In my clinical practice I always focus on balance with clients, not only so that we are well rounded and resilient to stress but more specifically so that we do not trigger the system that manages stress, our sympathetic nervous system unnecessarily. Our sympathetic nervous system is important to keep us out of danger and respond quickly to threats. When our body perceives a threat it activates our stress hormones like cortisol and if enough are released it will turn on our sympathetic nervous system. When the sympathetic nervous system is on, it’s ON. It takes control over all major functions, including executive functioning. More accurately, it limits or stops the majority of executive functioning and goes into the well known fight or flight (or freeze) mode. This is fine if there is a bear chasing you but when you are sitting at the dinner table with family, not so cool. We need the other nervous system working when we are sitting at the table with family or friends that love us and support us. The parasympathetic nervous system is the one we need to promote more. This is the system that helps us prioritize our day, helps us remember where our keys are, helps us learn and retain new information. It also regulates certain bodily functions like our digestive system…. (Ever wonder why your digestion gets messed up when you are under stress? It’s because you sympathetic nervous system has decided that you need to prepare yourself to run or fight. If you don’t do these things quickly then your system has decided you must need to prepare for these things so let’s clean our digestive tract out so we are not be weighed down and will move faster…)
In our modern day culture, stress comes more likely in forms that are not truly life threatening like starvation and predators attacking (although there is still this form of stress as unfortunately we all know). Most daily stress comes from interpersonal interactions or feeling overwhelmed. This doesn’t necessarily turn on the sympathetic system directly, it’s what this makes us do or not do that actually will turn the system on. We have so much at our finger tips with being plugged into our virtual worlds that we have much distraction to ignore important things that our body will interpret as a threat. This is a double whammy. Because not only are we dealing with this stress and frustration of all we have to do but we neglect things like eating regularly, drinking enough water, getting regular exercise, and/or getting enough sunlight. When this happens, our body is more likely to perceive things as a life threatening situation and turn on the sympathetic nervous system.
So it is important to eat regularly. You need to eat about every 4 hours because no matter what you eat or how much you eat at a sitting, your body has processed it in about 4 hours. Your blood sugar will drop signaling time to eat again. If you don’t eat something (preferably fiber and a protein for sustaining level blood sugar) your body will think there’s something wrong with finding food in your environment and perceive this as a threat. Another problem is that when we are stressed we emotionally eat and many times this is in the form of what is quick and easy and sweet like a donut. This has very little protein and usually no fiber. Blood sugar will raise real fast and crash quicker than 4 hours making us hungry, angry, and or spacey. We may eat again but unless we eat some fiber and protein our blood sugar will continue to roller coaster. We will probably either gain weight and/or have stomach issues.
You need to stay hydrated during the day. Drink the recommended 6-8 glasses of water based fluid thru out a 24 hour period. Again if your body is dehydrated it will interpret this as well as a threat. If you are prone to headaches, stomach issues, light headedness, try drinking a glass of water when these symptoms arise as a first line of defense. (If diabetic obviously sugar will need to be regulated as first line defense.)
When need to exercise 20 minutes (walking like you’re in a hurry or more) at least 3 times a week. This is the bare minimum. To be healthier daily moderate exercise is recommended. There is a study and I have lost it but will find it again that compared those that did the 20min workout 3 x a week vs a group that took antidepressants. They discovered that if done regularly both groups had equal results in improving depression. Of course like an antidepressant, exercise will need to be done regularly over a month before you see the same results. Why did this happen? Not only are endorphins (your body’s feel good chemicals) being released thru exercise, you are also burning off excess stress hormones. So this will raise your ability to manage stress. It makes you more resilient. It makes you healthier. Cortisol also increases cholesterol, so if you are having trouble with cholesterol, exercise will definitely scientifically help.
You must get 20 minutes of sunshine daily. This does not mean that you have to have it on your skin although some sun helps with Vitamin D absorbtion which is vital, Seeing the sunshine (not staring up at the sun itself) but seeing the light around you helps regulate melatonin (necessary for sleep and relaxation) and serotonin (the neurotransmitter that is increased by a majority of antidepressants and helps give you a “duck’s back” where stressful things don’t bother you as much. Causes you to feel peaceful.) It also helps regulate your biological clock which helps with all kinds of daily bodily functions especially sleep. And during sleep, guess what happens? Our body cleans out toxins including excess cortisol. A recent study I heard on NPR stated that they have found that people whom get less than 5 hours of sleep have increased cholesterol to those that get at least 7-8 hours of restful sleep.
So if you want to be resilient and not react so much to stress around you, you need to pay attention to these 4 activities in which we actually have some control, which is nice to know we have some say in these things.