These are unprecedented times. There is so much uncertainty, fear and stress–especially as we change our behaviors, and ponder our ever-shifting futures in the wake of COVID-19. The common advice is to “reduce your stress.” But this seems like a really difficult thing to actually pull-off. How does one reduce stress in the face of job changes, financial worries, overeating in the face of a pandemic, anxiety, worry, and sleeplessness?!
I’m going to suggest that stress is a natural human response. We are wired for reacting to situations. Our central nervous system is designed to react with fight or flight or rest and digest, and our limbic system is designed to help us determine friend from foe. The challenge (and the good news) is that we do not live in a time when we need to run from actual tigers or bears. But our bodies and our brains are hard wired for reacting. So our simple concerns and worries create the same kind of fight or flight stress response as running from a bear. The amount of stressors in our daily lives puts an undue physical tax on our body.
We are so inundated with stimulus that many of us are stuck in flight or flight, seemingly overreacting with drama and adversity. Our brain and central nervous system is wired and fried. In addition, many of us are self medicating to relax, adding in caffeine to get going in the morning or to deter afternoon slumps. And we may not making the best food choices throughout our day. I don’t personally know what it is like to live in a war zone–with actual bombs being dropped, and fearing for my life… but I’m going to suggest that the way we live–over busy and over stressed has created a cascade effect of stress event after stress event. Much in the same way a veteran has post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we are creating a PTSD reaction in our central nervous systems, on a daily basis. So what can we do?
I believe that we can change our relationship to stress. We can make this change just by shifting the way we think about it–a reframe, if you will. An example would be feeling “nervous and anxious” before a test or an interview, the reframe would be thinking about the jitters in our stomach, and the rapid heart beat as “excitement.” Or by simply thinking, “This feeling in my stomach, and my rapid pulse is helping me to be ‘on my toes’ and ‘ready for anything.'” I could also reframe it as, “My body works perfectly to help me have fast thinking, and a quick response, in this situation.” Reframing our thoughts gives us the psychological feeling of being more in control, instead of feeling out of control.
In addition to reframing our thoughts, there are five strategies that we can implement to support our body’s natural resilience. These help to calm the central nervous system, get us out of fight or flight, and bolster our immune system.
5 Strategies to Build Stress Resiliency:
Get a Good Night’s Sleep: Research shows that when we sleep 7-9 hours a night we give the body time to detoxify. If I were to give you a computer metaphor, I think of REM sleep as defragging the hard drive, and doing a deep scan for viruses and toxic malware. When we get quality sleep we give our organs and brain time to detox and deacidify. Sleep is where restoration happens on a cellular level. IF you are not getting adequate sleep it is as if you are keeping your first responders on high alert, fire after fire–day after day, week after week, month after month, maybe even year after year. This long term exhaustion puts a toll on your immune system, and sets your body up for a potential inability to respond correctly (much like those first responders being overly tired) which increases your chances of developing a lifestyle disease. The article from Huffington Post (i) listed in the resources below is very comprehensive. I recommend it as additional reading if sleep is where you need support. There are strategies you can implement to set yourself up for better sleep quality. I will discuss these in another article. You can message me directly if you’d like a PDF of these strategies.
Breathe: When we breathe shallowly, in the upper chest, we only oxygenate a teacup full of blood. When we breathe deep into the belly, we oxygenate the equivalent of a pint glass full of blood. Shallow breathing reinforces the stress response–rapid shallow breathing is like panting when we are running from something. Slow, deep, intentional breathing help to calm the central nervous system. When we are relaxed our body is able to slip into sympathetic rest and digest mode, instead of fight or flight (ii) when we are triggered and stressed. Slow, deep, conscious breathing gives us the ability to fool our nervous system. I encourage you to try it when you are feeling stressed. I like to take time to breathe deep when I am stuck in line, or frustrated in traffic. It is amazing how quickly you can shift your thoughts, and energy with a few minutes of conscious deep breathing.
Enhance Your Circulation: When we oxygenate blood with breath the red blood cells are able to bring more oxygen to the cells. Red blood cells also remove carbon dioxide and cellular waste from the tissue. So by getting the blood moving we are essentially enhancing the body’s ability to support cellular function, bringing in nutrition and oxygen, and removing waste. Exercise and movement enhances vascular health of the circulatory system, strengthening the smooth muscle tissue in the vessels as well as the skeletal muscles in our bodies (iii). For more information there is a great article link from Experience Life in the resources below.
Do things that make you happy: If I had to give you the key ingredient to reducing stress, this is it. Doing things that make you happy is opposite of stress. We are hard-wired for joy. Look at children all full of laughter, adventure, and play… Somewhere along the line we buy into taking ourselves and our lives SO seriously. We get on the treadmill to adulthood and simply leave joy in the dust. You can reclaim your relationship to joy by doing more of what makes you happy–easy as that. I think this is an excellent daily practice–maybe even moment to moment. Can you imagine how good you would feel if Joy was the True North on Your Internal Compass? Start by choosing what you want to do–with your Joy Meter. Ask yourself “Does this bring me joy–or not?” Author Marie Kondo uses the term “joy factor” as a way to clear clutter and decide what stays or goes (iv).
Feed Your Microbiome: New science reveals that the balance of our gut flora has a big impact on how we feel. As a human super-organism we are more similar to a coral reef–a living colony of organisms, and microscopic bacteria in symbiotic relationship (v). There is a direct interrelationship between our gut health and our brain. Ninety percent of serotonin, the body’s feel good chemical is produced by our gut bacteria (vi). Much of the new science today points to gut health as the key to restoring our physical, and psychological balance by feeding our microbes. I advocate taking probiotics to restore and proliferate the good bugs in the gut, and adding in prebiotics to feed them. Our microbes thrive on increased fiber from leafy greens, and fermented foods–these are both excellent sources of prebiotics. We may have inadvertently set up our microbial imbalance with an overuse of antibiotics, eating too much sugar, alcohol consumption, and a diet high in processed foods. If you grew up in America in the 20th century you are likely a mixture of all of these. Microbiome is the new science buzz word. I expect that we will begin to see our standard of care change in our Western paradigm to include ways to analyze and address our gut bugs–in the coming years. You don’t have to wait for medicine to catch up. You can work to feed your microbes, heal your gut, and bolster your immune system now. I’ve got lots of resources that I’d love to share, feel free to reach out.
Let’s wrap this up with a nice tidy bow. You don’t have to be at affect of how you feel in your body. You get to be in charge of how you feel. The body has an amazing propensity to heal. Stress may just be the highlighter that we’ve gotten out of balance. By restoring balance, reducing stress, getting more oxygen and nutrients to the cells, detoxifying, and bolstering the all the body systems that keep us healthy, we give the body a fighting chance to recalibrate, and enhance its natural healing mechanisms. I’ve listed five strategies to build your stress resiliency, and offer links to additional reading and resources below. You can start with the one that you need the most or implement all five. Of course, there are lots of things that you can do to take better care of your health. Warren Buffett is credited with asking us, “If you only had one car to drive–for your entire life, how would you maintain it?”
Monika Adams, M.Ed. is a Certified Wellness Coach, and self proclaimed “Healthy Gut Diva.” She is most passionate about helping people feel better, in their body, and their life. She believes that when we make healthier choices in our life, that we begin to feel better in all aspects of our lives. When we feel better we are better parents, colleagues, and community members. She is deeply moved to start a grassroots effort of feeling better, being happier, and Loving Your Life–so that the World is a Better Place. Her personal credo: Live Well. Feel Well. (vii)
(i) Huffington Post: “Your Body Does Incredible things when you aren’t awake.” By Laura Schocker. 03/07/2014 08:18am EST | Updated December 6, 2017: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/your-body-does-incredible_n_4914577
(ii) Wikipedia: Sympathetic Nervous System: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sympathetic_nervous_system
(iii) Experience Life: How Exercise Affects Circulation (and Vice Versa), Laine Bergeson BECCO, FMCHC | June 2017. https://experiencelife.com/article/how-exercise-affects-circulation-and-vice-versa/
(iv) Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Here is the link on Amazon: https://amzn.to/39eYguo
(v) The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, Rodney Deiter, Ph.D. Here is the link on Amazon: https://amzn.to/39juuof
(vi) Psychology Today: Gut Bacteria can Influence Moods, Thoughts, and Brain. Marwa Azab, Ph.D. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuroscience-in-everyday-life/201908/gut-bacteria-can-influence-your-mood-thoughts-and-brain
(vi) Follow Coach Monika Adams on FaceBook, Instagram, and YouTube. Or visit my website: www.MonikaAdams.com. Monika is available to facilitate Wellness Workshops, Articles, and Health Education.
Thanks for tuning in. Blessings.
This article was originally published in linked in. 3/25/2020.