Or the big stuff, for that matter. Which is significantly easier said than done!
We all have stressful times in our lives – none of us are immune from that reality. But how we manage stress can really impact on our health and wellbeing. And one key to stress management is to recognise what it looks like for us when we’re stressed, firstly so that we can spot the warning signs and then so that we can employ some strategies that help, rather than hinder, during those times.
So what happens in our bodies when we’re stressed?
When faced with an immediately stressful situation our bodies swiftly move to fight-or-flight mode; all energy is moved away from non-essential processes, such as digestion, to our arms and legs. Our heart rate and blood pressure goes up, the hormones adrenaline and cortisol rise and that triggers the fat cells around our middle to release fat – and our liver to release its stores of glucose – straight into our bloodstream to provide lots of ready energy. It’s an amazing survival mechanism!
However, our bodies can’t tell the difference between the stress of coming face-to-face with a grizzly bear (think Hugh Grant in ‘Did you hear about the Morgans’ :)) and being late for a train or having to give a presentation at work. Have you ever felt anxious about an exam, for example, and urgently needed the toilet before hand? That’s part of the same stress response.
When things calm back down again our adrenaline levels return to normal fairly quickly but our cortisol levels can remain high for some time – even days. Also, if we haven’t burnt off all that glucose and fat released into our bloodstream (‘cos we didn’t fight or flee…) then it gets stored near our liver again, ready for the next stressful situation. Ever wondered why it’s hard to lose that fat around the middle?
And tummy fat dramatically increases inflammation and causes an imbalance in our hormones – all in all, not great!
What causes stress then?
Well, that can be different for each of us. For example I find public speaking extremely stressful whereas a colleague of mine would find holidays stressful. How stressful would you find each activity below on a scale of 1 = ‘not at all’ up to 5 = ‘very’ – and ask a friend or family member too:
- Public speaking
- Making big decisions
- Looking at my bank balance
- Being at work
- Travelling on public transport
- Meeting new people
- Going on holiday
I’m sure you can think of other things, big and small that get your blood pressure up! And that’s aside from any major life issues, such as a relationship breakdown, sickness, moving house, changing job and getting married – to name but a few.
Another unusual stressor is actually sugar or refined carbohydrates – they can cause such a glucose ‘high’ that our pancreas has to release a huge amount of insulin, resulting in the inevitable sugar ‘low’, which causes a massive stress response. Actually, when we have a sugar low our brain, which uses an amazing 25% of our glucose even though it’s only 5% of our body weight, literally drives us to find a quick source of glucose! Sugar lows are very bad for our brains!
So all of that means that our everyday lives can be stressful in so many different ways that we can get stuck in chronic stress and some coping strategies, while understandable, might not be great.
So what do we do?
I wish I could say that we have a cure-all for stress, but that just isn’t possible I’m afraid! But I do believe that we manage it better now than we used to.
When we recognise that either of our stress levels has gone beyond a temporary spike we’ll try to watch something that makes us laugh. My favourite ‘go to’ sitcoms are ‘Friends’ and ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Having a good, spontaneous laugh can cut through the stress and help to boost our serotonin levels. It also helps our brains to switch off from going round and round about the same thing…
I listened to a Podcast recently where Dr Daniel Amen explains that if we change our physical state then it can really help change our mental state. Go figure! Whether it’s laughter, dancing, exercise – it doesn’t matter.
While we only learnt this recently we do try to go for a walk, even if it’s just to buy something from our local supermarket, or get some exercise when we’re feeling a bit stressed. Getting outside helps to give us some fresh air and a brisk walk really helps to supply our brains with oxygen.
We are in the very fortunate position of being able to talk to each other about anything but we also have close friends and family that we can share with when we need to ‘debrief’ from a stressful situation. We would also spend time praying about situations.
The power of sleep cannot be over estimated when it comes to dealing with stress. In fact, a lack of sleep will cause our cortisol levels to remain higher than they ought to. We aim for 7-8 hours of sleep a night.
Doing something that we enjoy, and can get totally absorbed in, really helps us to switch off from stress; writing a blog is now one of my main hobbies, along with reading and spending a bit of time on social media. Having said that, if social media becomes a source of stress then I give it a wide berth for a few days – I want my time on social media to be inspirational, happy and relaxing not negative and stressful!
Have you ever been on holiday and made a pledge that you won’t allow your life to get so busy and will carve out time to rest each week but within a couple of weeks of being back you’re exactly where you were before your holiday? I’ve been there so many times. And it’s incredibly disheartening. In fact on my last holiday I told my husband that I wasn’t going to do that anymore and would just resign myself to the inevitable busyness that hit me when I got back…
Then I came across Allie Cazzaza’s blog and used one of her resources, which prompted me to list out the hours I spend on activities in a typical week. It was incredibly eye opening; every two to three weeks I was spending half a day doing our accounts because of the way I was doing it. Right there and then I set everything up differently and it now takes me max 20 minutes a week! I can honestly say it’s had a profound effect on my weekends.
We’re incredibly grateful for all we have and it can be so powerful to reflect on those things when everyday events get frustrating or overwhelming. And it doesn’t have to just be the big stuff; if our journey has been difficult then we will be grateful that we arrived safely. Or if a relationship is strained and causing us to worry then we will be grateful that God has blessed us with the love of many wonderful friends and family members.
Ultimately, we try really hard not to let stress steal our wellbeing – it’s just not worth it!
Want to understand more?
Dr Marilyn Glenville has written a great book about the effects of stress on our bodies and what we can do about it called ‘Fat around the middle’ (ISBN 978-1-85626-655-0). She includes a plan of action, suggested exercises as well as some meal suggestions.