By Brenda Ward, JUNO
Being stressed is becoming ‘normal’ and many people think it’s how life has to be, says Dr Libby Weaver. But it’s not – you can choose not be stressed, she says. Dr Weaver has some simple strategies that work to help you rebalance your life.
“Little daily stresses snowball,” says Dr Weaver. “You wake up and the stress is manageable, then by lunchtime, you add in a couple more deadlines, or you’re late for a meeting, and suddenly you’re in a cascade of stress.
“My goal is to help people take better care of themselves. I want people to make changes.”
She says your body reacts to stress in specific biochemical ways. When you perceive stress, real or imagined, it creates a reaction called ‘sympathetic neuron system dominance’. It’s basically the ‘fight or flight’ response we’ve inherited from our caveman ancestors.
“It communicates to every cell that our life is literally in danger,” says Dr Weaver.
How stress affects our bodies
A sense of pressure and urgency – and even the stimulation provided by a cup of coffee – causes three major biochemical reactions to help you flee:
1. Your blood pressure increases. One in three New Zealanders has high blood pressure.
2. Your blood supply is directed away from digestion to the arms and the legs, so you’re ready to escape. This shows up in stressed people as reflux, indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a condition involving abdominal pain, and diarrhoea or constipation.
3. Stress also changes the fuel your body thinks is appropriate to use. It could use up glucose, or stored body fat – or a combination of the two. When stress signals that you have to get out of danger quickly, it will use fast fuel – glucose – over body fat.
Dr Weaver says many people have lost the ability to effectively use fat as a fuel in their bodies because they’re using glucose instead. You can see the results yourself of blood glucose hitting peaks and troughs during the day, when your energy levels fall rapidly mid-afternoon. When you’re crashing, you crave sugar or caffeine and if you use those, you’re just feeding that cycle.
“So many people pep up with caffeine in the morning and calm down with wine in the evening,” says Dr Weaver. After decades of this cycle, our bodies get used to relying on these triggers to get through the day.
Getting off the stress express
Big biochemical changes happen when we’re feeling the fight or flight response, so to reverse it, we need to activate other biochemical actions, says Dr Weaver. That means using the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’, which slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes intestinal muscles.
First, look hard at how caffeine affects you, advises Dr Weaver. Try cutting down and seeing how you feel.
Then explore the sources of your pressure. Are you turning a very privileged life into something that’s full of pressure? You have food and shelter and a good life; for many people, that’s not the case. It’s about shifting your perception to seeing yourself as busy but in control.
Research has shown that if you’re grateful, you can’t be stressed, says Dr Weaver. The two physical reactions can’t exist at the same time.
However, the most powerful tool you can use to eliminate stress is probably the simplest: to extend the length of your breath exhalation, she says.
“That’s why activities like yoga, pilates and meditation have had to come into play. You’d never be able to breathe like that if you’re in danger, so you communicate to your body that your life is not in danger and… you’ll use fat as a fuel.”
For a lot of people, thinking about weight is the wrong approach. “We need to nourish ourselves, but for too many people, they have to first address the stress. We all have it to different degrees.”
Many people say the opposite of stress is ‘calm’, but Dr Weaver thinks it’s ‘trust’.
“Stress is almost the achiever’s word for ‘fear’. If you pull the curtains back, you’ll find the stress is about what they’re afraid of – fear of letting people down, not being good enough, not being liked. You can get a huge amount of insight into yourself from what you’re frightened about. That will help you understand.
“If you’re stressed because you’re late, then think, ‘What am I afraid of?’.”
Three ways to reduce stress:
Biochemical: Look at how caffeine affects you and consider cutting down on coffee. Schedule diaphragmatic breathing. Set a timer every hour.
Nutritional: We know the body has all the tools it needs to break down whole foods, but we can’t be sure it knows what to do with some processed foods. Try to eat natural and organic foods for most meals.
Emotional: Notice what you’re stressed about and pull back the veil on it to see what you’re really frightened of. It’s usually how people perceive you. Ask, ‘What am I really afraid of?’ Is it not fitting in, not being liked, or letting someone down?