10 Apr Think Differently About Stress
As I lay awake at 2am I contemplated everything and I mean everything that was going on in my life. I thought about how was I going to get every work task done this week right down to the meaning of life. My mind was buzzing with inner talk from productive and sane to speedy and most certainly insane. My heart was racing, I was alert, I could take on anything at that moment. I felt almost super human. This got me thinking… why is this so? Are humans meant to have so many deep, fast and rich thoughts whirring through their brains at 2am? I know from my experience not only as a health coach but also in my professional and personal life, that people are suffering the effects of stress on a daily (and nightly) basis. While this may appear common, I regard this as alarming and anything but “normal,”
Many people I speak to are plagued by worry. Worry about finances, work, what people think of them, whether their baby sleeps or perhaps whether they will find their perfect partner. Most of what I do is unpacking stress and worries with people. To better support my clients, colleagues and social media followers, I decided to explore this more. I read and researched more about the brain, stress and anxiety. All in the attempts to help me not only understand my clients better but most importantly – myself. I think that stress has become to normalised and widely accepted. I caution us against just accepting that stress is a natural process – I would argue that with the evolution of our species, we have also self-created a huge mess.
Stress is a natural response to danger that is designed to save our life – literally. Worry, stress and/pr anxiety is a complex process controlled both the primitive and emotional parts of our brains. Our primitive brain subconsciously controls the “fight or flight” response. It’s main job it to keep us alive. Think about a humans basic purpose in life – to eat, sleep, drink, reproduce and repeat. Our ancestors lived a true human life many moons ago. They hunted and gathered, slept when the sun went down and made many babies. Occasionally, they dodged danger like running from a wild animal. In these stressful and life-saving situations their brains released hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to increase energy levels and allow them to flee to safety and live to see another day! These days, there are no wild cats or dogs for us to flee, instead we trigger this response through high stress jobs, intensive workouts, busy schedules, late nights and blue lights from devices.
How is it possible that emails and multiple tasks can feel as dangerous as the threat of a wild animal? Unfortunately we have evolved past what our biology can handle. We are pushing our bodies and brain past their abilities and functionality. Our ancestors had it all nailed. They switched perfectly between the sympathetic “fight or flight” system (when necessary) and regularly accessed their parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system to calm the f$%& down. Unfortunately, a return to relaxation does not occur promptly for today’s fast paced society. Our brains are very intelligent machines that map neurological pathways. With ongoing stressors, we develop and condition responses to chronic stress response that may allow us to “function” but also disrupt the natural functionality of our amazing bodies and leading to hormone disruption, anxiety and depression and a host of physical health problems and disease. Unless we begin to reprogram our brains to return to a calmer state, we only face burnout, exhaustion, disease and health concerns.
We have a host of reasons for why we get stressed. However, this post isn’t to scold you for working too many hours, stop going for 10km runs or to slap on a facemask and think that your problems will just go away. What many of us need to do is start making smarter decisions about how we look after ourselves over the long term. What I urge you to do is acknowledge the root cause of your stress. By analysing your worries, you can understand what kind of stress you are facing, what triggers your stress and what effect it is having on your mindset and physical health. Only here, may you begin to consider adjusting how you live your life. When addressing stress and its effect on our lives, I always suggest clients follow a number of steps. All of course are variable depending on the cause/s of stress and the effects they have on our minds and bodies.
Build awareness of what stress is doing to your mind and body
Knowing how your stress presents and the warning signs your body communicates is the first step in managing your stress levels. Working with clients, I see a host of implications. The most common being gut issues. 1 in 5 women these days experience irritable bowel syndrome. This is likely so as during times of stress or alarm, your body sends all the energy and blood flow to your extremities as it is programed to flee a situation and save your life! Many stressed out women also may find that their skin, hair and nails are weakened. This is because these are non-essential processes and our body diverts energy to the functions that keep us alive (the fight or flight response). Additionally, I see clients with mammoth sugar addictions and cravings. When your stress hormone spikes, so does your hunger hormone. Soon enough, we are reaching for pro-inflammatory foods (sugar and refined carbs) with the main goal of a short burst of energy. We get stuck in a sick cycle of craving the wrong foods and not even being able to digest them properly. Our bodies perceive a threat and store this excess energy for later in the form of fat. We don’t sleep, our moods are impacted, we lose motivation and our ability to reflect and see a situation for what it is, we are unable to connect with our spiritual side and/or connect on a deep level with others.
Analyse your stress or worries to understand the root cause
Reflecting on your stress or worries and their causes is a helpful tool for stress management. Worries can be categorised as historical, hysterical and helpful. In the book ‘How Not to Worry,’ author Paul Mcgee explains how historical worries are a form of anxiety that mirror your experiences from the past. An example may be where one stresses about their self-worth based on their childhood or a past failed relationship. If you are preoccupied by historical worry, you are advised to seek emotional support to move on and re-write though patterns. Hysterical worry is the exact opposite – it is deeply irrational! If you find yourself worried about things that are highly unlikely, it may be helpful to document and reflect on data and likelihood of events. Helpful worry is the kind of worry cause by reflecting on a real problem, like a deadline or exam. To manage the effects of helpful worries, it is useful to analyse how much control you have over the worries and what you can let go of.
Build strategies for managing and reducing stress levels
Once you recognise how stress manifests inside you personally and where it could have come from, you can work to build strategies to return to that idyllic primitive state of rest and digest that our ancestors once mastered. The best way to set you up in order to do this is to work alongside a nutritionist, dietician or health coach to adjust your nutrition to support gut health, blood glucose levels, healthy brain function, blood sugar regulation and adrenal health. Additionally, stress can be managed with exercise. Important to note – while excess energy from stress can be released through short bursts of physical activity, the current trend of powerlifting, HIIT training and endurance cardio can also lead to an increase of stress in some. It is paramount that you assess your stress levels alongside your exercise regime. With the support of your body, you are better able to do the mental and emotional work required to manage stress. To channel the cavemen and women that came before us, I advise clients to develop morning and night time and self-care routine in order to focus on the day ahead, reflect on how we feel and to prioritise the relationship we hold with ourselves. With our days mastered, we are more ready to foster positive relationships with our loved ones which form positive connections likely to produce helpful hormones like oxytocin (love and affection) and serotonin (happiness).
Stop before you spiral
Through the process of developing self-awareness and recognising the root causes of stress, you are better positioned to master the art of ‘stopping before you spiral.’ This doesn’t come easily or straight away. It progresses in stages. First, you begin to notice how you are feeling in moments of stress but may have little control of how you act or respond. You soon develop hindsight after a stressful event and are able to rationally debunk your emotional reactions. The next step comes when you are able to catch yourself during an emotional reaction and rationalise with yourself in order to back out and do exactly what you need in that moment. This kind of self-awareness is best supported with a reduced load so that you have the space and capacity to effectively analyse situations rationally.
Don’t be a modern day human stuck in a surplus of negative thinking and stress chemicals. It is completely normal to worry from time to time but it is a problem when stress and anxiety begin to control your life. Apply helpful strategies to return yourself to your natural biological state. Speak to someone, clean up your diet, program time for yourself, reduce your load and prioritise your ability to rest and digest. Rewire your brain to divert towards new thought patterns to promote positivity over negativity and burn out. Not only will you be likely to live longer, but you will enjoy the time you have left.
In the next addition of our Monthly Newsletter, I will be providing a stress reduction toolkit for you to access and trial in order to reduce your stress levels.
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Healthy food swap suggestions
Sample weekly food plan
Food planning template
Healthy snack ideas
A list of recommended brands and products
The benefits of food diaries
Blank food diary template
If you require support to manage your stress, health and wellbeing, I offer a range of Health Coaching Programs that are tailored to your individual needs. View our services page to learn more about how we can help you to reach your goals.