We live in an increasingly frantic world. We are overloaded with info yet 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, migraines, skin problems, digestive distress, recurrent respiratory infections, insomnia, panic attacks.
All these things are forms of stress and when we 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 us feeling restored, and with habitual use they create yet more stress for our overloaded and undernourished minds, bodies and souls and leave us feeling depleted and anxious.
When we are constantly doing, rushing, sleep deprived, eating on the run, skipping meals, frequently reaching for depleting substances like 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 our health. Because at physical and emotional levels, we have begun to live in the stress response 24/7 - a physiological and mental state also known as fight or flight, where Sympathetic Nervous System functions dominate. Yet our bodies were designed only to enter the stress response, or fight or flight, for short periods of time, during emergency situations, as a survival mechanism. We are not meant to be living like this 24/7, and you will see why below.
When we are in the stress response (aka fight or flight)
-Our 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.
-We breathe shallowly and rapidly.
-Erection and orgasm are inhibited.
-Our liver releases stored glucose into our blood stream, preparing us to run or fight (think stubborn weight gain round the middle, elevated blood glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides).
-We feel wired, physically tense and are less aware of pain.
-We feel anxious.
-We struggle to sleep.
-The body's normal healing and repair processes shut down because during the stress response these are considered temporarily non-essential.
-Our immune function is suppressed via the effects of cortisol on white blood cell function, meaning we become more susceptible to infections and repeated infections.
-Inflammation develops owing to erratic cortisol levels, which can lead to a multitude of health issues - from aches and pains, to depression, to joint problems.
-Hormonal excesses and imbalances can lead to sodium loss, which leaves us feeling exhausted as our cells are starved of this vital major mineral. In the long term, this can lead to serious kidney problems and even kidney failure.
-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 PMS, morning sickness, migraines, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, poor wound healing, and frequent coughs and colds.
-We may be quick to anger, causing harm to ourselves and others. We may rush unnecessarily. We may disengage from how we are feeling emotionally.
In short, stress contributes to many physical, mental and emotional health problems, and it is no exaggeration to say it can be a killer.
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 some of the many ways we can relax, by activating the opposite of the stress response - the rest, repair and digest state. This where our Parasympathetic Nervous System functions dominate and the metaphorical foot has been taken off the gas pedal. It is the state we 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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