We all know stress is BAD for us, but many of us don’t really know why that is. Or if we do, we don’t know the extent of it or how to properly deal with it! If you haven’t looked into the facts you’ll find them pretty fascinating.
A quick overview of the stress response cycle:
Our bodies are wired to protect us from dangerous situations involving predators and dangerous aggressors. Back in the day, when a lion or bear was chasing after us we had to either fight the beast or run for our frickin’ life (our fight or flight response).
What happens in our body when we are in a dangerous situation like this? An itty-bitty region at the base of the brain called the hypothalamus rings an alarm. This alarm triggers the adrenal glands sitting on top of our kidneys to release a flood of hormones into our system. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol pump through our body signaling all kinds of stress responses. Our heart rate increases, our blood pressure and blood-glucose levels rise, our energy surges, digestion halts, our immune function is altered, and our brain prompts us to feel things like fear and motivation.
All of this is meant to help save us from acute dangers. With the help of our body’s stress response we have the power to fight or flee our threat. That... or we die… After the danger is eradicated our body relaxes, our hormones find their normal state of balance, the response cycle completes itself, and takes its bow. We experience relief, there is an emotional applause and our body is left feeling oh so sweet.
Here’s the problem. In our society we are not able to fight or flee from our dangers because they have taken on a new form. We very rarely combat acute threats (a.k.a. lions and bears); rather we deal with the chronic threats brought on by the ways of modern society. We are experiencing low-grade stress for longer periods of time and there is no end in sight. Our hormones never get a chance to rebalance because the stress response cycle never has its ‘grand finale.’ There is no bow, no applause, no relief and our bodies pay for it BIG TIME. A long term surge of stress hormones can wreak total havoc, leading to many serious health concerns including anxiety, depression, gastrointestinal issues, sleep problems, mood disorders, weight gain, heart disease, and the list goes on.
How do we move through the stress response cycle when dealing with modern societal pressures? Well first things first, we can’t press PAUSE! So often, we are told to “deal with it,” or “just relax,” or “sleep it off” but these suggestions do not solve the problem, rather they simply pause our stress response cycle. In her fabulous book, “Come As You Are,” (please read this, it is gold) Emily Nagoski, health behavior and women’s sexuality expert, discusses the stress response cycle in relation to human sexuality. However her message (all of her messages) reaches far beyond sex and she makes a brilliant suggestion! She explains that in order to fully move through the cycle we must COMMUNICATE to our BODY that we have “ESCAPED THE LION.”
*exercise of any kind
*the sharing of affection
*a good cry or “primal scream” (My personal favorite.)
*bodily self care such as massages, long baths and doing your nails
*progressive muscle relaxation – a two step process involving the tensing and relaxing of muscle groups in the body.
*sensorimotor mediation – body-focused meditation
All of these things speak directly to our body. This physical body connection is so important!
For those of you creative types (we all are creative 'types' by nature, truly) I might add a suggestion to the list...ART! Acting, singing, playing a musical instrument, drawing, writing and dancing can be powerful ways of communicating with our bodies. For me these channels have always been a huge outlet and form of stress relief. They give you permission to be totally authentic and release whatever the heck is bottled up inside. Dancing in particular as it is pure, primal, bodily communication at its best.
The very first step in this relief process is to listen to our body and recognize when stress has overcome us. After noting its presence, we can make a conscious effort to move the stress response cycle forward and complete the story. So, this week, move your butt, paint your nails, have a good cry, boogie at the bar with good friends (or at home with your kids), and sing a diddy in your shower…or maybe 'retch' an emotional ballad… Let it all out and be well.
I hope these thoughts find your ears in a sunny disposition free of stress, but if not I hope you can relate and make use of some of this great information! Thank you to all of the amazing health experts who are passionate about helping us relieve stress and create the healthiest and most peaceful version of ourselves.
Always with love,