When I played football in college, we use to have these things called lifting meets. It was basically a powerlifting contest for us and a couple other football teams in the area. It was great (at least back then we thought it was), pump screamo music, get yourself psyched up and lift some heavy weight. I would imagine that plenty of bad form happened during those events….but, you live and you learn.
Anyway, the point of the story is, we pretty much walked around screaming and yelling like Stone Cold Steve Austin used to before smashing a beer can on his head (he was a wrestler by the way…..yes, I used to be that guy), so our nervous system’s were on high alert. Well, when you’re chronically stressed, as a majority of American’s are these days, your nervous system is on high alert, a lot like ours were back then. Being in this state for a prolonged period of time can prove to have serious health consequences, which we’ll get to momentarily, but we’ll see if we can figure out a way to get you back to a more parasympathetic state and add some years back onto your life.
To be able to truly understand how to get rid of stress, you have to have an understanding of how what it means to go from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state.
The nervous system is broken up into the Central Nervous System and Peripheral Nervous System. Simply, the CNS is your brain and spinal cord, and the PNS is everything else, which includes the autonomic nervous system (part of 2 subdivisions of the PNS). The autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary action, is finally broken into 2 branches: the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch.
The sympathetic branch of the autonomic system is responsible for your bodies fight-or-flight response. This response is generally activated during times of stress (I bet you can see where this is going now). It also leads to an increase in heart rate and a decrease in other bodily functions, such as digestion, that your body deems less important during times of stress. These are all responses that SHOULD BE short term, like when you suddenly think that you lost your phone (sudden increase in heart rate) but realize that you’re actually talking on it (crisis averted…….don’t act like that’s never happened to you!!) The problem is, many of us have chronic stress from work, school, family, friends and so on, which leads to chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system and certain dysfunctions that come with that.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, controls bodily function during normal situations. It lowers the heart rate, decreases blood pressure, stimulates digestion and helps to conserve energy from food. This is your bodies natural state, where it wants to hang out most of the time. When you’re spending most of your time in a parasympathetic state, your body can store up energy for those times when you do need to be on high alert.
So, if our goal is to get ourselves out of this sympathetic state that stress puts us in, how do we destress and cool our jets so that our bodies can relax? There are a couple of valuable tools, some that are obvious and some less obvious, that can help.
1) Avoid stressful people – We all have friends, family members and coworkers that drive us nuts. Their life is always full of “this” and “that” and all they do is unload it you whenever you’re around. All this does is stress you more because, obviously, you have your own problems that you’re busy worrying about. Sad to say, but sometimes you just have to shut people off.
2) Avoid stressful situations – I hate being in big crowds of people, it’s unsettling and gives me the jitters. Most of us have situations like this we don’t enjoy….so just avoid them, it’s not worth the extra stress.
3) Don’t watch the news – You ever hear the saying “no news is good news”? Well, that generally tells me that news is usually bad news……so why watch the news when they tell you is the bad stuff?
4) Change your mindset – In her book, Mindset, Carol Dweck covers the 2 mindsets that she has studied for most of her career, the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Essentially, someone with a fixed mindset believes that they have no control of their surroundings or abilities and tend to think negatively about situations. The growth mindset pushes us to believe that we do, in fact, have control of our life and our abilities and helps us to think positively.
5) Meditate – I think meditation is a word that freaks people out. You think of Monks in robes with their legs crossed, humming to themselves. So, for this reason we’ll simply call this mindful breathing instead. Get up early in the morning, turn off the bad news, sit upright in your seat and take big, deep breaths. Pay close attention as you pull the air in and out. Start with 5 minutes and work your way up to 20 or 30 minutes. It’ll help reset your mind….just try it!!