Stress And The Power Of Our Thoughts
"I feel stressed", "I had a stressful week", "I'm under a lot of stress."
Does this sound familiar? I know I hear it almost every day from clients, friends, family members. We live in a world of constant stressors.
But what is the stress actually doing to our bodies when a deadline looms or it's 4:59pm and an email came in with an assignment you feel pressured to finish right away.
Let's look into this fascinating topic.
Your body has TWO distinct nervous system modes that it can be in--and it can only actually be in ONE of the two at a time.
Scientifically, these are referred to as the "sympathetic" and "parasympathetic" modes, but I like to call them the "fight or flight" and "rest and digest" modes, respectively.
We'll define stress as any real or imagined threat and the body's response to that threat.
When your body perceives stress (remember, real or imagined), it will call in a prescription to your inner pharmacy, as Marc David likes to say, causing the following chemistry to occur:
- decrease in digestion and production of digestive juices/enzymes
- rapid, shallow breathing
- decrease in any repair needed (think broken bones, fighting off viruses or any inflammation)
- increase in stress hormones cortisol and insulin
- decrease in calorie burn and metabolic rate
- decrease in nutrient absorption
this is all not to say that stress is BAD, but it is to say that it is POWERFUL. It can cause and does cause all these effects in your body for a reason. It's aim is to conserve any and all energy to focus on ONE TASK...fighting off a tiger. Well, that's what it used to be for, anyway. These days that one task is more like...answering an important email, finishing a spin class, dealing with an angry boss...you get the picture.
Conversely, when your body is in the parasympathetic/rest and digest mode, that has its own chemistry which produces the following effects:
- longer, deeper breathing
- repair of body
- increase in calorie burn and metabolic rate
- increase in digestion and absorption
- decrease in stress hormones
Without proper time in our rest and digest mode, our body cannot heal, repair, digest, and reset for the next round of stress we are bound to incur.
How can we help bring ourselves out of fight or flight and into rest and digest a bit more?
First let's imagine the following:
You're feeling really down. Lying on the couch, exhausted, sluggish, just overall having a lot of negative self-talk.
Then, all of a sudden, you get a call from your biggest crush or idol (think Ryan Reynolds or Obama). They want to take you to dinner, tonight.
How do you feel? Does your physical experience in your body change? I know when I think about that I get a burst of energy, a lightness and usually my hunger disappears.
What's happening here is your thoughts are causing a change in your physiology.
Our thoughts have incredible power over our body chemistry. Our minds can affect our bodies! And so when we harness that power by shifting our perspective, meditating, asking ourselves "how can we see this differently", we're causing important biological changes that can help us turn from our stress chemistry into rest and digest.
Of course, this takes time, patience, practice. But, step one is getting excited and curious about the power of our thoughts to affect our body chemistry!
For some people visualization helps, thinking about being off on a beach somewhere when they start to feel stress...for others (like Hilary Clinton!) breathing techniques like alternate nostril breathing can be a useful tool. I personally love Insight Timer--an app that allows you to choose from thousands of meditations based on the amount of time you have.
I use it before bed, on the subway, when I wake up in the morning, any time that I feel I'm having trouble shifting from stress chemistry into rest and digest.
I'm curious to hear if any of you have tools you use to shift your stress, and if you try any of the above. Shoot me a message!