Stress is something that is unavoidable. We will all experience stress on a daily basis in some way shape or form. Stress can be anything from mental and emotional stress to exercise and food sensitivities. All of these things have a breakdown mechanism in the body that elicits the the same physiological response. Stress activates the autonomic nervous system and you can’t control this. It’s very difficult to recognize that is happening and actually stop it. For example, when you lie, your body has a stress response. This is the reason people say “Secrets keep you sick. Or Secrets kill.” This is the exact reason we use lie detector tests! You can tell your conscious brain to settle down or you’re not nervous all day long, but most of the time, if it is stressful, you still express stress physiologically. Your palms get sweaty, your voice may waver, your heartbeat increases, and you breathe a little more rapidly. We use those to our advantage to detect stress but what about the hormonal response? The release of cortisol, the decrease in immune cell production, the disruption in hormones and catecholamines?
The more you experience stress, the more your body runs on sympathetic (fight or flight) dominance. This leaves you feeling like you wish you could just disappear tomorrow. Maybe disappear to an island far far away where you could be in silence. This is often why most people cry at the thought of coming back from vacation. You body is exhausted from living in this state and if you fall asleep on the couch an hour after coming home from work, you know what that exhaustion feels like. This is probably hitting home for a lot of you right now in a very doom and gloom way. Why? Because heaven forbid you have an autoimmune disease, feel there’s no way to get away from stress, you are slowly killing yourself, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m here to tell you that without changing your situation at all, you can reduce stress.
The most important thing you have control over is your thoughts. They will creep in and try to dictate, but simply recognizing that and repeating what’s really happening in that moment, you won’t get carried away by “what ifs. ” I see this a lot with people when it comes to work relationships. A boss said something the wrong way so the employee gets instantly freaked out that they may lose their job, and if they lose their job they will have no money, if they have no money they will lose their home, if they lose their home then their kids will get taken away, then they will have no insurance and they’ll just die because they won’t have any healthcare options for their illness. STOP! If this is the type of road your mind takes you down, get good at recognizing when you start down the path. Bring yourself back to present. Close your eyes and breathe deeply in one nostril and out the other. Do not let yourself entertain ideas of things that may or may not happen UNTIL THEY HAPPEN. The funniest part is that I have asked every single person whether any of these things have actually happened and not a single one has lived this story. All that time slowly killing our cells over something that has no real likelihood of happening!
Step one is controlling your thoughts from spiraling down a path of worst case scenarios. The second step is to smile and laugh. EVEN FAKE ONES. You heard me right. There’s also a proverb that laughter is the best medicine because it REVERSES the physiology of the stress response. You could say that it’s impossible to be stressed and joyous simultaneously. Go to a funny movie, watch a hilarious youtube video, talk to your friend about old time shenanigans, go to a comedy show. Smile at everyone you see. When they are real, they have a huge impact. When they are fake, they STILL have the same impact. Laughing reduces cortisol, soothes the nervous system, and improves hormone regulation. In our society, we tend to become more and more isolated by technology and busy schedules. Keeping your social connections is so important. It is not a luxury. It’s actually good for your health! I may even dare to say that having a beer with a good friend has more positive effects on your physiology than negative despite the fact that your consuming glutinous alcohol! That’s how important these things are to your health. Even a tough love doctor is telling you laughing with friends is possibly more important than what you eat in some instances!
That brings me to the third thing that you can do to reduce stress. Exercise outside. We can make this life scenario even more appealing by saying “Go for a walk with a friend, tell stories, laugh, and “touch” goodbye.” I say “touch” because anything from a hug, a high five, a kiss, whatever, it all has a positive impact. Movement helps distract the nervous system from obsessive behavior. It likes to move forward. You see this with dogs, too. They are much more behaved in a pack, walking because it is calming to their nervous system. We are animals, too. Going to a group fitness class is the same thing. Moving with friends, laughing, and making connections. Doing some of this outside is that much better because of the air quality and restorative nature of nature. No pun intended. ;)
The last and final thing you can do is engage in physical touch. In my profession, I would be touching people all day long. However, sometimes patients would come in and that would be the first touch they experienced all day. I am not a touchy feely person, but that doesn’t mean I don’t experience the same physiological effects of touch. I’m just more choosy about who I touch! hehe, I couldn’t resist. Back on track. Hug your child or spouse goodbye, hug a friend when you see them, get a massage, go to the chiropractor, hire a professional cuddler (that really does exist), have sex or kiss your partner. These things are not luxuries either! They are hugely necessary to our well-being as humans. They counteract stress. We are hardwired to need touch. Think about yourself as a child. Everyone wanted to hold you, give you kisses, touched you constantly to help you maneuver the world. Then you became a little more developed and touch can be misconstrued as sexual so it happens a little less. That is until you go looking for it from a teenage boy/girl. What if you find yourself as a single adult. You may literally go days without touch. Heck, the way we greet people in ANY country has to do with TOUCH. Maybe its a handshake or a kiss on the cheek. May it’s a hug. It has and always will be imperative to normal nervous system function.
These are simple, free, yet hard things for some people. For those less expressive, it may be good to start with the thoughts and movement. From there start planning social activities to get out there and connect with friends and family! If you are a single person with an autoimmune disease, even seeing a massage therapist can gain you touch benefits. Hope you guys are enjoying the series as it is coming to an end! I will have one final article to address a few questions people had for me. If you have a question you would like answered in that article, please let me know!