In this article I want to show you how to spot the danger signs of the bad type of stress, how to get more of the good type, and make sure you keep the energy tank full. So you can rock your life and feel amazing.
The types of stress.
We have two types of stress response: the acute and the chronic stress response
The acute stress response is your ‘fight flight response’ It is triggered by your sympathetic nervous system, which pumps out tonnes of adrenaline every time is triggered. Which for some of us is most of the time!
It’s the adrenaline that makes your heart race, your breathing speed up, puts your whole system goes into high alert, sets all your senses are razor sharp, and makes your muscles tense, ready for action.
Thousands of years ago this fight-flight state would have been essential for our very survival: it would have been your acute stress response that helped you run away from danger, get through a fight or navigate a life-threatening situation.
In today’s world, the challenges that trigger our fight-flight response are somewhat different!! But we still experience that same acute, adrenaline fuelled, stress response. So it might be things like going for an interview, the first day of a new job, getting ready to give an important presentation, having to hold a conversation with someone who you find challenging, waiting for the results of a health test, doing an exam of some kind and any number of other scenarios. These are all times when we want to sharpen your senses, be on high alert and up our game.
So stress of and by itself is not a bad thing. In fact, without it we would not do very well at all. It’s the acute stress response that allows us to up our game, be sharp, bright and alert, face the fear and do it anyway, and if necessary, survive!!
Where do things go wrong?
So where do things go wrong? The acute stress response is designed for short sharp burst activity. So things are fine, as long as it doesn’t go on for too long, and we can balance things up after the acute stress phase, by going into the opposite of the ‘sympathetic’ state which is the parasympathetic state.
In parasympathetic, we experience ease, rest and relaxation. It is also the state in which our digestive tract works best. This is why the parasymp is also known as the ‘rest and digest, heal and repair phase’ In other words it is the BALANCE to the sympathetic state.
This is why a cheetah can go for the chase, kill its prey and eat, but then it likes to lie down under a tree for several hours. It’s easy to see the balance here.
The trouble in our modern day lives , is that we are often in sympathetic, but rarely in parasympathetic. We go into the high energy state, the acute stress response multiple times every day. Sometimes we even stay there most of the day. But then we don’t relax multiple times a day!! In fact, in modern life it is much more usual to find we go from one stressful situation to another. And there is very little ‘ rest or restoration in between.
We have lost the balance big time!!
The chronic stress response
The body is not really designed to keep mounting an acute stress response over and over again, all day long, and so it switches to another mechanism, called the chronic stress response. This is driven by a hormone called cortisol, produced by the adrenal glands.
Cortisol has a much longer lifespan in your body. Its lasts several hours, in comparison to adrenalin which is gone within a few seconds.
So we can think of the acute stress response as a ‘sprinter’, and the chronic stress response as a marathon runner. The acute response is Hussein Bolt, the chronic response is Mo Farrah. They have slightly different speeds at which they run but they are both extremely impressive! I was there that night when Mo won the 10k gold in the London Olympics!! And yes, I cried!!
So when we are repeatedly stressed, the body switches from the acute to the chronic stress response. It’s like changing gear, but both still have you performing at the top of your game.Think of it as your body’s way of coping and of keeping you safe. It’s also more efficient and more sustainable.
That said, the chronic stress response is also only really designed for short term use: hours or days.
So we have to come back to the idea of BALANCE. Your body is brilliant at getting you through acute stress, and chronic stress. It can change gear and keep you functioning and performing and delivering on everything that you are doing in your life.
But fundamentally our body is designed for balance. Which means that after a period of sustained stress (acute or chronic), it needs a period of rest or restorative activity. Its needs parasympathetic time! Your body needs this balance to stay healthy and well.
What happens if the stress is there to stay?
If the stress goes on indefinitely, we don’t get the balance right and the stress goes on, and on, and on, then the cortisol levels rise and stay high. And this has a real impact on the way your body behaves.
Here are some of the classic outcomes of having a persistently raised cortisol. You might be able to relate to some of these:
- Cortisol belly – this is the stubborn fat around your waist that wont shift no matter what you do.
- Sugar cravings – ever wondered why willpower simply doesn’t work? You are literally fighting your ‘ survival’ chronic stress response. And guess who wins that one?
- Digestive tract issues eg worsening IBS, dyspepsia, constipation.
- Moodiness, irritability. And you really don’t like yourself when you get like this, but you just can’t seem to help it.
- Feel depressed – even though you tell yourself you should be grateful for all that you have in your life
- Fatigue – and going to the gym or exercising just makes it even worse
- Chronic pain – everything hurts and aches and you generally feel much older than your age!
- Elevated blood pressure – over time this can become hypertension
- Poorly regulated blood sugar, which over time can become type 2 diabetes.
- Poor memory
- Affect your immune system
So if you can identify with some of the things on this list, then you need to read on! Because it could be that your body is stuck in the chronic stress response, and badly needs you to take action to turn things around!!
The new set point.
Once the body has shifted from the ‘sprint’ of the acute moment to moment response, into the ‘ marathon runner’ slower but high cortisol response, it creates a new ‘set point for itself. Over time the high cortisol situation becomes the new ‘normal’ and it becomes ‘ hard-wired’ in.
Think about this for a moment. What this means is your body thinks it is NORMAL to live with a high cortisol, which means all those things in the list above, become NORMAL . Which means all those fallout effects of that high cortisol are there to stay. And progress over time.
Are you ready to pay this price with your health? To lose your energy or your wellbeing? To put yourself at risk of developing a long term chronic illness like diabetes or hypertension (and there are lots more chronic health conditions linked to stress). To lose your spark and your joy for life?
Can I reverse the situation?
High cortisol, chronic stress response, hard-wiring, and an elevated set-point. It all sounds a bit depressing doesn’t it?
So is there hope?
Can the body unwind out of that hardwired chronic stress response?
Can it wind back the set-point to a healthier level?
And can you regain the natural balance of swinging freely between the sympathetic and parasympathetic states?
And find your way back to balance within your system?
The answer is fundamentally YES!
Your body wants to be healthy. It wants to be in balance and it wants to heal and repair, and not stay sick, or stuck. For some of us the road to recovery might take a while – it really depends on how long you have been stuck in chronic stress response, how severe it has been and how much support you give your health to recover.
It’s not a quick fix, but there is definitely a roadmap back to health.
So what can you do?
Here are 3 action steps you can take today to start helping yourself and get to the root of the problem.
1 Actively tackle your acute stress.
We tend to assume that there is little we can do to tackle our stress. It’s so ingrained into modern day living. We tend to think it is normal and we just have to put up with it. But as you now know, it is far from normal and not at all ok if we want our energy , joy and vitality to shine.
One helpful strategy is to actively tackle your acute stress stuff. Here is an exercise to help you get started:
Take a piece of paper, and for each hour of the day, give yourself a score out of 5 of how stressed you felt. 5 is the most stressed ever, and 0 is no stress at all. Start from the time you get up, to the time you went to bed. You can include the night time if this is also a time of stress for you.
And just take a look where you scored 3 or over. What is going on at those times. What is it that puts you into a state of stress. Are there any pattern? Any obvious common threads?
Then pick one and ask yourself how could I take the score down by 1 or 2 points?
Do this exercise in the next 24 hours after reading this. It can give you some powerful insights and some real breakthroughs.
2 Put the balance back into your life.
What does your version of parasympathetic looks like?
We now know that relaxation, ease and pleasure are no longer a luxury, something you do when there are no other demands on your time. Deliberately and consciously putting the parasympathetic stuff back into the mix now becomes a crucial part of your personal health programme!! I often wish I could write a prescription for ‘parasympathetic time’. It’s so easy for us to dismiss this need of ours. Instead we push on, work super hard, and stay stuck.
So rest, restoration, ease, times where you do that Italian thing ‘la dolce far niente’. Making time for time out. Making time for what truly gives you joy, pleasure, nurtures and nourishes you. It’s not a luxury. It’s an essential way to support your health, prevent you from going into the chronic stress response and get hard-wired into that place of high cortisol. And all the fall-out that creates which you are now an expert in!
So as yourself: what is one thing I could do, to start my parasympathetic prescription today?
3 Support your adrenal glands
Your adrenal glands work hard in both the acute and chronic stress response states. And if we don’t take care of them, they can end up exhausted. Some people like to call this adrenal burnout or adrenal fatigue. In functional medicine we call this HPA axis dysfunction! Not very sexy!!
The three power players in supporting adrenal health are:
- Good sugar detox work (https://www.drmargriet.com/online-coaching-programme/)
- Healthy diet with lots of green leafy veg (our main source of magnesium) and if you are worried re magnesium , take a good quality supplement.
Decide which one you are going to make your priority this week and write it down. You don’t need to do them all at once, but you do need to make a start.
I hope you are now as excited as I am about tackling this stress stuff as I am. It is truly one of the best parts of my job – seeing someone climb out of fatigue and back into feeling energetic, confident and excited about their life.
If you struggle with fatigue and think you might be stuck in the hard-wired chronic stress response, go and take a look at my free masterclass’ fatigue 101’ (click on this link to access the masterclass http://eepurl.com/glBNCX) where you will find more tips and strategies to help you recover your health and your energy.
Recovering your health is always a fantastic gift to yourself. It’s the best investment of all! And there is so much we can do to help ourselves. I hope you feel inspired to up the self-care, build that resilience and grab a whole load of parasympathetic time!
Please drop me a line to let me know how you got on with this article and any thoughts, comments, inspiration or ideas that you got from it. I really do love to hear from you.