If you're anything like me, you've spent a lifetime being hard on yourself for feeling so stressed out by day-to-day life, asking yourself, why is this so hard for me? Why does everyone else seem to be handling this better? What am I doing wrong?
I'm a highly sensitive person who’s gone through some trauma in life (we all have, it's a blessing and curse of being human), so I feel stress very intensely. I didn’t want to continue to be at the mercy of my stress, so I educated myself and learned the cycle of stress on a biological level. I now understand the science of how and why my stress response goes up, which empowers me with knowing how to bring my stress response back down.
THE SCIENCE OF STRESS
The purpose for our stress response thousands of years ago when we were hunters and gatherers living in the wild, was to alert us of life threatening danger- like being chased by a lion. Our heart rate increased to pump blood faster to our muscles, which tensed up readying us to flee or fight. Our pupils dilated. Our breath became short and fast. Our adrenaline, cortisol and even anti-histamine levels increased. Our digestion shut down (because who needs to worry about that when running from a lion?). After escaping the situation, all of these elevated levels in our bodies took time to settle back to their baseline.
Thankfully today most of us don't come into frequent contact with lions. Our stress response, however, has not evolved and adapted as rapidly as modern life has. When we get an email with an impending deadline or become overstimulated by a plethora of news bombarding us on our Facebook feed, that exact same stress response kicks in. Biologically, we're don't differentiate between those kinds of stresses and the lion.
THE PRACTICE OF RELAXATION
Because our modern lifestyle presents us with these types of "little" stressors multiple times a day, every day, our stress response never has time to reset to its baseline before becoming activated again. Over time, the baseline keeps getting nudged a little bit higher, and we’re left to constantly function from a place of stress in mind, body, and soul. That increase in baseline has been linked to everything from heart disease, insomnia, anxiety and even potentially food allergies.
Even though our stress response is an automatic reaction, our opposite relaxation response is not automatic. Instead, relaxation is something we have to manually activate through things like meditation or watching a funny movie or getting a hug from a loved one.
Let's try an exercise.
I want you to think about your day, and how much stress you're receiving versus how much relaxation you're practicing. To do this, create two columns on a piece of paper: title one of them Stressors and the second one Relaxation. Be sure to list even the smallest stressors of each day--even those things you don’t usually think about like that phone call you keep forgetting to make! In the second column, make a list of the self-care practices you do on a daily or weekly basis to activate your relaxation response.
Which list is longer?
If you're feeling exhausted/sick/depressed/stuck/etc. or wonder why your body is constantly craving rest, you're not alone. Instead of pushing yourself harder or feeling ashamed, aim to balance the columns; in other words, give yourself as much relaxation as the amount of stress you allow.
When we understand the science behind our stress, we realize that self-care is not a luxury, but a necessity for health and well-being.
How would greater balance between these two columns bring you ease in your daily life, relationships, or career?