Has stress become a way of life? For many of us, the answer seems a resounding “Yes!” In today’s fast-paced life, being stressed-out has become the norm. The thinking has evolved to be, “If I am constantly busy, multi-tasking and running around like the proverbial ‘chicken with its head cut off’, that signifies I am needed, important, useful, and productive.” However, the cost of this constant state is high—often leading to an ongoing barrage of adverse emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms, draining our energy, productivity and ability to think clearly.
Although we may recognize anxiety, overwhelm, short temper, frustration or trouble sleeping as indicators of the stress we are under, it is not as common to associate chronic pain, recurring headaches, nervous habits, cravings, a propensity to catch every virus or illness we come in contact with or even disease as such. Yet these too are warning signs our body is sending to catch our attention. If that level of stress persists, it is likely to lead to greater, more serious consequences, physical and/or emotional.
So what can be done? Isn’t stress something beyond our control? To answer these questions, let’s discuss the impact of stress, and how our body and mind are linked.
We can better understand why ongoing stress is so detrimental to our health if we look at biology. Our incredible body has been designed to be in one of two modes. It is either in the growth and relaxation response (G&R), or the fight-flight-freeze response (FFF). Due to the function of the chemicals produced in each of these response modes, they cannot co-exist.
While in the G&R response, our marvelous body goes about the job of building, repairing and maintaining. The chemicals released create a supportive internal environment, enabling all of the body’s systems to perform smoothly and harmoniously. This is our natural state of being.
The FFF response is just as brilliant. It enables the body to quickly and effectively escape and avoid danger in order to survive. The chemicals released are designed for surges of power and energy. Nothing else matters except to escape, defeat or trick the “pursuing tiger”. Once the danger has passed, our all-knowing body returns to homeostasis, and our internal chemistry changes to again support growth and relaxation.
Our body is designed well and can easily handle small doses of stress, but is not equipped for ongoing stress. When the chemicals released during the FFF response stay in the body for extended periods of time, they create a toxic internal environment and cells start to deteriorate. This is when we begin to experience warning signals, which, if not heeded lead to illness and disease.
Our body is inseparably entwined with our mind. How we think determines how we feel. Every thought we think generates a chemical reaction, putting our body into either the G&R or FFF mode. For example, when we see a dog and think, “Oh isn’t that dog adorable!” the chemicals we produce initiate the G&R response and we feel good emotionally and physically—calm, relaxed, playful, loving. However if our thought is, “That dog is scary!” the chemicals produced ignite the FFF response and we don’t feel good emotionally and physically—scared, anxious, ill at ease, tense.
In our modern world, we no longer have real tigers threatening to make a meal of us. Instead we have “paper tigers”—thoughts about things in our environment that our mind perceives are dangerous. Things such as job expectations, deadlines, highway traffic, financial concerns, family demands, food cravings, self-esteem issues, social expectations and cultural mores. How we think about these things becomes the stressor in our life, creating a continuous stream of perceived dangers constantly propelling our body into the FFF response. And, here’s the scary part, most of our thoughts occur automatically and subconsciously.
So, are we destined to be victims of our subconscious thoughts?
Although most of us have been taught differently, dealing with stress and its impact is within our control. Once we understand the connection between the mind and body, and the body’s amazing biology, we begin to grasp the importance of being in the G&R response as much as possible. However, if most thoughts originate in our subconscious mind, how do we know what those thoughts are, and how do we shift them?
Here are three simple and effective actions we can take.
- Consciously tune in to what we are feeling. The key is to learn to pay attention to our emotions and body sensations. For example, when we are stuck in traffic, notice the tenseness in the shoulders, the knot in the stomach, or the desire to scream at other drivers. These are indicators we are in the FFF response. Identify the emotion(s) behind the physical sensation. Is it anger, worry, frustration?
- Utilize a mind/body technique. Once we have tuned in to the emotion, calm that automatic, subconscious FFF response and return to the G&R state. Use techniques such as taking three deep, slow belly breaths; EFT to tap on meridian points while acknowledging the emotion; or “pivoting”, which is choosing to focus on thoughts of something we enjoy or love. These techniques serve to immediately calm the FFF response. Later, to reinforce being in the G&R response, we can meditate, use EFT or one of several other stress reducing tools to target any lingering negative thoughts or emotions.
- Establish a practice of using mind/body techniques on a regular basis. The goal is to develop and strengthen the habit of being in the G&R response more consistently. Having such a practice also reduces the tendency to react to today’s “paper tigers” as if they were real tigers pursuing us.
When considering our health, we live in very exciting times. Science is providing more evidence of the profound mind/body connection and the efficacy of techniques such as meditation, yoga, Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), Heart Math and energy medicine. The internet makes it easy to access a myriad of resources and practitioners.
While stress is inevitable, we no longer have to be victims and suffer the physical and emotional consequences of being in chronic stress. We now have the knowledge and resources to access our body’s ability to maintain optimum health. How we deal with the stressors in our life is a choice.