The race we call life...understanding stress and your body’s response to it
Do you sometimes feel like a well-oiled machine cruising on full power, until you suddenly realise that you’re utterly exhausted? Do you find it hard to sleep despite feeling so tired? Otherwise, do you fall asleep right away but wake during the night feeling unwell? Your mind continues spiraling uncontrollably when it should be winding down and easing you off to sleep...instead causing you to feel physically sick? This is what I was experiencing almost on a daily basis before discovering mindfulness.
Image by 1388843 from Pixabay
I want to speak of mindfulness in a practical and non-technical way. I am neither a psychologist nor a mindfulness coach; all I can do is share my personal experience of mindfulness and all I’ve learnt through reading, practice and research, in the simplest way I know, with your mental and physical well being in mind.
I’ll start with the basic definition of mindfulness...there are many versions, but the founding definition comes from Dr Jon Kabat J Zinn, one of the central founders of the field of mindfulness. He defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” And to me, this is the perfect way to begin.
In life, especially in today’s fast paced world, it is very easy to get caught up in the rush and never stop to notice what we are experiencing in the here and now. We skip the present altogether, and run the risk of never really ‘living’.
Image by Kewl from Pixabay
How do we manage to get so much done and keep going?
Sometimes we may wonder where we get the energy from to do all the things that need doing: work, the kids, housework, shopping, keeping up relationships: with our spouse, friends, parents...the list is endless.
What I’ve learnt, the hard way, is that human beings should NOT have this immense amount of energy! Very often, we will be functioning on adrenaline and cortisol; and in the end, at some point, it all comes crashing down.
The ‘fight or flight’ response
Adrenaline and cortisol are what keep us going at this incredible efficient speed and consistency. These hormones are released from the adrenal glands when stressors trigger our brain’s ‘fight or flight’ response. As human beings we are designed to react to protect ourselves against threats, such as prying lions or bears. We seldom come across these kinds of threats nowadays, but life is still full of stressors. Deadlines, phone calls, bills, traffic...these everyday stressors are all perceived as threats and our brain reacts to them in the same way as if we were being physically attacked.
Image by Creisi from Pixabay
In the short term, raised levels of adrenaline and cortisol are fine; however, with time it can be very damaging.
What happens when we experience stress?
When we encounter stressors, the ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered in our brain, the adrenal glands are prompted to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
‘Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.’ More information in this regard can be found at:
Also, during a ‘fight or flight’ response, our sense of pain is compromised, making it harder for us to notice when we are overdoing it.
Short term ‘fight or flight’ responses are fine; however, in the long term, they can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes, putting you at risk of many health problems. For me personally, what stress resulted in were severe digestive issues, loss of weight, a very weak immune system and there is also the possibility that it had something to do with my ectopic pregnancy.
Everyday unexpected stressors
Whereas certain stressors are obvious: a dog chasing you, a fight happening at your doorstep, money worries, illness in the family and so on, there are others which may come as a surprise. The use of social media is one of them.
Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay
Social media is slowly seeping pressure into our lives, without us even realising it. Each time we scroll through the Facebook newsfeed for instance, we may find ourselves feeling uneasy, with a sense of guilt slowly creeping up on us: ’Oh look at Sheila and the kids, they seem so happy baking cookies together! Why is it that each of my attempts at baking with the kids ended up with me nagging and spending more time cleaning the mess rather than the actual baking experience?’ In other words, we are telling ourselves: ‘Why can’t I be as good a mum as Sheila’.
Or ‘Why does Ally look so darn good all the time when I barely find the time to look in the mirror?’...meaning: ‘Why can’t I take care of myself the way I should?’
We are subconsciously increasing the pressure we place on ourselves and our sense of guilt is duplicated, contributing further to the never ending cycle of stress.
This is made even worse with the constant popping up of news alerts and negative messages: ‘COVID, bush fires, extreme weather etc’...I should know because trying to stay informed of climate change issues really gets me down and I need to force myself to take a break and distance myself from the problems for a while before I can continue. I constantly remind myself ‘there is only so much I can do’ and I desperately try to become convinced that ‘in the end it will turn out right’.
What I find helps in managing social media is allocating fixed time slots to stay up to date. I fix three (flexible) 20 minute slots a day and dedicate them to getting up to scratch with the latest information.
What does all this have to do with mindfulness?
The first step in your mindful journey is recognising the stressors in your life and your body’s response to them. Noticing the triggers will really help you in applying mindful strategies in order to limit your exposure to them, while also controlling your mind and body’s response to such triggers.
For this week, take the time to notice when you feel overwhelmed and try to recognise what your body is telling you. Are you feeling tired? Sad? Tense? What do your mind and body need at that point in time?
Next week I’ll write about mindfulness practices which you can easily fit into your daily routine; they will really help in managing stress and keeping a healthy mind and body. So stay tuned 😉 Yours, Louisa