be good!) and better sleep. Need more reasons? Everybody with me now…
Great start! Now keep doing that!