Work deadlines, sitting in traffic, strained relationships, personal or family illnesses are all examples of stress. Stress is defined as any event in which environmental demands, internal demands or both tax or exceed the body’s adaptive responses. Chris Kresser more easily defines it like this, “stress is a disturbance of homeostasis. Homeostasis is the body’s ability to regulate its inner environment.” When our stress gets out of control, our body’s ability to fight off disease or even to function optimally is greatly diminished. To be able to recognize stress and knowing how to manage it takes more effort than following any diet or exercise program out there yet is crucial for optimal health and wellness.
Most of us recognize the big stresses in life but what about the more subtle ones? Our body also recognizes inflammation, poor sleep, food intolerance and over exercising as stress. It is everywhere and everyone has it. Here is how stress works in our body. We have 2 small structures that sit on top of each kidney known as our adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing our fight or flight hormones-cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. However, the adrenal glands are the body system that is most adversely affected by too much stress. Cortisol is meant to be cyclic in our body. High in the morning to wake us and gradually drop lower through out the day so we fall asleep at night. Prolonged stress will disrupt this cycle causing us to carry high cortisol throughout the day leading to adrenal fatigue. This will cause us to feel fatigued even when getting 7-8 hours of sleep at night, hold onto belly fat even though we exercise and eat nutritious food, increase our hunger and sugar/caffeine cravings as well as lower our immune system response. The hormonal disruption creates a hostile environment within our body setting us up for failure and chronic disease.
So how are we to manage stress in our lives so we do not end up falling victim to all the ill effects? First let’s learn to BREATHE. Does that seem silly? Well it isn’t when it comes to the beneficial and calming effects that breathing has on us. When you are stuck in traffic remember to practice breathing. When you want to argue your point with someone pause and breathe. Even better would be to start or end your day with the following breathing exercise from the book Unbeatable Mind called Box Breathing. It will help you better control your stress response and improve your mental concentration. The technique goes like this: start by exhaling all the air from your lungs. Inhale to a count of five. Hold your breath for a 5 count and then exhale to a count of 5.
Always inhale and exhale through your nose to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. You can do this in short intervals throughout the day when you encounter stressful events but try practicing this daily for 5-10 minutes too. For the greatest benefit make it a habit. Do it first thing in the morning before getting out of bed or at night right before you go to bed. Start with doing it for only a minute or two and when you are consistent then advance the time. Add to this a positive affirmation like “you got this” or “ I am grateful for…..”. Breathing is a natural body response we all take for granted but when done with purpose can be healing and a stress management tool too.