- Stress is impacting your health at a high rate.
- 74% of people were stressed to the point of not being to cope in 2018
- Stress mainly affects the nervous system
- The nervous system is broken down into 2 main parts: central and peripheral nervous systems.
- The PNS is eventually broken down into the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for fight or flight, and the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for rest and digest.
- The 2 types of stress that impact these systems are acute and chronic stress.
- Acute stress is short-term stress and is imperative and necessary for growth in any area of life.
- Chronic stress has a long-term, lasting impact on the body, dragging down your health in negative ways.
- Overcome chronic stress with these 3 strategies: meditate at least 5 minutes a day, get up and move every 25 minutes, and surround yourself people who stressless and support your purpose.
In this day and age, it’s easy to believe that so many people are stressed to the max. Because we are all as busy as ever with work, family, and friends (if you’re lucky), not to mention the insatiable amounts of information that we’re bombarded with each every day, our lives are high pace and usually high stress to go with it. And this stress is taking a big toll on our health.
For instance, a study of just under 5,000 people in 2018 showed that 74% of people have had a feeling of being so stressed that they were unable to cope with that feeling for a certain amount of time. Of this group of people, 46% said they ate more during those times, 29% said they drank more or started drinking during those times, and 16% said they smoked more or started smoking during those times.
Needless to say, stress is putting a big hit on our health and vitality. But it’s not just these added behaviors that are decreasing our health. As a matter of fact, eating, drinking, or smoking more might be the least of your worries when it comes to being in a stressful state. To understand this point a little better, let’s first talk about what happens in the body in reaction to different states of stress
Sympathetic VS Parasympathetic Nervous System
Bear with me for a few paragraphs while I explain this process. It will all make sense in the end. Your bodily functions start at the top with your overall nervous system. The nervous system is then broken down into the central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS).
The central nervous system is the primary controller of the body. It consists of the brain and the spinal chord. Those 2 areas of the body reign supreme. Essentially, if your CNS gets damaged, you’re going to feel it instantly and likely indefinitely (although there are many people who have certainly proved this “indefinitely” part wrong).
The peripheral nervous system, on the other hand, is more subtle but equally as important. The PNS is responsible for sending messages to and from the CNS. Basically, the PNS is the messenger of the CNS. The PNS has a few different layers to it: first is the somatic nervous system which is responsible for voluntary movement (think lifting weights or running). Then there is the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for involuntary movement (think pupils dilating, heart beat and digestion).
Lastly, the autonomic nervous system can be broken down to 2 areas as well: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response (think running from a tiger), while our parasympathetic system is responsible for your rest and digest response (think laying on the beach).
It’s here in the autonomic nervous where the effects of stress are started. You see, whether you’re in a sympathetic or parasympathetic state will determine how the rest of the chain is going to work. For instance, if you’re out in the woods in the middle of nowhere and hear some brussling in the bushes, your heart rate is going to increase. This is because your fight or flight response has turned on (sympathetic state) which then increased your heart rate (ran by the autonomic nervous system).
How Modern Stress Impacts the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
The nervous system evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago. Back then, our ancestors had important things to worry about, all of which had to do with staying alive…literally. The tiger analogy that I used above, that was a regular occurrence for a prehistoric human. They also had to worry about hunting and foraging for food. So, the nervous adapted to deal with these stressors in order to increase the likelihood of survival.
Fast forward to today, and we don’t have to worry about lions, tigers, bears, or going starving, for that matter. So, what is a nervous system to focus on if those natural predators aren’t a bother anymore? Well, now we have personal and professional lives, as well as other external factors mostly through the news and social media to help grab our attention.
It’s in these areas, our personal, professional, and technological lives, where we get our modern stress. Now, I’m making it sound like all stress is bad. On the contrary, stress plays an important role in our personal development, both physically and mentally. To help you understand, let’s look at the 2 different types of stress you come across on a regular basis.
The stress that most people talk about, in which you build up over time, is called chronic stress. Chronic stress comes from a number of different sources. One, of course, is work, but it can also come from family matters, a poor spousal relationship, or unhappiness in general. Ironically, chronic stress is usually the type of stress that we naturally deal with and feel is “necessary”, yet it has the biggest negative impact on our health in the long run.
Then there’s acute stress. Acute stress is more short term (hence the word “acute”). Sometimes that means it lasts a minute or so, and sometimes it lasts a couple of days. Typically, acute stress doesn’t last much more than about 7–10 days. Once you get much further than that, then you’re creeping into chronic stress territory.
Acute stressors can come in many shapes and sizes. For instance, exercise is a form of acute stress. When you exercise (at least, when you do strenuous exercise), you tax your body and break it down, which is a form of stress. Then, with proper rest of recovery, your body rebuilds itself to a stronger state than it was before the workout.
As you can see, acute stress is a great way, or the only way, you can really become better at anything. For instance, many people want to get better at public speaking, but are scared to death of getting in front of an audience. However, in order to get better, you have to confront that fear and, as Nike would say, just do it. Confronting that fear is a form of acute stress which you then build off of as you do your next speech, and your next, and so on. The more you do, the easier it becomes.
The idea, of course, is that you’re not constantly doing speeches and stressing your mind. The idea is that you are challenging yourself for a short period of time, resting for a while, then doing it again. Contrary to the stress that makes us stronger, chronic stress is the one we want to focus on today. So, now that you have an understanding the role stress has on your health, let’s look at a few strategies you can implement today to decrease your stress level and become the best version of yourself possible.
3 Strategies to Overcoming Stress for Optimal Health
A daily meditation practice is something that is easily overlooked. Mostly because the thought of meditation scares a lot of people. Which is understandable. I know when I first thought about meditation, it seemed like a crazy idea. I mean who wants to sit and try to think about NOTHING for an hour…really?! But I slowly found out that meditation is not trying to think about nothing. It’s, in fact, the opposite.
Meditation is intentionally pulling your attention onto something, whether that be your breath or a thought or a noise. Meditation is being aware when the mind starts to wonder and pulling it back to attention as fast as possible.
So, here’s how to get started: begin with setting aside just 5 minutes a day. It can be whenever you want. Usually, it’s best to meditate first thing in the morning to get your mind right for the rest of the day. But you can do it at lunch or night as well.
Once you’re comfortable meditating for 5 minutes, add 1 minute. Then, once you’re comfortable with 6 minutes, add another minute. Do this until you get the right amount of meditation for you. Maybe that’s 10 minutes. Maybe that’s 30 minutes. It doesn’t matter as long as you do it consistently!
#2) Get up and MOVE!
Movement is a great way to relieve stress especially when done right. On the other hand, when used incorrectly, too much intense movement can actually put you into a more depended state of chronic stress.
I mentioned before that exercise is a stressor. When you exercise intensely, it stresses your body and breaks it down. Then, as you rest, your body rebuilds and strengthens itself, hopefully to be stronger than it was before the previous workout.
On the other end of this, when you exercise too hard too often, it can have the opposite effect. For instance, if you exercise 2 hours a day, every day, while also having a big project at work and dealing with family issues, it’s likely that your body will go into chronic stress mode. Not good when it comes to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
The best movement practice for someone who is crunched for time is what I call your Movement Hygiene Practice. It goes like this: Set a timer to go off every 25 minutes. When the timer goes off, do 10 squats or 10 pushups or 10 jumping jacks. The point is to make yourself get up and move instead of sitting and stressing your body for long periods of time.
As a busy person, you have a lot on your plate. And it’s up to YOU to keep your stress level under control so you can be the best version of you possible.
#3) Enjoy Community
Having strong ties to friends and family is something that we naturally crave as human beings. Yet, we easily overlook this when it comes to relieving our stress. As a matter of fact, I would argue that many of us (myself being the worst offender of all) tend to ignore the one’s we care about the most in times that we’re stressed.
Which is why I challenge you to try to spend more time with your friends and family when you’re feeling worked up and stressed out. But make sure it’s with those people who make you feel calm and relaxed.
I mean, we all have those whacky family members who stress us to the max. You know, like Aunt Sallie who talks about your weight all the time. She’s not the one you want to spend time with. You want to spend time with your spouse who supports you and cares about you. You want to spend time with your siblings who show compassion for you no matter what. Those are the people you want to spend time with during your most stressful moments.
Also worth noting, if you’re a naturally stressful person, you should not hang out with other people who are naturally stressful as well. This will only elevate the amount of stress in your life. As Jim Rohn once said, you are the average of the 5 people you hang around the most. In his context he was speaking mostly of professional development. However, the same can be said for you health. If you hang around people who are junky eaters and high-stress, you’ll be the same way.
So, evaluate the people you are hanging around with. Eliminate the ones who aren’t supporting your life’s purpose and find a new community who can. This will go a long way in bringing your stress under control AND increasing your likelihood of fulfilling your purpose. After all, life is too short (and too busy) to spend time with people you don’t enjoy and who aren’t supporting your purpose.