Here in the Western World, we pride ourselves on the freedoms we enjoy. The rights, the choices and the material wealth we have is often seen as ‘progress’. And of course it is.
And yet, the price many of us are now paying for our fast-moving, busy lives filled with doing, achieving, succeeding and acquiring, our 24/7 communication and information overload….is all too often, chronic stress.
As humans, we are designed for short bursts of acute stress. In fact, we wouldn’t have survived as a species without stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol kicking in when under threat from the likes of a saber-toothed tiger. But in between ‘attacks’, we’re supposed to be at rest, allowing a different balance of hormones to be released, allowing minds and bodies to recover, sleep, eat, digest, and so repair and renew the trillions of cells that make up each unique person.
Today’s ‘saber-toothed tigers’ are those life events that happen to us all at some point; the trauma’s, changes and grief we experience are often beyond our control. And it’s a healthy reaction to feel a range of emotions and be in a state of stress… for a while.
We also choose to be in situations of ‘fight or flight’, such as delivering a speech to a room full of people, going for a job interview or competing in a sports event. The stress response helps us to cope with these, giving us energy, clarity, focus and strength, as if that saber-toothed tiger was just behind the next rock.
However, we now a have new cat on the block. When the constant pressure of work and home-life are mixed with environmental toxins and the information overload of social media, the ‘perceived threats’ don’t go away, and we enter into a state of chronic stress. Instead of energy, clarity, focus and strength, we experience the opposite and those trillions of cells cannot rest and recover, digest nutrients, renew and repair, therefore cannot provide us with a functioning immune system, The result, in the long-run, is disease.
We may be (currently) living longer, but we are living sicker. In the West, we are more obese, more medicated and have more diseases and disorders than ever before. We are no longer dying of saber-toothed tiger attacks, but from lifestyle-related conditions such as stroke, heart disease and cancer. And stress is linked to all of these.
So now, more than ever before, we need to become aware of how we feel, what we are thinking and what ‘state’ we are in so that we can take action to reduce those ‘stressors’ inside and outside of us and give our minds and bodies a chance to be in balance and wellbeing.
Here are some simple ways to help you return to balance and allow those cells to work effectively, grow and repair
- Become more aware of how you feel, your heart rate, your thoughts when you are in different places, with different people, reading emails, social media, the news etc. If you feel anxious, stressed or uncomfortable, if your mind or heart is racing or your thoughts are critical, demanding or judgmental, take a deep breath and if possible, remove yourself from the situation, even for a moment, to acknowledge how you are and give yourself the time and space to calm down, re-think, see things differently and make decisions that are from a calmer state.
- Take regular breaks in the fresh air, whatever the weather, and find a place where you can be around nature, even if it’s just a small patch of green. There’s plenty of research to show that, as we have evolved to be around the natural environment, we respond to ‘sensing’ nature by releasing serotonin and other feel-good, calming chemicals. Just 20 minutes away from ‘being busy’ in the office or wherever, will give your body the boost it needs to be more effective and productive, think more clearly, make better decisions and respond more positively to others. And the effects can last up to seven hours.
- Keep hydrated with clean water. Every cell needs water to function properly and dehydration creates internal stress on them and we experience symptoms of poor concentration and memory, irritability, headaches and fatigue and these start to ramp up the stress levels. Caffeine and energy drinks may appear to give you a boost in the short term, but dehydrate you quite quickly so are counter-productive, giving you spikes and crashes in energy, concentration and mood.
- Have a lunch break. It’s not a luxury, it’s necessary for you to function better in the second half of the day. That doesn’t mean eating whilst doing your emails, having a meeting or checking social media either. If any of these create even low-level stress (and they usually do), you won’t digest your food properly and this can lead to bloating, IBS and poor absorption of nutrients – so you won’t even get the best out of a healthy salad! These conditions cause inflammation, which creates more internal stress. So, make time for even half an hour of peace at lunch time or be around people that you enjoy being with, have a laugh or talk drivel – it doesn’t matter as long as it allows you to ‘switch off’ and relax.
I used to pride myself on being busy, all the time. In fact, I thought I was Super Woman. I wasn’t – and years of chronic stress lead to serious illness and ‘burn out’. I now realise that this culture of ‘busy, bust, busy’ is not a good thing. We can achieve more and feel more fulfilled when we take better care of ourselves and a more balanced approach. Sometimes, less is more. Take a leaf out of the life of our domestic cats – after the high energy antics of chasing mice and birds, they rest, sleep, eat and find that warm, sunny spot at the bottom of the garden or in front of the fire and nothing will shift them! They know what’s good for them and act on it. And so can we. For me now, that feels like real progress.