Nervous System Function: Managing Stress
- Wednesday, 18 May 2011
How do you deal with stress?
This is something that I get asked all the time in my office, but it is a question that I also ask others. Yes, we must reduce stress in our lives wherever possible, because we sure do have enough of it. However, we must also remember the reason we have stess in the first place, which is to help us grow.
In my previous articles, we learned how great the day can be when we start it with a smile. Next, we talked about how we can find balance between our left and right brains, which can help us find balance all around in our lives. Now, I would like to discuss stress in our lives.
Some Stress is Good
Stress is mostly placed in a negative light, and we will explore why, but for now we will acknowledge its positives qualities. The reason we have stress in the first place is so that we can grow. Here are some positive examples of using stress productively.
For starters, we all know how important it is to get regular exercise. Regular exercise is a physical stress on the body that causes it to adapt to an increased load in order to stay healthy. As it turns out, exercise is also one of the greatest ways to deal with stress. It channels and releases energy, as well as releases dopamine, the body’s natural “high” hormone.
There is also adversity. Whether you are trying to develop a physical skill, or personal character, it is adversity that is a great teacher. Learning from disappointments, failures and challenges is truly how we greater grow. These obstacles are stresses on our systems, which cause our bodies to adapt to the situation and make the best of it. Ultimately, this process creates the polished trait or skill we originally sought.
We have stress in our lives so we can learn from it, adapt to it, and grow as a result. This process requires great coordination and awareness on the part of the nervous system. As we know, the nervous system is great at learning, adapting and finding balance to stress.
There are two types of automatic nervous systems:
A ‘sympathetic’ and ‘parasympathetic’ system.
This means is that one system – the parasympathetic system – is the one in control during normal rest, digest and growth activity.
The other system – the sympathetic system – is the ‘emergency response’ system. This is the system that responds to stress.
Here is a magnificent example of the brilliant abilities of the nervous system:
The sympathetic system is best understood in the classic example of the camper in the woods who encounters a bear. Everything was great (parasympathetic system) until a bear showed up. All of a sudden (sympathetic system), his heart rate increases, he can run faster than ever possible, he is only thinking in terms of emergency and survival, and he does whatever he has to in order to get out of danger.
Once out of danger, his parasympathetic system takes over again, and goes back to rest, growth and repair. Without the specialties of the sympathetic nervous system, the stress response, and our primal ability to survive, we would have been toast. The stress response got us out of a jam and bought us some time to survive so we could get back to our usual routine.
We are actually quite great at adapting and responding to stress. The problem is that we have too much stress in our lives.
Too Much Stress is Bad
We are so overstressed that it no longer serves us. There is so much constant stress in our lives that we do not properly adapt to it, and it is slowly wearing us out. Stress comes in so many different forms these days that it is tough for our nervous systems to manage it. Stressors coming from work, family, money, health, or life are all stressors after all; everything is connected these days!
All stress engages our sympathetic nervous systems in the same way. We get the ‘stress response’, which is our body’s way of adapting, surviving, and buying us time to get out of the jam we are in, so we can go back to relaxing in parasympathetic mode. We were not designed to constantly be in the stress response. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening in our ‘busy lives’.
In the long run, this ‘stress response’ causes the same events in your nervous system that leads to all sorts of ‘dis-ease’. The ‘stress response’ stimulates the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands – called the ‘HPA-axis’ – to release high levels of adrenaline and cortisol. Over time, this is not good, because it depletes our energy reserves and suppresses our immune systems. This response overrides the parasympathetic system’s job to rest, digest and grow, and instead breaks down the body to use itself as energy, in a constant survival mode.
This is when we get sick and sometimes develop cancers, diabetes, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. The stress response puts increased work on our right brains, and contributes to brain imbalance. We age in a faster and harsher way under constant stress, though not because of age itself. The insanity must stop!
So what to do?
Start by reducing the three T’s of stress: Trauma, Toxins and nasty Thoughts.
Reduce all of your physical, chemical, mental and emotional stressors as much as you can. Engage in activities such as yoga, meditation, regular exercise, chiropractics, relationship building, community service and being in nature. Re-visit the morning routine of waking up with a smile and engage a stress-free lifestyle.
Most importantly, the best way to deal with stress is by adapting to it and learning from it. Acknowledge stress as an opportunity, and make the stress in your life as productive as possible. As you do this, you will have gained a greater insight into mastering your nervous system, and you will grow and thrive in ways beyond your wildest dreams!