We have all known stress, anxiety and fear. Some more intimately than others. But did you know that it is all essentially the same chemicals and reactions (even excitement is the same)? They all go under the banner of fight/flight. Designed to keep us alert and alive, without it our Great, Great (x1,000) Grandparents wouldn't have survived. But the impact of prolonged stress is a different story; a story with an unhappy main character and a premature ending.
You’ve experienced butterflies in your belly when you have to do something outside of your comfort zone. That feeling is actually the sensation of your digestion having the hand brake pulled, with blood being borrowed by your muscles to prep you to fight or flee. You might have also noticed a heightened sensitivity to sounds (maybe even jumping when someone says your name), touch (that shirt tag being more annoying than ever) and you might find yourself being a bit shorter in the temper (no, surely not). These are just a few signs that your stress system is in operation. But hopefully, you get through that work performance appraisal, challenging family Christmas or job interview; allowing the feelings to go away. Perfect, just as the system was designed: switch on, get to safety, switch off. But what happens if we leave it on? Continually and unknowingly seeking out a lifestyle chock full of stress and busyness. Well that's what is commonly known as the ‘Western way of life’. The casual way we refer to stress these days only act to normalise it, and in doing so we are condemning ourselves to a life of suffering, sickness and poor relationships.
Is stress really harmful to our health and wellbeing? Let’s take a closer look…
#1 First and foremost: Stress Fuels Stress. This is because the parts of your brain associated with worry, planning and problem solving (directly behind your forehead) will do what all good brain cells do when frequently activated: get better at their job. Practice makes perfect and you may be on your way to becoming a professional stress-head.
TIP: Use the 80/20 rule to identify frequent time wasting or stress inducing tasks/events that you can plan to reduce or eliminate this week.
#2 Diet can be cause or cure. Due to the hand break being pulled on our digestion during fight/flight, chronic stress means chronic digestive issues. Eventually the gut may become inflamed which is only exacerbated by alcohol and a poor diet. The body deals with inflammation by producing an anti-inflammatory hormone - cortisol. Cortisol aka ‘the stress hormone' combined with adrenalin will act to make you feel even more stressed. Perfect.
TIP: Eat less rubbish, more cooked vegetables and avoid processed and high sugar foods. Reducing your gut's stress will reduce your overall stress. The gut also produces 90% of the bodies serotonin (what we treat for depression) – but more on that another time.
#3 Stress’ll make you sick: Your immune system underperforms during a stress response. One of two things will happen: a) A threat gets noticed, but your body takes ages to beat it with only half its usual arsenal; you remain sick for longer. Ever had a cold that wouldn’t go away?
Or b) The threat slips in, unnoticed and settles in. It may remain unnoticed until you eventually do reduce your stress levels, causing all systems to get back online, the bug gets noticed, then your body will launch a full fledged attack. This is why people get sick in the first week of a holiday.
TIP: If you know that you are stressed or have a stressful times ahead; prepare your immune system by eating well, taking some supplements (like Echinacea, Vitamin C etc.) and going to bed early when you can. Sleep is better than any medicine on the market.
#4 Stress goes up, fun goes down: Due to the emotional brain (limbic system) being the captain and commander during times of stress, you will often respond with less consideration and polish when stressed. Put bluntly: people don’t want to be around you when you are stressed.
TIP: Tune in to your stress levels and express them in moderation. Your stress bothers you more than it bothers anyone else, so when someone says “Oh that sucks” - don’t take this as an invitation to vent for 45 minutes. They were just being polite.
#5 Busyness doesn’t spell business: When we are stressed, the part of our brains associated with focus, planning and decision making (lateral prefrontal) gets told to sit on the bench. As a result we struggle to identify what is important; instead we ‘react’ to anything and everything as a catastrophe. Running around like a headless chicken might make you look busy, but without focus and priorities - productivity goes out the window.
TIP: If you want to accomplish more during the day, create an ‘Enough List’ in the morning – writing 1-2 (no more) of the most important tasks to complete before the day is out. Once completed, tick them off, this will trigger your brain to release some dopamine (the neurotransmitter of champions).
Finally, try and be a bit easier on yourself – you can only do so much and shouldn’t rush to an early grave trying to do more. Remember, that if you would like some 1:1 help in developing and implementing some personalized strategies; all you need to do it get in touch.