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That Thing We Call Stress

According to many sources on the internet, stress is bad. 

There is no way to justify the means to tense up, start binge eating, lose control, and just feel like you are about to fall off the face of the earth. It is one of those factors to hold on to for some and retain that point of view as a non-debatable one. 

Their negative Holy Grail.

Just like with many things in life, there is a lot of debate going around what stress triggers do to our body. A mix and match of scientific data and personal experienced are pushed through as the solution. So, is stress bad for you?

It depends.

You hear me say it a lot when I coach and get client questions. While many questions are followed with a question starting with “why” they think /act/ believe like that, the topic surrounding stress is not something that is raised. During the few cases it was brought up, it was connected when binge eating entered a client’s journal. The fact that some important deadlines came up turned into a caloric food frenzy. It made perfect sense and was totally understandable when he described the situation he was facing.

Looking back at my journey, stress reared its ugly head way too often.

Taking on too many things, not planning my stuff properly.

A plethora of factors I could control went out of control. I wanted to avoid the whole scientific side of stress (hormonal releases, the association of how the brain controls the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and so forth). However, there is some value to understanding what this can and cannot do.

For me, stress is about social and corporate performance.

The desire to deliver, the avoidance of failure when tasks are appointed to one’s self. The need to get the job done within the time given. The uncertainty when the light at the end of the tunnel remains a big black hole. I am sure that some will disagree about this. However, it will be by far less on how some scientists verbally slaughter other opinion seekers on the World Wide Web about this.

Again, just like many nutrition aficionados, it may well work for one yet not for the other. We hold onto what works well for one and take on ideas and tips to change our direction. This arises when one solution does not really give you the results you are looking for. 

The sheer and undeniable beauty of individualism.

I recently listened to some interesting podcasts, because we are in a global situation where stress levels are rising. Particularly connected to the last part – uncertainty.

Rising pandemic situations see many of us going in ‘hibernation’ mode by locking ourselves up. We are indulged in what the media, the socials, and our friends throw at us onto our mobile.

It took me a long time to see what stress for me entailed. When constantly under stress (long-term stress, there are many definitions about the length of it so I take it at face value and add 6 months or longer to it), this certainly is not a healthy thing. Neuron paths are getting askew. We lose touch with some form of reality and see things more black than white. Time and time again, we blame ourselves as the victim and disconnect us from those we hold dear. 

There are ample studies pointing out the correlation of modern-day diseases and elevated levels of stress and how much stress we allow to enter into our bodies. 

Is society becoming more stressed?

It is this social connection that has proven to me to be the cure for battling stress. Humans are social animals. We thrive when being among people and seek face-to-face encounters with a cup of coffee, during a spinning class, and enjoying a good time at a local watering hole. The replacement theory of Zooming or face-timing those you once saw regularly has proven not to have the same effect. 

It is without any doubt that the drive to meet someone in person is favoured by many of us humans. Spending time with my partner as much as I can is what tops my list of not falling in this manic vortex with no end in sight. The reason why I try to grab onto rekindling friendships and seeking out my tribe where and when I can.

The short-term version of stress is the most common one. Meeting deadlines, gearing up for a tournament you’ve been training for so long, an exam to crush in 24 hours from now. We all define our moments when we have a challenging goal in mind and need to nail this. Generally defined as short-term stress lasting a couple of minutes to a couple of days, one’s anchors to these stress durations depend from person to person and from situation to situation. 

We are losing track of reality. This, too, is the result of stress. Doom scenarios boil up because we do not want to fail. The final outcome we mark as our Valhalla. The body recognizes stress levels that one’s behaviour changes through outside manipulators. It is what happens inside our body with hormones firing away that trigger the stress response.

The activation of our sympathetic nervous system (don’t be fooled by the name – it is far from sympathetic) when stress situations get off the starting blocks, speeds up a lot of processes in the body. I am talking about increased waves of adrenaline and decreased blood flow from less-essential areas in the body to support other parts that are pushed in a heightened state of alertness.

In addition, one’s heart beats faster while temporarily shutting down other systems. Also called the “fight-or-flight” system, it is all about a heightened state of awareness, ready to take on risky situations.

Not what we want to go into, unless we are ready for battle. Activating one’s sympathetic nervous system may well be the thing you want to do. An advantage of stress? Or perhaps when you’re about to start for the 100-metre sprint of your lifetime. Few others such as getting your muscles firing up during a heavy squad set slightly increases stress levels.

While many may seek out soothing methods to alleviate the stress levels, many consider talking to themselves to calm down. I was one of them. Yet this has proven to be as futile as selling sands to the nomads in the desert. The brain does not react to verbal queues to calm down; it actually speeds up the process and makes one more stressed out.

Don’t try this at home as it is almost doomed to fail.

What really works is a thing you carry with you all the time. It is tightly connected to what we do to a lesser extent when stress rises like flow after a period of ebb. There is no doubt any longer that controlling your breath has been the most powerful natural medicine to get back into a homeostatic state of being. And it does not have to be that complicated.

Crucial when initiating some breathing is that first and foremost recognize clearly that you are in a stressful situation. I can recommend following my fellow “Dutchy” Wim Hof for some breathing techniques. Again, this is highly individual. There are no graphs or tables where one’s stress levels are accurately drawn out to kickstart one’s breathing.

Secondly, step away from the area where stress levels are rising. Unless you are about to save a drowning child and are keen to give a helping hand, controlling your environment is of the greatest essence. Just like when you cannot sleep, getting out of bed and being in a different room has a far bigger chance to get back into sleep than tossing and turning under your blanket. Find a spot that is not visually in your stress zone.

Thirdly, do not grab any mobile devices. Your Facebook feed may be of great interest, however it does not solve the situation you encountered.

Finally, breathe again.

There are a lot of breathing techniques available on how to breathe effectively. From box breathing to Tummo breathing, make one of them your own. All have their own benefits yet the key to it is to practice it, focus on it and make your out-breath longer than breathing in. The human’s internal clockwork will connect the dots by slowly deactivating your sympathetic nervous system and boosts your para-sympathetic nervous system (also known as your “rest-and-digest” system). 

Read “digest’. How you eat and absorb your food to loose weight can be tightly connected to a stressful situation. Perhaps the definition of stress eating makes more sense?

Just lifting the veil of what stress can and cannot do. Your goal may be to calm down however if you do not have the processes and habits in place, calming down from stress may never take place.

Let’s have a stress-free talk!

It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it. |  Hans Selye

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