We live in an increasingly frantic world. We are overloaded with information online and increasingly disconnected from each other as we communicate electronically more than face to face. We juggle work, study, family, care-giving and household tasks. Most of us worry about money to varying degrees. We worry about the future, and replay events from the past that distressed us and feel unresolved.
Many of us have a habit of speaking harshly to ourselves....a savage inner critic. Many of us are constantly rushing from one thing to the next. We feel exhausted so we reach for coffee to give us a 'lift', then alcohol in the evenings to 'wind down'. Then there's email. Social media. The doom and gloom of the news. Worrying social and environmental issues. Commuting. Finding time to exercise. Realizing you haven't seen your best friends in months.
And in addition to all this, many of us are living with health issues that affect us physically and emotionally, which may be present most days or may come and go every few weeks or months. For example, PMS, endometriosis, depression, anxiety, fatigue, migraines, skin problems, digestive distress, recurrent respiratory infections, insomnia, panic attacks.
All these things are forms of stress and when you are experiencing multiple stressors, it can become overwhelming. It's not surprising many of us reach for sugar, alcohol, drugs and television to numb out, soothe ourselves, and disengage our exhausted brains. Yet these things don't leave you feeling restored. And with habitual use, they create more stress for your overloaded and undernourished mind, body and soul and leave you feeling depleted and anxious.
When we are constantly doing, rushing, sleep deprived, eating on the run, skipping meals, frequently reaching for alcohol, caffeine and refined sugar, feeling on edge and overloaded, when we are feeling lonely and unseen, constantly giving, and carrying unaddressed emotional and physical pains and traumas, this has serious implications for your health. Because at physical and emotional levels, you have begun to live in the stress response 24/7 - a physiological and mental state also known as fight or flight, where the Sympathetic Nervous System is in the driver's seat.
Yet your body was designed only to enter the stress response, or fight or flight, for short periods of time during emergency situations, as a survival mechanism. You are not meant to be living like this 24/7, and you will see why below.
When you are in the stress response (aka fight or flight)
-Your digestive processes such as secretion of gastric juices and intestinal motility shut down, diminishing absorption of nutrients and normal bowel movement (think constipation, diarrhoea, or alternating diarrhoea and constipation).
-Blood pressure and heart rate increase, making the heart work harder.
-You breathe shallowly and rapidly.
-Erection and orgasm are inhibited.
-Your liver releases stored glucose into your blood stream, preparing you to run or fight (think stubborn weight gain round the middle, elevated blood glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides).
-You feel wired, physically tense and are less aware of pain.
-You feel anxious.
-You struggle to sleep.
-The body's normal healing and repair processes shut down because during the stress response these are considered temporarily non-essential.
-Your immune function is suppressed via the effects of cortisol on white blood cell function, meaning you become more susceptible to infections and repeated infections.
-Hormonal excesses and imbalances can lead to sodium loss, which leaves us feeling exhausted as our cells are starved of this vital mineral.
-The hormones required for a healthy pregnancy become diminished.
-The body uses up great amounts of the B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and vitamin C via metabolic processes related to the stress response. This can lead to a multitude of symptoms, including but not limited to fatigue, PMS, morning sickness, migraines, headaches, insomnia, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, poor wound healing, and frequent coughs and colds.
-You may be quick to anger, causing harm to yourself and others. You may rush unnecessarily. You may disengage from how you are feeling emotionally.
In short, stress contributes to many physical, mental and emotional health problems. More than ever, we need to practise the art of relaxation. We must create space for ourselves to be human beings, rather than human doings.
The next article in this series will look at ways you can relax by activating the opposite of the stress response - the rest, repair and digest state. This where your Parasympathetic Nervous System is in the driver's seat and the metaphorical foot has been taken off the gas pedal. It is the state you were designed to live in most of the time, and one conducive to relaxation, healing, and mental and physical and wellness.
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