“I’m not stressed” is one of the most common statements uttered in an initial consultation. The word stress often conjures the image of a wiry, corporate employee pulling their hair out and running around frantically and outwardly expressing their distress. However, for majority of people this is not the case and perhaps a better way of assessing this is – do you have a lot going on at the moment? Whilst we might not recognise our own levels of stress and response to the events around us, our bodies are not immune to these pressures and will start to show signs related to being in a chronically stressed state.
Stress is a normal physiological process that occurs within the body and is regulated by two different nervous systems. Firstly the sympathetic nervous system which is our fight or flight response and the parasympathetic which is our rest and digest state.
The flight or flight response is based on adrenalin, the hormone of fear. Adrenalin works by prioritising the blood supply, making sure that oxygenated blood is available in the arms and legs for a quick getaway and through the brain to help us make split second decisions.
Ideally, the stress response should switch on and off when necessary, however constant stimulation and pressures as well as a preoccupation with ‘busyness’ has lead to overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system or stress response. Over a long period of time this can cause a number of detrimental health consequences including weight gain, fatigue, poor mental clarity, digestive dysfunction, hormonal imbalance, dampened immune functioning, muscle tension and high blood pressure to name a few.
There are a number of things that we can do to actively engage our parasympathetic nervous systems and therefore switch off the flight or fight response:
Breathing- The simplest method for enabling your parasympathetic nervous system to lower anxiety is to use 5-7 breathing. This means you breathe in for a count of 5, hold briefly, and breathe out gently for a count of 7. No matter if you stick with the 5-7 count or some other combination, make sure the out-breath is longer than the in-breath.
Relax your body– You can use progressive relaxation techniques or a basic relaxation meditation. You could do a comfortable yoga stretch or just close your eyes and imagine yourself in a comfortable setting. The parasympathetic nervous system causes you to relax, but by "actively" relaxing, you activate it, causing you to relax even more. Call it a non-vicious circle.
Focus on positive emotions and take a few extra seconds to have those good feelings really sink in.
Limit multitasking – excess sensory input can increase stress levels triggering adrenaline release.
Acupuncture – research has demonstrated that acupuncture engages the parasympathetic nervous system. One mechanism of this is stimulation of the release of oxytocin, a hormone signalling substance that regulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
Whilst our modern world calls for juggling kids, work, emails, smartphones, mortgages, gym, healthy eating and Sydney traffic, it is important to recognise that we need downtime to recover. This can be in one of the methods listed above, or partaking mindfully in an activity that you love. The benefits of reducing stress include, but are certainly not limited to; increased longevity, lower rates of depression, increased immune functioning, better sleep, improved digestion and improved focus. Remember, it’s ok to slow down – your body will thank you for it.
Available for consults at Health Space Mona Vale