Stress has got such a bad name! Used properly, it’s your new superpower.
Stress is such a two edged sword.
At its worst it is a silent killer, damaging systems that control the inflammatory system, causing insulin resistance, changing the gut microbiome, putting pressure on the heart and sending the brain into unhelpful overdrive.
Stress, our response to external events, activates complex cellular level systems that for the most part we are unaware of until chronic exposure damages them. Without essential downtime for recovery, they eventually reveal themselves as symptoms of mental or physical illness.
And the key culprit? Inflammation
Inflammation is partly controlled by cortisol, our principal stress hormone and when it is released too often, immune cells lose their sensitivity, allowing inflammation to run unchecked, damaging blood vessels, brain cells and causing painful joint diseases.
Cortisol also prepares the body for action, releasing stored energy. However when it is constantly released, our insulin receptors that allow the uptake of glucose into our cells, get worn out and less receptive. So more insulin is needed to get the same effect and you guessed it, we get insulin resistance. At the same time cortisol causes us to accumulate fat around the organs, increasing weight with the fat cells releasing proteins called cytokines that also interfere with insulin receptors, who are already having a hard time!
Stress also interferes with the brain’s neurotransmitter systems, such as serotonin and dopamine, negatively affecting mood, appetite, sleep and libido. Some severely depressed people have permanently elevated cortisol levels, which can eventually alter the hippocampus and permanently damage brain cells.
Now for the good newsOn the opposite side, with the right mindset and used in the moment, stress is a super power that gives us the ability to reach our goals, focus & perform. And if you think about it, gives a similar response to being excited, both causing our hearts to race. Imagine if you never got excited or stressed? Really doesn’t sound like a life worth living.
What’s more stress comes with its own inbuilt resilience system which gets activated during each stressful event. This involves the release of a neurotransmitter called oxytocin, that in relaxing moments we think of as the “love hormone”. However, in stressful conditions it plays a slightly different role, encouraging us to seek contact with others, “get help” as well as talk about what has stressed us out, which is always an immediate release!
And the icing on the cake for stress’s redeeming features, is that we need it to activate certain genes associated with longevity. This fascinating arena of science has the capacity to dramatically slow down and even reverse the ageing process. More on this to follow and the actionable tools available to us all, that switch on the major longevity genes.
So how do you when stress becomes a problem?
So how do you know good from bad stress and get all the upsides of good stress before bad stress takes you on a downward trajectory. Can you measure stress so you can take action at the right time?
The truth is it’s very tricky, as there is no one single measure at a system wide body level that indicates we are at risk of causing damage at the cellular level. What’s more, what’s stressful for me might be a walk in the park for you; we all have different levels of coping and resilience to stress.
Our focus is in on the autonomic nervous system, a control system that operates unconsciously, regulating bodily functions including heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate and sexual arousal. It has two arms, the sympathetic arm, often called “flight or fright” which responds to external stressors with the release of adrenaline and cortisol and its counter, the parasympathetic “rest & relax” nervous system. The former, as we have covered here, affects multiple systems, whilst the parasympathetic has one route in. The vagus nerve.
When these two arms are balanced and playing nicely it’s a good indicator our body is responding well to external stressors.
How can you measure it?
So how do we measure the state of the mysterious autonomic nervous system? I know I can feel my sympathetic system when my heart starts racing, I’m sweating, can’t sit still and my tummy is in knots. Sound familiar? And horrid if you are on stage, about to present and your stress response turns off everything it thinks is non-essential to movement, including your salivary glands, so your mouth dries out and you can’t talk!
But how can I learn to feel good stress and bad stress so I know when my ANS is lop sided? Is it because I am coping with difficult days and still have energy left? Would a questionnaire help? There is the “Perceived Stress Scale” but quite frankly all surveys are all a big no-no for me.
So failing the ability to feel my stress, dislike for questionnaires and not wanting to get to the point of getting unwell, an unexplained tummy ache, poor sleep, anxiety, constantly feeling low. What easy, reliable, accurate options do I have left?
Introducing the breathtaking science of Heart Rate Variability (HRV) biofeedback
So, how about adapting a tool used by the sports sector used to guide athletes on how hard to train and when to rest. It is based on a well evidenced stress biomarker, easily & accurately obtained from certain wearables called Heart Rate Variability (HRV); a good measure of autonomic nervous system balance.
It was first used by astronauts in the 1960s to track the drastic changes to the body in space and progressed to use by cardiologists tracking recovery from strokes, signs of depression, risk of developing diabetes and then more recently by high performing sportsmen and women to optimise their training.
By daily tracking you can see your baseline over time, and if it starts to drop (a sign of stress) you can make lifestyle changes. A great foundation for ANS balance is our 6 week breathtaking science programme due for release summer 2022, which could give your HRV on average a 20% boost, strengthening your vagus tone, so you relax fully and more quickly after a stressful event.
Combine this with the power of your mindset to further positively influence your physiology and you are on the winning track and using stress to bring your best to life. Why wait.
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