I talk to groups and individuals about stress quite frequently, and one of the things that people find interesting is gaining a better understanding how it affects the body. If we have a sense of how stress affects us, we can then make choices to help minimize its impact.
Our Autonomic Nervous System acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions, such as heart rate and digestion. It has two branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) gets activated when we respond to a perceived threat. You have probably heard of the “fight, flight, or freeze response”, and that is what happens when our SNS kicks in. Stress is the neurological and physical shift that occurs when a threat is detected. If you were alive a long time ago, living on the savannah, the threat could have been a lion. When you perceive the lion, your heart rate rises, and blood gets pumped to your muscles. You are ready to run or fight! Your muscles stiffen and are ready to respond. When you are prepared to respond to a threat, your higher thoughts disappear. Your thinking narrows and focuses on the here-and-now threat. Your frontal lobes are used less, which can impact your self-control and willpower. (You might notice you eat worse or make poorer decisions when you are stressed.)
The stress hormones are now coursing through your body, preparing you to take action to save yourself! Your ability to feel your body decreases, as your full attention is needed for the perceived threat. Other responses happen in your body as well. Your digestion slows, and your immune response diminishes to save energy. Your sexual responses (such as erections and lubrication) and your libido are also decreased.
Once the threat is over, and you have run away or successfully fought off the lion, your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is activated. This is our “rest and digest” response, and this should be our baseline. While the SNS prioritizes problem solving, the PNS is more engaged in reflection, a key component of our humanness. The PNS is essential for our health and well-being. It is the state needed for deep thought, connection to others, creativity, sexuality, and digestion.
What should happen after you run away from the lion and are safe is that you then rest and recharge. This is the state in which you should live much of your life. Instead, as often happens in our modern world, everything is seen as a lion.
The relentless nature of modern life and technological stimuli encourage SNS activation regularly. Work deadlines, crowded spaces, unpaid bills, cars that cut us off, or bicycles that almost hit us can all trigger the same nervous system response as a threat from a lion. Even the notifications on our phones lead to a stress response and release of stress hormones, such as cortisol (so please think about turning most notifications off on your phone and having phone-free time each day- and especially at night!). When you are in this state, you start to perceive more threats, and this creates a vicious cycle.
If the SNS cannot be switched off, this can lead to anxiety, insomnia, IBS, muscle tightness, or longer-term physical and mental health issues. Continually elevated cortisol levels are correlated with negative health outcomes such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, dementia, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes. Chronic stress can even shut down the SNS, leading to symptoms associated with depression: persistent low mood, lack of motivation, and lower sex drive and energy.
Given all this, it is important for you to reflect on how stress takes place in your life. What leads to stress in your everyday life? What can you change or address? Taking a good look at this will allow you to determine what you can let go of, or minimize, to lower your levels of stress.
Something my clients find helpful is to list everything that causes them stress. Take some time to make this list and add to it over days. Once you have a decent list, consider each item on it and think about one way- even a very small way- you can decrease your exposure to this stress, avoid it entirely, or handle it differently in a way that will work better for you.
You can also consider what you can to do to calm yourself and engage your PNS more frequently- to bring you to a baseline of rest and digest. Many activities can help us activate our PNS, such as breathing/relaxation exercises/meditation, physical exercise, expressing ourselves creatively, connecting with those who support us, writing, and experiencing art/music.
Taking all this into account, what is one way you can lower your level of stress, either by decreasing your stress response or by engaging your PNS?