Updated: Mar 15
Currently my stress levels are running at about an 8 out of 10 as I'm sure is the case for many.
It’s important to be able to tune in to your body and become aware of any signs of stress before it impacts your health too dramatically. I am all too aware of the effects that unacknowledged stress can have on my wellbeing and so have put in place some counter measures that are helping to reduce this and I thought I’d share one of them with you.
Firstly, why do we have stress?
Stress is a natural and important response to stimuli and has kept us ‘safe’ with the fight, flight or freeze response since we lived in caves. A stress stimuli will cause a series of chemical reactions within the body with the primary aim of helping us to either freeze, run or fight whatever has been presented.
These chemical reactions create a physical response, for example; a quickening heart beat and rapid breathing (to allow for more oxygenation of muscles); an increase in blood pressure (as the blood clotting factors rise in case of injury); tingling sensation particularly in the arms and legs (as sugars and fats are rapidly converted to energy); sweaty and cold hands/feet (as blood is diverted to the brain and muscles); reduced gut function (as blood is diverted from the digestive system); and increased alertness (as blood heads to the brain to increase awareness of our surroundings and imminent threats). All with a view to enabling basic survival. This worked well in the days when our primary threat was the occasional wild animal trying to eat us, or the need to hunt for food.
In today’s world of 24/7 accessibility through technology, increased demands on our time, attention and a rapidly increasing list of things to be concerned/worry about, the stress response can be constantly triggered. Albeit not by the fear of being eaten anymore, but by non the less powerful threats to our perceived safety such as job security/satisfaction, demanding deadlines, work or family disagreements, money worries, etc. It is easy to see how this primal response can develop into chronic stress.
Unfortunately, a consistent triggering of the stress response puts immense strain on the organs that release the stress hormones and the entire body as a whole. This can have a huge impact upon our health and wellbeing and we will look more closely at aspects such as insulin resistance, obesity and cardiovascular issues in more depth soon.
So how can we help ourselves?
There are many things that we can do to help slow down the stress treadmill and over the coming weeks I will be sharing more about these too. For now, I would like to focus on one area that can be tremendously impacted by chronic stress, but can also be an amazing tool for dealing with it.
Sleep is vital to our holistic health and wellbeing. It’s when we physically repair, mentally process and emotionally digest the experiences of our day. Whilst we sleep our body is free to continue working hard to maintain homeostasis, or balance, without being inundated with external stimuli too.
Unfortunately, sleep can often be one of the first aspects of life to be impacted when we experience chronic stress. Kind of ironic really as the depletion of stored nutrients like fats and sugars for energy that occurs during a stress response, together with the gut’s inability to replenish these stores quickly due to it’s compromised function, often leaves us feeling exhausted, but unable to get good quality sleep due to feeling ‘wired’.
I believe that one way to ease the stress response cycle, reduce feelings of being ‘wired’ and achieve good quality sleep, is to look back to infancy!
There are hundreds of parenting books available that emphasise the importance of a calm and tranquil bedtime routine for a new baby, in order to help set regular cues that help them learn to sleep through the night. Perhaps a warm bath, warm milk, a story, some aromatherapy baby sleep balm and then snuggled up for sleep. Even the sound of it conjures feelings of nurturing, restful and restorative sleep. Unfortunately adults tend to forget this need for a routine and trade this time for other activities like working on the laptop or watching TV, often with a detrimental effect on our functioning the next day, leading to a further increase in stress as we become less productive.
This pre sleep routine is referred to as sleep hygiene and it is important to be mindful in setting the right tone during this time. Focussing the attention and intention on calm, restorative sleep throughout the whole routine can help reduce the physiological response to stress stimuli as we realise we are safe and nurtured and don’t need fight, flight or freeze.
It may sound very simplistic, but I urge you to give it a try. Sometimes simple adjustments are all that is necessary!