April 1st marks the beginning of stress awareness month and it is widely reported that up to 98% of all degenerative diseases are caused by stress, so learning how to manage the stress in your life is crucial.
To understand stress we need to know how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) works which regulates the function of our internal organs such as the heart, stomach and intestines and also controls the muscles in our body.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is vital in two situations-
~When we perceive a threat physical or mental to our survival (think sabre toothed tiger trying to attack you) our fight or flight mechanism kicks in and is where we either run away from the perceived threat or you stand there and fight the sabre toothed tiger in front of you.
~When that threat has gone or is no longer a threat the rest and digest should set in.
When we are faced with a sabre toothed tiger absolutely our stress response should kick in and do what it needs to do for survival, but in our society we are not faced with sabre toothed tigers thankfully. Our sabre toothed tigers are not a threat to our survival but consist of daily living stress, trying to juggle family and work, deadlines, money worries, relationship troubles e.t.c. But the same physiological response happens within our body's, as the sabre toothed tiger approaches, our blood pressure and heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid and takes in more oxygen, blood flow may be increased 300-400% to give added fuel to muscles, brain and lungs, our immune systems go on hyper-alert in case we get injured and our digestive system gets shut down.
So we have all this extra energy and blood pumping to our muscles,brains and lungs and the chances are we can't run away from our family and work commitments and we can't fight the person in the car in front of you who is holding you up in traffic. If not properly metabolized excessive stress can lead to high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, disorders of the hormonal and immune system (creating susceptibility to infections, chronic fatigue, depression and auto-immune diseases).
How then do we protect ourselves? By paying close attention to the unique signals of the fight or flight system, noticing when your heart rate begins to increase, when your breathing becomes more shallow, when you are sighing deeply, develop a dry mouth, your muscles begin to ache and pain, you get frequent headaches and digestive problems. You may also experience emotional or psychological symptoms such as anxiety, poor concentration, depression, frustration, anger, sadness or fear. By recognizing the signs of stress you can begin to take steps to handle the stress overload in your body.
If we have all this extra energy and blood being pumped to our muscles and vital organs getting ready to fight or flight one of the most obvious ways of dispersing stress is physical exercise, any form of exercise where we work up a sweat for 5 minutes will do, jumping jacks, running on the spot, sun salutations. Mini exercise sessions are perfect for stress reduction and you get the added benefit of endorphin release when we exercise which are our feel good hormones. When we feel good are thoughts are clearer and more positive, when we don't feel good we can tend to focus on whats not working so well in our lives and this in turn can create more stress in our lives.
Coming up in the next blog I will be focusing on the rest and digest system of the Autonomic Nervous System which is vital for health and wellbeing and following that I will be offering simple tips to help reduce the stress in your life. Please comment below on what you find helpful to disperse your stress hormones, I would love to know!
Advanced clinical massage therapist and yoga teacher.