If you google stress, you get 559 million hits. That’s a LOT of stress out there – Dr Google says so! So exactly what is stress? According to Wikipedia, “stress is a body’s method of reacting to a challenge. According to the stressful event, the body’s way to respond to stress is by sympathetic nervous system activation which results in the fight-or-flight response.” Let’s break this down – it’s the body’s reaction. Stress activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system. It results in a fight or flight response. Wow – that doesn’t sound very good, you think. It isn’t! But we’ll come back to that.
I’m an holistic kinesiologist and mind body medicine practitioner. In my line of work, I see a lot of really stressed people, and it presents clinically in a variety of ways. I’ll list my top five – anxiety and depression, headaches and migraines, menstrual problems, sleep disturbance and digestive issues. I’ll bet at this point that 90% of you will have identified with at least one of those conditions. If you haven’t, then I wonder if you will identify with other conditions – heart problems, chronic illness, immune function disorders, brain function issues and cancer. Stress really is a killer! It really doesn’t make us feel very good – common emotions that my clients present with are some combination of anger, resentment, frustration, irritability and explosive temper. It’s no wonder that stress makes us ill – who wouldn’t be ill carrying all of that around with this all of the time?
Let’s examine the physiological effect on the body. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Our SNS has the job of mobilising the body to deal with an external threat . But let’s back up a step – it’s about the body’s reaction. It’s not really about the event, it’s about how you react to it. 10 different people will experience the same event in 10 different ways – they are each bringing their own experiences and feelings and thoughts and DNA and layering all of that over the event that has caused the stress. This is not to say that the reaction to very stressful events should be explained away by this, it simply means that each individual’s reaction to that event is exactly that – individual. It logically follows then that the effects on each person’s body will also be individual, and methods to overcome stress will also be, to a large extent, individual.
When our SNS is activated, it means that the person is perceiving danger (consciously or not), and the brain mobilises the body to fight or flee. There will be a rise in the heart rate and blood pressure, serum blood sugar levels rise, cortical brain function is impaired, and there is an increased sensitivity to low sounds, peripheral movement and touch. The body’s reaction also triggers the HPA axis, which is a feedback loop of hormone release that happens normally when we wake up, but when we are under stress, becomes a negative feedback cycle that continually repeats until we take steps to relieve the stress. And again. And again. This HPA axis directly affects the metabolic system, cardiovascular system, immune system, reproductive system and central nervous system. When you understand all of this, you can see why stress can cause or influence heart conditions, blood conditions such as diabetes, weight concerns, immune function, fertility and sleep.
So basically, when your SNS is activated, your thought and reasoning centres shut down, along with your memory, because you don’t need those to run, and your digestive system shuts down, because you don’t need that to run. Don’t get me wrong, the SNS and the stress response is very important to our survival. It’s very important and beneficial if you happen to be getting chased by a bear. Not so beneficial if you are sitting in an office, or maybe trying to run a business, or interact with your kids. It’s certainly not helpful if you are suffering one of the conditions I’ve mentioned (and more) or are hoping to avoid any of these conditions. The other key feature about stress is that strips your body of vital nutrients, especially B group and C vitamins, which we need in adequate doses daily. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but B group and C vitamins are not typically found in coffee (or any caffeinated product), alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate or unhealthy food. In fact, these things generally contribute to stripping vitamins from your body.
So, stress affects us emotionally, physiologically, mentally and nutritionally. It affects pretty much every functional system in the body and is a key causal or contributing factor to many common health conditions. How often do you think the following?
- It’s OK, I just need a holiday
- It’ll be better when….
- It’s just a part of life
- Harden up
- I’ll do something about when I’ve done (insert list here)
- I haven’t got time
- Lots of people have this condition, it’s normal
- My whole family are stress-heads or have this condition, there’s nothing I can do, it’s inherited
How often do you put off looking after yourself? How often are you last on the list? How often is looking after yourself mentally and physically not a priority? What if you could change how stress affects you? How well do you really feel?
So, oh wise one, what can I do about this?
Put yourself first. (Yeah yeah, as if I’ve got time for that)
Make your health and wellbeing a priority (sure, if the doctor was open at midnight, then I would go)
See this pattern? This is a classic avoidance pattern to justify not looking after your health and wellbeing. A classic defence mechanism to avoid change. Anyone can change if the motivation is high enough or the pain is severe enough, whether that is physical or emotional. Change is hard, and uncomfortable, and requires work, but it is achievable.
There’s many things that you can do. You can remove external stress – change jobs, change friends, remove people from your life, move. Often you will find that the stress follows you, or manifests in a different way. Remember at the beginning of this article – stress is the body’s response. It’s not the external factor; it’s how it affects you. The allostatic load model demonstrates this perfectly. The allostatic load is “the wear and tear on the body” which grows over time when the individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress (Wikipedia). Imagine a bucket that holds 10 litres. Every time you have stress, you tip a glass of water in there. It takes a while to fill that bucket. But then that last glass of stress tips the bucket, and it empties (read have a meltdown or explosive outburst). So then you can add several glasses before the bucket tips again. But it will tip again. You can remove the external factors so the bucket will fill more slowly, but it will fill and overflow again and again. If you can resolve the stress in your body, then that would be represented by a drain in the bottom of the bucket. Then it doesn’t matter how many glasses you tip in the bucket – it will never fill.
You can do intensive exercise to take your mind off it. But that still dumps cortisol in your system, so while it may resolve some of the stress, it doesn’t affect the physiological effects of repeated cortisol dumps on your body. You can go for relaxation therapy like massage, which is wonderful at reducing physical stress, but may not resolve all issues, or issues permanently. Again the stress will return. You can drink. You can smoke. You can eat. You can not eat. How’s that working for you? You can take vitamins. But are you doing anything to stop stripping the vitamins from your body in the first place?
For at least 80% of my adult clients, I suggest two things: Yoga and meditation. Now that you’ve finished rolling your eyes or laughing, there’s another one that I suggest for clients that refuse to do one of these things – colouring books. The last thing that I do is teach my clients to breathe. You’d be surprised at just how many people do not know how to breathe properly. I’ve had two clients in the last year that can breathe properly when they first come to my clinic.
Firstly colouring books – these are a great option for people with busy lives, as you can pack them and take them anywhere. They really are a fantastic tool, as long as you use them if the manner that they should be used. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect, if you finish, if the colours are right. It is simply an exercise for you to be still and just observe, without judgement, what you are doing. It is of no use whatsoever if you are going to get angry or frustrated at colours, speed, or it being perfect. It also is no good if you use it as a reason to spend a lot of money on textas, pencils, crayons, and a bunch of books. It also won’t work if you don’t do it! All you need is 10 minutes a day.
Yoga – contrary to many popular classes that I have experienced, yoga has nothing to do with the body and whether you can or can’t get into a pose, or if you are wearing the right Lorna Jane or Lululemon fashions. However, it has everything to do with the mind. In yoga, you concentrate on the breath (and learn to breathe properly!) and still the mind. I consider it to be a more active form of meditation. Stilling the mind turns off the SNS, and the movement of yoga encourages your body’s energy and blood to flow freely in the absence of stress. It has a multitude of scientifically proven health benefits, and I would encourage you to talk to your yoga instructor about their philosophy in relation to the practice of yoga to ensure that you will learn and practice yoga with true intent. Once you know some basics, you can practice this at home. At least 10 minutes a day.
Meditation. I love meditation. Again, it’s not a case of where you need to sit in orange robes on a clifftop at sunrise in the lotus position, and stay in that position with no thought entering your head for hours at a time. Meditation is a highly individual thing, and you need to find what works for you. You can go to classes, you can download apps, and you can teach yourself. It’s all about finding the space between your thoughts, not finding enlightenment. Again, it’s the practice of stilling your mind, and observing without judgement. It’s a practice that you will find easier each time you do it. If you just can’t get into it, I’d recommend a book called Silence Your Mind by Dr Ramesh Manocha. I’d tried a lot of things, and I thought meditation was stupid and a waste of time, until I went to a talk by this wonderful man. He took us through his meditation, and I didn’t know what it was (but now I get it), but for the first time, I experienced this moment of mental stillness, and it was amazing. I didn’t know what I was supposed to achieve in meditation. Once I knew what I was looking for, it became so much easier, and over time, it becomes easier to just still your mind, even in times of stress. And as an added benefit, you only need 10 minutes a day. There is a quote that I love that says you should meditate for 10 minutes a day, and if you don’t have time, then you should meditate for an hour.
Breathing. How hard is it to breathe? Just in and out, right? Yes-ish. Breathe in now. Did your chest rise, or your belly? If the answer is your chest, you’re not breathing properly! Breathing should expand your diaphragm, and if you are doing this, your belly will expand when you breathe. If you do this, it oxygenates your body properly, and relives stress. This is easy enough to learn – lay on your back and put your hands near your belly button. Breathe in, focusing on drawing breath down to your hands. Practice! This is a great exercise for calming the body and mind, and relieving stress.
10 minutes a day. I challenge all my clients to find just 10 minutes a day, where they put themselves first, and do one of these exercises to still their mind and relieve stress. Everyone can find 10 minutes in a day, no matter how busy they are. It’s all about priorities. Try it – you’d be amazed at the difference that can be achieved in your life by doing one of these things every day for just 10 minutes. You can do it – you’re worth it!
Naturally, I’d also recommend seeing a holistic kinesiologist such as myself. I approach kinesiology from a basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and it is an excellent therapeutic tool to relieve all types of stress in the body, and bring the body back to balance. It is highly effective on a wide range of conditions and concerns, and I’d encourage you to contact me or one of my colleagues to see how we can help you resolve the stress in your life.
KinesiAlice Holistic Kinesiology
0425 268 167