I think we can agree that our individual lifestyles were already full to the brim with stressful potentials, even before ‘flatten the curve’ was part of our vernacular. Now it’s more important than ever to learn how to manage stress and anxiety, as well as our emotions. This way, we can have healthy immune systems, healthy brains, use our minds optimally, think for ourselves, make good decisions, be nice to people and show up for one another. We can maybe even feel all right for a while.
Very few of us ever learned how to manage our emotions and our stress, or even that we needed to actively do so. A lot of us grew up under the impression that we ARE our emotions and that we ‘can’t help’ how we feel. If we can really centre ourselves and see our emotions as something that we are experiencing, rather than something that we are and have no control over, we can really begin to gather our power and become strong, mentally, physically and spiritually. It’s very hard to do this with a mind that is muddled by stress. Stress literally shrinks our brain, kills brain cells and weakens our immune system! So how can we expect to be healthy and functional in this state without consciously working on it?
There Are Different Types of Stress
It really ain’t that cute, but at least acute stress response is helpful. Acute stress is when you’re suddenly startled or frightened or running away from a hungry bear or something. In these situations, we release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which start a cascade of functions that we call the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is a truly primal survival mechanism.
Acute Stress Symptoms
- Muscles contract in preparation for fighting or fleeing from the bear
- Digestion shuts down to divert energy to large muscles needed for fighting or fleeing
- Breathing rate increases in anticipation for larger oxygen requirement
- Heart rate increases to supply the body with more nutrients and oxygen via the blood
- Perspiration increases in anticipation of fight or flight, to cool the body down
- Adrenaline and noradrenaline are released, maintaining all of the above responses
- Cortisol is released, with positive results like increased energy, increased focus and attention, less pain sensitivity and an increased immune system
It’s an extremely intelligent system! In short bursts, the stress response helps us through a situation and cortisol has beneficial effects.
Even though most of us aren’t spending all day running from bears, our everyday, modern stresses can have us in a perpetual state of fight or flight, leading to a constant flow of cortisol in our bodies. In this case, cortisol has negative effects.
Chronic Stress Symptoms
From Constant High Cortisol Levels
- High blood pressure
- Shrinking of the brain
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Weakened immune system
- Depression, irritability, anxiety, chronic fatigue, brain fog
- Digestive issues like constipation, low stomach acid and IBS
- Skin conditions like acne, bruising and skin infections
- Unexplained weight gain around the belly
- Painful bones, weak muscles and backaches
- Decreased bone mineral density
- Menstrual irregularities
- Low libido
If left unchecked, prolonged high cortisol levels can lead to anxiety disorders and have detrimental effects on long term health.
How Can We Manage Stress and Reduce Cortisol?
An awareness of our stress levels and a daily practice of stress management can make a big difference.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The ‘fight or flight’ response is driven by the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is like the gas pedal of nervous system that speeds up bodily functions. When it is activated, blood pressure, heart rate and respiration increase to improve the body’s ability to perform and produce energy.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
To get relief from fight or flight mode, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as ‘rest and digest’ mode. This is the brake pedal. The parasympathetic response controls homeostasis and brings the body to a state of calm so that it can relax and repair.
When the Parasympathetic Nervous System is Activated:
- Cortisol levels decline
- Heart rate lowers
- Muscles relax
- Libido increases
- Pupils constrict
- Saliva is increased
- Digestive enzymes increase
- Bronchiolar diameter decreases when the need for oxygen diminishes
All of these responses lead to improved digestion, energy conservation, and a healthy balance in your body’s systems, which supports long-term health.
Let's Start a Practice
Of bringing our bodies into the parasympathetic mode to relax and repair.
I will be posting a series of articles here with Healthy Tips for Stressful Times. Check the links below.
Stay tuned & be well!