What’s a typical day like for you? The alarm sounds. Hop in the shower or head for the gym. Grab a coffee and maybe a bit of breakfast, sometimes devouring it mindlessly in the car as you head to work, knowing you’ve got to catch the green lights if you’re to get there on time. The job greets you head on, and you better get with it if you’re to accomplish everything you’ve planned for the day. Between phone calls, emails, texts and interruptions, you’ve added more to your list than you’ve crossed off. By noon, it’s tempting to skip lunch or eat at your desk like 16-34% of American workers. The mid-afternoon slump hits, along with the pressure you feel to get it all done. Your brain is telling you it needs a break, but you choose to grab a coffee and a sweet and push through. You brave the traffic on your homeward drive, stopping at the gym if you didn’t get there that morning. You hit the treadmill. It’s familiar, because in some way, you’ve been on the treadmill all day. Or you straddle a bike in spinning class, hoping to leave behind all the thoughts spinning in your head. Shower, home, grab some dinner in whatever order works, then plop down with your favorite electronic device or TV for a little YOU time before hitting the pillow. Oh, you’ve got kids? Then you’ve experienced how all the above can go from busy to berserk while attending to their needs, activities and more.
Your day is full of stressors, and I didn’t even mention the “extras” such as illness, relationship issues, and financial, transportation or work woes. A busy lifestyle isn’t the only source of unrest. I’ve met many a retired or unemployed individual who report angst related to idleness and lack of purpose in their life. Someone commented recently, “It almost feels like a crisis; not having a project to work on.”
Some of the most common symptoms of excessive stress in the body are headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, pain, fatigue, anxiety, inability to focus or concentrate, memory lapses, irritability, anger, overeating and depression. Do any of these sound familiar?
In today’s culture, we have access to many short term solutions. A headache makes us reach for an analgesic so that we can go on with our day. We’ve got to be productive right? And if fatigue or inability to focus gets in the way, a coffee, soda or energy drink is easily accessible. Pair that with a sugar pick me up and you may be good for another couple hours. There’s a pill for blood pressure, anxiety, depression and pain. Some of us are so wound up at the end of the day that it’s hard to come down. But there are solutions for that as well. For example, alcohol, marijuana or other mood-altering substances. And for insomnia, a wide array of prescription and over the counter options is abundant.
The American Medical Association acknowledges that stress may play a role in 75% of illness and disease. We can do our best to reduce our stressors, but many are sure to be there on a regular basis. What we DO have control over, is our stress response. So how do we choose balance over busy and berserk? How do we find calm in the midst of chaos? And is it possible to actually savor stillness?
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is your friend. It works for you by turning on the Sympathetic Nervous System when a life threatening situation requires the fight-flight response. You’ve felt it. Someone pulls out in front of you on busy highway. Chemicals such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine are released into the blood stream. Impulses quicken. Vision sharpens. Hands may get sweaty and muscles tense, all allowing you to grip the wheel, steer and activate the brake as needed. Blood pressure, heart rate and respirations increase, sending crucial blood supply and oxygen to the necessary organs. Once the incident is over, the body returns to a state of homeostasis. Or at least that is what’s intended.
In our busy, modern world, everyday life situations that are perceived as stressful can trigger this same response. One event, coupled with another, then another, keep the stress hormones surging in the body. Worry, mind chatter, tense muscles, chest-breathing, cold hands, increased sweat gland activity and heart activation can signal the body to activate the fight/flight response. Staying in this state of hyperarousal drains the adrenal glands and YOU.
We can learn to send different signals to our body that trigger the parasympathetic branch of the ANS, the rest/digest response. Even something as simple, (or is it?), as changing our thoughts or breathing pattern, can lessen stress hormone production and move us toward a more restorative state.
As a nurse and biofeedback clinician I can’t prescribe medication. I can, however, offer you a tool for affecting your body’s chemistry; in fact, you may want to think of the human body as having its own inner pharmacy. Add my prescription for conscious breathing to your medicine cabinet, and you’ll be in charge of all refills. Read on, but please don’t misunderstand me. I certainly don’t recommend you discontinue current prescriptions without guidance from a trusted health care provider.
“People who eat an excellent diet and exercise faithfully are not always healthy, but the likelihood of being a healthy person who does not breathe well is slim.” -Dr. Andrew Weil.