How to Deactivate Stress and Enjoy Better Health
- Mel’s weekly “food-for-your-soul” pick: Insight Timer
- Mel’s weekly recipe pick: Spicy Avocado “Fries”
Stress can be both good and bad.
It has the potential to elevate you to higher levels of achievement or debilitate and destroy your health over time.
Think there’s nothing you can do? Think again! Although this is a rather lengthy post, I promise you it will be worth the read.
First, what is stress and how does it function in your body?
Acute stress is typically short-lived and can be part of a positive experience. It often inspires you to take action, building you up to be a better person. It can look like any of the following:
- vacation travel
- downhill skiing
- giving a speech
- falling madly in love
- getting a new job or promotion
- a project deadline
Often we don’t even realize we are stressed. This chronic, low-grade, “silent” stress—stress that does not show any outward signs— can be quite dangerous. I’ll get to that in a minute.
What stress looks like beneath your skin
So how does stress actually work in the body?
Picture yourself sitting in traffic, accelerating and braking like a well-rehearsed symphony. Suddenly, the car in front of you stops abruptly and you slam on the breaks without giving it a second thought. Your heart races, palms get sweaty and you hold your breath for a moment, and then breathe a sigh of relief because you just avoided a crash.
What just happened in your body is something called the “fight-or-flight” response. It goes something like this:
- you perceive a threat
- stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released by your body in response to the threat
- these hormones work to increase your heart rate and blood sugar while slowing digestion
The above is a natural biological response that is hardwired in your DNA and serves you very well when you must hit the brakes to avoid a collision or are being chased by a bear. In fact, if a grizzly bear is chasing you, the fight-or-flight response can save your life.
Here’s what happens in the body when confronted by a bear:
You spot a hungry-looking bear while hiking in the woods. Your body pumps out stress hormones to help increase your heart rate and force blood to your extremities (so you can run!) and elevate your blood sugar (to fuel your run).
These stress hormones also shut down your digestive system, because digesting your food is the last thing you need to worry about when being chased by a bear!
Isn’t Mother Nature brilliant? Think about it; if you weren’t equipped with this fight-or-flight response, you’d soon be dinner for Mr. Bear!
Slamming on brakes and running from a grizzly bear are examples of acute stress. Chronic stress on the other hand, is what most of us experience on a day-to-day basis… and it’s ruining our health!
Chronic stress: destroyer of good health
This type of stress is ongoing, negative, disempowering, and paralyzing; it leaves you feeling worse than before. It can be brought on by relationship trouble, death of a loved one, financial crisis, loss of a job, overwhelming and ongoing demands at work, or chronic illness of a loved one or self.
Chronic stress is interpreted by your body as “GRIZZLY BEAR!”, so it responds just like it’s being chased by a bear: increased heart rate and blood sugar; decreased digestion.
If stress continues unchecked over time, this can translate into:
- high blood sugar
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- heart disease & stroke
- compromised immune system
- chronic constipation
Are you experiencing the physical effects of chronic stress?
Wonder if chronic stress is taking a toll on your body? In addition to the above effects, see how many of these everyday symptoms—that you probably blame on something other than stress— you can identify with:
- low energy
- upset stomach
- aches, pains, and tense muscles
- chest pain and rapid heartbeat
- frequent colds and infections
- nervousness and shaking
- ringing in the ear
- clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Stress & body fat
Now let’s talk about stress as it relates to body fat.
Did you know that when your stress and cortisol levels are high, the body actually resists weight loss? It thinks times are hard and you might starve, so it hoards the fat you eat or have present on your body.
Cortisol also tends to take fat from healthier areas like your butt and hips, and move it to your abdomen, which has more cortisol receptors. So this means:
- junk food cravings
- lowered metabolism
- weight gain
- increased belly fat
Hello stubborn belly fat that hangs on as if it’s fastened with a layer of Gorilla Glue?!
Can you relate?
Presence deactivates stress
In a world where stress is inevitable, it’s crucial for you to understand that your response to a stressful situation is what really matters.
So how can you respond more favorably to the circumstances in your life and keep stress at bay?
By spending more moments in presence.
Think about it. All we can ever live is in this present moment. And in this moment, this very second, there is nothing at all to worry about. Not a thing.
I get challenged on this idea a lot! For example, an individual (let’s call her Jane) will say:
“But no Melanie, that’s not true! Right now, I am stressed because this morning I got in an argument with my husband and we both left the house angry and I just know that when I get home, the disagreement will continue and then I have to make dinner, drive little Johnny to soccer practice and….”
Let’s deconstruct this rebuttal:
- argument with husband: took place in the past; we have no power in the past.
- expectation of argument with husband after work: future anticipated event; we have no power in the future.
- wash clothes, make dinner, drive Johnny to soccer: future tasks; we have no power in the future.
Not one of these events is happening in the present moment. In this moment, you have nothing to worry about; therefore stress can not exist in this moment. It is the anticipation and worry of future events and the pondering and regret over past events, that creates stress. And all of that pondering, worry and anxiety, occurs in the present moment…of which you have total control.
Control your response to stress with this one question…
Your life is a series of present moments— one after the other. And because you have 100% control over how you respond to every single situation placed before you—both desirable and undesirable— you have 100% control over how you respond to stress.
When you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, getting all worked up and activating the chain reaction of stress, I challenge you to: stop, take a breath, and ask yourself this question:
“Is the source of these negative feelings due to a past situation or anticipated future situation?”
It will always be one or the other. Asking this simple question will bring you into the present moment where all really is well.
I think Mark Twain captured it best when he said:
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Putting presence into practice
The simple act of breathing is one of the most powerful tools I have found to bring myself back into my body in the present moment. Why? Because I can’t breathe in the past or future; only in the now.
Breathing is automatic, but most of us aren’t breathing properly.
We tend to breathe more from our chest—but that’s not how we were born. We were actually born to breathe from our abdomen. If you don’t believe me, the next time you are in the presence of an infant, pay special attention to his stomach and you will notice this instinctual breathing.
When you take deep breaths from the abdomen, rather than shallow breaths from your upper chest, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath, and anxious you feel.
How to breathe like a baby
Now let’s focus on breathing the proper way:
Sit comfortably with your back straight. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach and breathe in through your nose. If you are breathing like a baby, the hand on your stomach should rise, while the one on your chest should move very little. Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles.
Even if you only focus consciously on one breath per hour— five seconds in and five seconds out— you are practicing living in the present, and your stress levels will naturally decrease.
The most brilliant words ever spoken
I don’t think more brilliant words have ever been spoken than by those of Eckhart Tolle, author of life-altering books such as The Power of Now and A New Earth.
During a 2014 interview by Oprah Winfrey, Tolle had this to say about the power of living in the present moment:
“The (your) power can only flow into your life when you are present completely, totally, with what you are doing now. And this is why most people’s lives do not have this power, because they are always living for the next thing, so they devalue the present moment.”~Eckhart Tolle
Mel’s weekly “food-for-your-soul” pick:
Looking to invite more presence and power into your life? Insight Timer is a free app that can help you do just that. I’ve been using it for four years now and continue to reap the daily benefits of more peace and clarity.
With the free version you can access all of the following tools:
- meditation timer
- guided meditations targeting your present needs (i.e. stress, sleep, pain, anxiety, etc.) or desired outcomes (i.e. love, confidence, focus, motivation, etc.)
- meditation music
- real-time data showing number of active meditators. For example, this morning at 5:00 am, there were 4,072 people across the globe meditating with me. How cool!
- daily reminders
- meditation tracking and milestone notifications
Remember, your response to stress is what really matters. When you start your day with a little more presence, you will be that much more likely to practice it throughout the day.
Mel’s weekly recipe pick:
Spicy Avocado “Fries”