Our bodies are built to stay in a state of homeostasis, or that is to say a state of balance. So when we are normally exposed to stress, the body can respond with the adrenal glands, but typically returns back to that state of homeostasis. So for example, back in the day when we lived in caves and hung out by the fire, if we took a walk and got chased by a lion, we’d produce an acute stress response. This “fight or flight” response kicks in with the Autonomic Nervous System and causes many physical reactions. Our pupils dilate, our heart rate increases, the airways in our lungs open wider, blood circulation increases, the adrenals release cortisol and adrenaline… all of this so that we could run like heck to get away. But then later, back at the cave resting, our adrenals return to producing the same levels of cortisol and adrenaline that they do when they are in a state of homeostasis or calm.
Fast forward to present modern life and our picture is quite different. We don’t have lions chasing after us every day, but we do have plenty of external and hidden stressors that invoke the same “fight or flight” response. External stressors could be problems in a relationship (emotional stress), losing a loved one, or getting into an accident and ending up with physical injury. The hidden stressors are not as apparent, however, and could be getting exposed to toxic chemicals (say from cosmetics or household cleaning products), chronic sleep problems or deprivation, internal infections (parasites, bacteria, yeast, viruses), use of alcohol, caffeine, or drugs, etc., even eating foods that are inflammatory (gluten for example) or foods you may have sensitivities to can cause hidden chronic stress in the body.
Even our lifestyles contribute to stress: high-achievement, over-productivity, use of computers/screens for too many hours in the day, watching violent or stressful television, never saying no to opportunities, sacrificing sleep and recovery for achievement - most of those don’t sound so bad… in fact our modern society rewards high-achievment and the mom of 5 who can hold down two successful careers simultaneously! But this "low level" chronic stress can accumulate over time. These chronic levels of stress are just as damaging as the acute levels of stress if kept up for some time.
As you can see, we are surrounded by stress. And when we have this relentless pattern of acute and chronic stressors constantly at our door, the body looses its ability to respond and recover the same way it was designed for the occasional acute stressor. Over time, the adrenal glands can’t keep up and they loose their ability to produce the same level of response, and eventually if taken to the extreme, could loose their ability to produce a response at all. This is one of the key reasons why one should take steps in their life to reduce and manage stress as much as they can.
Now there may be no way for us to get rid of 100% of the stress given the modern life and we can't control *everything*. But there are quite a few things one can do to reduce their stress overall. Here are just a few examples of stress reduction and management:
- Work out emotional conflict with people and/or terminate relationships that are toxic or unhealthy
- Find time to rest, relax, mediate, or read a book
- Make sure recovery is part of your exercise program - often times we workout to the extreme (chronic cardio anyone?) and forget to set aside recover
- Evaluate the chemicals in your home and take steps to eliminate them or replace them with less toxic versions (trust me, apple cider vinegar and baking soda go a long way!)
- Make sure you are eating a diet free of foods that cause inflammation (ahem, gluten, sugar...). If you are allergic to cranberries like I am, don't eat them a ton during the holidays :)
- If you are in a job you hate, get out and find something you love
- Likewise, if you live in a house with black mold, get out or get it treated
- Take long walks on the beach (seriously!) or in a park - try to get out in nature as much as you can
- Sedentary lifestyles are also stressful, so make sure you are walking and incorporating movement as much as you can
- Take a digital sabbatical or reduce your overall screen time
- Really consider if its worthwhile to volunteer at every. single. opportunity
- Get good sleep, like 8-9 hours each night, in a dark quiet space
- Investigate with a health professional (like an FDN practitioner) if you have any hidden infections or malfunctions
- Reduce your exposure to bright light (blue spectrum) at night - this will help produce more restorative sleep
- During the day, get some sun exposure to increase your Vitamin D production