"Health is a large word. It embraces not the body only, but the mind and spirit as well;...
and not today's pain or pleasure alone, but the whole being and outlook of a man."
~James H. West

Lisa's Blog

Stress: Why Are We Feeling it More Intensely, is it Useful and How Do We Manage It?

Lisa Cutforth - Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Stress:  A Modern Disease or an
Age Old Survival Mechanism

Are you making stress work for you?

Stress is just the word for the reponse the body has to a stimulus or change.  It is the body's way of trying to adapt to an outside influence, situation or change.

The body can react to a stressor in three ways: Fight, Flight or Freeze.  There is evidence to suggest that the way we react to stressors is set before we are 9 months old and you will usually have a pattern for how you relate to stress.

The stress response is primarily a survival mechanism, put in place to help us survive our environment... If you think of our ancestors in hunter gatherer times depending on the stressor they might choose one of the three reactions.  They might flee an elephant or a snake, they might confront or fight a lion or an intruder, they might freeze or stand still in the hope of going unseen in the bush. 

Modern day stressors are very different, yet the reactions still follow the same lines.  Let's consider an example:  when someone shouts at you, how do you respond?  Do you overt your eyes, shut down communication, turn your head away and try to quickly remove yourself from your "attacker", leave the room, avoid confrontation.  This is an example of flight, you try to get away.

Or, when someone shouts at you, do you get really angry, raise your voice, and shout back, do you "fight" back, this is an example of the modern day fight reflex.  Or perhaps when you get bad news you freeze, you feel powerless to move, you may be speechless, you can't seem to respond.  This is an example of freeze,  you may have heard the phrase: "deer in the headlights" or frozen with fear.

The reality is all stress responses are driven by the fear response and are deemed at some point to be threatening, and to our old brain or limbic system, they are deemed to be life threatening, so our stress response is primarily in place to increase our chances of surviving the adversary.

Nowadays we use the term "stress" very loosely, we say "I feel stressed", or they "stress me out" or "I am under a lot of stress".

The reality is stress has increased in modern times, and that is largely because life has changed.  What is interesting is that we may not be exposed to the acute stressors of old... being face to face with a lion, but we are exposed to many more daily stressors and tend to experience a higher degree of chronic stress, which equally takes its toll on the body.

In times of old it took approximately 12 hours a week to meet our basic food and shelter needs, nowadays it takes anything from 30 - 80 hours a week.  So while the intensity may have been reduced arguably the burden has increased.
It is no wonder we feel "stressed".

What happens physiologically in a stress response?  Let's consider three things that happen...
  • Your heart rate goes up, pumping blood and nutrients to your cells that your performance is increased, you can act quickly!
  • Your blood supply is increased to your limbs, so they get the oxygen and nutrients they need to act... and directed away from your internal organs like digestive tract etc which aren't vital in that moment.
  • Your sugar stores are imobilised for use
So you are ready to run or fight for your life...

The problem is, if this is what is going on in your body MOST of the time, then this will start to have some health implications.  It starts to put a bit of extra strain on your heart which is now overworking most of the time, your nerves are overfiring which saps energy out of you and starts to age you prematurely, your digestive system is not getting the blood supply and therefore nutrients and oxygen it needs to perform properly and therefore your whole body doesn't get what it needs to function properly, so your mood suffers,  your health suffers, your energy supply suffers, you start to get deficiencies and experience cravings.  Your blood sugar is up and down, your mood, concentration, energy levels and metabolism start to suffer.

This can't continue long term so eventually you are at risk of burn out.

So what can you do?

First thing to do is to be aware of what is happening, and to try to get some perspective.  Most of this is happening subconsciously, so you are being controlled by your systems and emotions.  Stop and get some perspective.  Where is the real danger in this situation, what can I do about it, what do I need to do about it if anything?

Secondly, think of the areas you can regain control, what are the areas that continually stress you out.  You can do something about it, there is always a way, whether it is restructing stuff, giving something up, letting something go, asking for help, getting some advice, asking yourself some honest questions.  Is this the best way for me to achieve my goals?  Or is there another way?  You might not have the answer but someone else might.  Don't stay stuck and stressed, it's not necessary and it won't serve you.

In the moment of stress: make it work for you: rather than repressing your fight response, find a punching bag or go for a run, burn up that energy, direct that energy source to a worthy cause, don't let it stay trapped.  When you are stuck in "freeze" distract yourself, alert yourself to your senses, what can you see, smell, taste, hear.  When you want to run away, where can you channel that power and energy into doing something constructive?

Look after yourself:  People who live to over 100 and still are full of beans, do a few things:
  1. They are part of a community,
  2. They eat well: not too much, mostly vegetables and good quality protein (fish, beans, soya, nuts, organic meat) and good quality fat and wine,
  3. They include natural movement  as part of their day, and
  4.  They feel like they are contributing to society in one way or another: they have a reason to get up in the morning
  5. They rest
These may sound like really simple things, and you have heard them before undoubtedly, and they work.  It is interesting to realise though, that to have heard it before does not mean: to know, so don't just glance over this and say yeah: I know that, or I do that already, do you?

"To know and not do, is not yet to know"

Constantly I am intrigued at why it is that people can know what to do to help themselves feel better, look better, get what they want.... and still not act.

This is often to do with self sabotage.
Theories that exist around this paradox are largely based on the fear of change and the fear of failure and most interestingly the fear of success.

How do you stop yourself from helping yourself, moving in the direction of your dreams or getting what you want?  How do you stop yourself from being less stressed out?

Many people self sabotage because change is risky.  Where there is uncertainty there lies fear.  Is the effort worth it, is the cost worth it, will it work for me, i am not confident in my own ability: I don't know what to do or how to do it.

I encourage you to ask for help where you are getting stuck.  Identify the barrier so that you can push it aside and move in the direction of longevity and vitality.

"Asking for help doesn't mean that we are weak or incompetent.  It usually indicates an advanced level of honesty and intelligence."  Anne wilson Schaef

Sure, life is complicated, but healthy living is relatively simple.  There are benefits to stress, there is a purpose to stress. Stress is life preserving in its essence, that is it's function, but if overworked or overused, it will become life inhibiting or life stopping.

Make stress work for you and you can accomplish GREAT things!

If you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed, can't see the way through, don't know where to start but you would like to feel better, feel free to give Lisa a call or drop her an email, there may be something useful she could suggest. 

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