We all have moments of stress in our lives.
Our bodies are designed to cope with small bursts of stress. It’s a natural response to a perceived danger that fuels our body with the necessary resources to get ourselves out of that danger and into safety.
But what happens when we feel stressed all the time? I like to call this the “stress express” and too many people these days find themselves trapped on it.
What Is The “Stress Express”?
Stress is ultimately tied to our nervous system - specifically the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or “fight-or-flight” system. But it also involves our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the “rest and repair” branch.
When the nervous system perceives that we are under “threat”—which in modern times can be due to caffeine consumption and/or our perception of pressure and urgency—the SNS raises our heart rate, increases our respiratory rate, releases stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) and diverts blood away from the digestive tract to our muscles so that we can run away from, or fight, whatever is threatening us.
The SNS and the PNS are designed to balance each other. The PNS slows our heart rate and respiration, and brings blood back to the digestive system so that we can digest our food. It also signals to the body that it can focus on doing all the other important jobs it has, like producing sex hormones and repairing any tissues that have been damaged in our “battle”.
When we live our lives ultimately SNS dominant, we end up on the “stress express” and this creates many problems for us.
How Do We Get Trapped On The “Stress Express”?
With our busy, modern lives, it’s very easy to find ourselves with a one-way ticket on the “stress express”. We spend most waking moments of each day engaged with something—whether it’s managing or supporting our families, working, watching television, worrying we’ve let someone down, or scrolling through social media—we are a society that is undeniably switched on. Some of us have jobs that expect us to be available 24/7. Others may simply believe that they need every extra minute just to get everything done that they need to.
We’re tired and it’s exhausting being “on” all the time—so we use caffeine to perk ourselves up. Caffeine sends a message to the pituitary gland in your brain to have the adrenal glands create stress hormones: adrenalin and/or cortisol. This fires us up. We get to mid-afternoon and crash, so we seek out something sugary or sweet, or more caffeine to get us through. When we get home in the evening we feel wired, so maybe we use alcohol to calm ourselves down. Any one of these elements can be enough to perpetuate a cycle where we are never truly relaxed and calm, and thus we end up on the “stress express”.
What Are Some Signs That We Are On The “Stress Express”?
- You regularly feel stressed or as though you are on high alert
- You crave sugars and/or carbohydrates
- You struggle to lose weight—no matter what you try
- You’re regularly bothered by digestive complaints
- You regularly sleep poorly and wake up feeling tired
- You feel anxious easily
- You struggle to say “no”
- If you’re a woman in menstruation years, you experience PMS
- You feel like everything is urgent and there aren’t enough hours in the day
- You are a worrier or a drama queen (or king)
- You love coffee, energy drinks—anything that contains caffeine
- You feel that if you don’t do it, it won’t get done
How Do We Get Off The “Stress Express”?
The key to getting ourselves off the “stress express” is to activate our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The answer to this could lie solely in giving up caffeine, or, at the very least, cutting back to one coffee per day or switching to green tea, which also contains another substance called “theanine” that helps to buffer the affect of caffeine. It’s also useful to explore your perception of pressure and urgency—check whether you apply the same amount to going through your inbox as you do when you have to suddenly slam your brakes on while driving.
Having a regular sleep cycle where you get to bed before 10:00 pm is another option that can make a world of difference. If you struggle to fall asleep, avoid screens for at least two hours before bed, as the light they emit can disrupt your production of sleep inducing hormones.
You might also like to explore how comfortable you are saying “no”. You are busy with what you say “yes” to. If you’re a people pleaser by nature, fearful of letting others down, then you will find it hard to say no and you may be exhausted from trying to appear stronger than you feel. Learning to flex our “no” muscle more regularly can help cultivate a greater sense of spaciousness, more calm, better personal energy and a greater level of wellness.
Some practices that also help us to activate the PNS are yoga or restorative yoga, Pilates, tai chi, qi gong or meditation practice. A breath-focused practice such as taking 20 long, slow diaphragmatic breaths every morning before getting out of bed, and every evening before falling asleep can also be highly beneficial.