Practices For Working with the Stress in Our Lives
In my last post I talked a about how our nervous system is biologically hardwired to deal with stressful situations. I would like to dive deeper into this physiological response in order to share why it is so important for us to practice methods for retraining our mind. When our brain is alerted to a potential threat it activates the sympathetic nervous system and our fight, flight and freeze response. Our amygdala sets off a series of reactions that stimulate the adrenal medulla to produce a cascade of stress hormones. These hormones help to accelerate our heart and breathing rate to provide more oxygen and blood flow to our muscles so that we can respond quickly to the threat.
After the threat passes our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) should kick in, slowing down our heart rate and breathing and relaxing our blood vessels and muscles. This fight or flight response was essential to our survival when we had to defend ourselves from the elements and wild animals. However, we no longer face these threats but our bodies still respond to stress in this way. In fact as a culture and as individuals many of us are locked in sympathetic overdrive and our nervous systems never get the opportunity to rest.
Sympathetic overdrive, or the inability for our parasympathetic system to kick in can have catastrophic effects on our health. People often experience these effects physically in the form of digestive complaints, aches and pains, insomnia, lack of energy, lowered immune response and hypertension. As many of us know the ramifications of stress can go well beyond the body and often impact our state of mind, emotions and relationships. Long periods of increased stress can cause people to swing between anxiety and depression. It can fuel anger, frustration and resentment and even send us plummeting into periods of deep sadness and grief.
We find ourselves on a rollercoaster of ups and down that often suck the vitality and happiness from our lives. When we are in this state it is difficult to connect with others, which often breaks down our relationships and can lead us to feel even more isolated and alone. From my own experience I believe that it is possible to move from the swinging pendulum of life experiences to a quieter space that is more open, flexible and balanced. I also believe that we are meant to be happy and to enjoy our lives.
This requires some effort on our part because we have to begin to retrain our nervous system. We can reteach our brains and our bodies how to respond to stress. We can re-establish a healthy sympathetic and parasympathetic response. There are many ways to do this through nutrition, proper hydration and an abundance of mind-body practices like acupuncture and meditation. The two areas I want to emphasize in this post are proper hydration and meditation or mindfulness practice.
Our brain is made up of about 75% water. Even slight dehydration can cause significant decreases in brain function and negatively impact our mood leading to anxiety and depression. Did you know that approximately 75% of Americans are dehydrated? That is a huge number, but fortunately it is something that we can all change pretty easily. Having a well hydrated brain will help us as we embark on other practices like meditation that work directly on retraining the nervous system. I often recommend that people carry a water bottle around with them throughout the day. Often times when we are “on the run” it is difficult to remember to stay hydrated. Carrying a water bottle with you not only is a good reminder, but it can also help you keep track of how much water you are drinking. Ideally you should be drinking half your weight in ounces of water a day. (If you weigh 150 pounds you would need 75 oz. of water a day.)
Mediation and mindfulness-based practices have been used for thousands of years. The simple practice of bringing our attention to our breath as it moves in and out has the powerful effect of resetting our nervous system. As little as 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation practice a day can help you manage stress, reduce anxiety, improve cardiovascular health and achieve greater relaxation. Meditation teaches us that stress is not inherently negative or bad, nor is it a permanent fixture in our lives. Instead of getting rid of stress we can develop a relationship with it that opens us to the opportunity to learn and grow with each experience.
Tara Brach, a teacher who blends Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices gave a talk called Stress and Everyday Nirvana. In this talk she elaborates in such a beautiful and relatable manner on how we can begin to approach stress in ways that allow us to choose a different more adaptive response. She also offers exercises to support the listener in beginning to shift from fight, flight, freeze to befriend and attend. She leads the listener through ways we can begin to shift our response to stress so that we access our full potential. Don’t miss out on this powerful podcast that will help you begin to transform your relationship not only with stress but also even more importantly with your own heart. Click on the link below to listen!