Once upon a time, life was very uncomplicated. Humans were hunter-gatherers in a primal, natural environment, and depending on what sort of animal we encountered, we could be either predator or prey. Stress served a simple purpose then: to help us find food, or to help us avoid becoming food ourselves.
Our bodies evolved to survive in this environment…and in several million years of evolution, this hasn’t changed much. When we feel stressed, scared, or threatened, our cerebral cortex still sends a stress signal to the hypothalamus (a switch in the midbrain controlling the stress response). In response, the hypothalamus signals the sympathetic nervous system to release adrenaline-like hormones and prepare the body to fight or run away:
- Heartbeat, blood volume and blood pressure increase
- The heart sends blood to the large muscles to get ready for action
- Sweat glands release perspiration
- Pupils dilate to sharpen vision
- Hearing becomes more acute
Once the danger or worry passes, the hypothalamus gives the “all clear” to the sympathetic nervous system, and the body returns to a normal resting condition.
But today, you’re not facing woolly mammoths or saber-toothed tigers! Instead, you have wages to earn, deadlines to meet, bills to pay, and all the stresses of modern life. You can’t get rid of them in a single community hunt; instead, all of these stressors persist over time, and your brain continually signals for stress hormones to be released. Your body never seems to get the “all clear” to calm down the stress signal and relax.
- Stress disrupts your sleep cycle, resulting in fatigue, foggy thinking, and irritability.
- Your thyroid goes into overdrive, then becomes exhausted and slows down your metabolism, resulting in weight gain, depression and brain fog.
- Your adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which, over time, can keep you awake and hyper alert, distort your thinking, and make you irritable and agitated.
So what can you do about it?
Even if you can’t ditch your boss and your bills, you can still let go of some of the stressors in your life…
- Try reducing the sugar and caffeine in your diet, and eating more complex carbohydrates and proteins. This relieves high/low energy cycling and reduces wear and tear on your adrenals.
- If you’re truly feeling depleted by stress, talk to your holistic health care practitioner about bodywork and nutritional supplements that can support your thyroid and adrenals.
- Instead of eating lunch at your desk, go for a walk in a neighborhood green space and picnic on a park bench. Walking helps to release endorphins – the feel-good hormones – and natural environments help to relieve anxiety.
- Laughter defuses stress! Instead of ramping up your adrenaline levels with a thrilling crime drama on prime-time TV, consider a comedy.
- First thing in the morning and last thing at night, spend some quiet time in meditation. This will help you to begin the day with a quiet mind and go to sleep more peacefully.
- Hug your friends and family at least once a day, bond with a pet, or get a weekly massage– touch is a great stress reliever!
- Finally, instead of bottling up your stress, talk with a therapist or join a support group. You don’t need to suffer alone.