A few months ago, I helped a friend thought a stressful time. That friend happened to be my husband, Chad. He was on a business trip and hit a wall of stress. He felt it in his body with muscles tension, an upset stomach, and a general feeling of unsettledness that is hard to describe. I call it Superstress.
He called me to talk about it. Rather than talking about what caused the stress, I talked to him about what he could do to feel more in control. Because let’s face it–stress is everywhere. Today’s world is full of stressors that often steal our joy and leave us uncomfortable in our own skin. We cannot control our environment completely, but we can control how our body responds to it.
As an anxious person my entire life, I always dream of being one of those people who is unfazed by stress. I want to smile and laugh through the big problems of life. I want to feel like I am capable of handling whatever life throws at me.
When I talked with Chad on the phone that evening, I realized I was closer to being that version of myself than I originally thought. I surprised myself and rattled off a whole list of things he could do now and in the coming days and weeks to help his body through times like these. Here’s what I told him and it seemed to help. Hopefully, it will help you too.
When we feel very stressed, we have activated our sympathetic nervous system. This puts us in a mode called fight-or-flight. This means that our sensory systems are very alert. All of our senses are activated and ready to battle the potential threat. Our heart rate increases and our breathing shortens, and we feel ready to take on something big. What’s amazing about this response is it keeps us alive and that it’s temporary–or it’s supposed to be. After the body gets the message that we won the fight or ran away successfully from the threat without injury or death, we calm down. Our breathing regulates and we feel safe again.
What happens in today’s world of chronic stresses is that the fight or flight signaling gets messed up. We feel anxious and ready for battle all of the time. It’s very difficult to relax. That’s where Chad was. Stuck in the fight or flight mechanism or Superstress. But there is a way out. Breathing is the escape hatch. It overrides the mind and tells the systems of the body that everything is okay. Big, deep, cleansing breaths reset all of the systems. I told Chad to find a quiet space and take some deep breaths.
Deep breathing is a great one time fix to get us out of the fight or flight mode relatively quickly, but in order to stay out of chronic stress, it really needs to happen everyday. Our body needs a constant reminder in this world full of stressors that we really are okay and that everything is under control. While I’m not perfect at this, I do try to make time to breathe as often as possible. My favorite tools for guided breathing include the Headspace app, and a post Crossfit yoga recovery tool called Rom Wod. I also use Yoga Tune Up as a way to loosen and release tight muscle tissue using breathing and therapy balls.
When the fight or flight mode is activated in our bodies, we are prepared for physical activity. The Paleo people would have had to outrun a predator or climb a tall tree to get some nourishment. In most situations, the body would use the flood of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to physically get to safety. That doesn’t happen in today’s world. We’ re stuck with these waves of cortisol as we are sitting in our car in traffic or a desk at work. That’s why it feels so good to take a jog or kill a workout at the end of the day. We’re using up the “energy” our bodies gave us to beat the stress, and we find a natural rhythm with our bodies again. Our senses will alert to stress, we will get the necessary energy and use it up through exercise. The next day or when we needed it, the cycle starts again.
When I’m flooded with stress and anxiety, I find the most relief by moving outside. I love my Crossfit gym and the community there helps me through stress every time I step in the door, but I know when I’m really stressed, I need to get outside. I will hit one of my favorite hiking trails with a friend or walk the beach in solitude. In either scenario, I come home renewed and invigorated. Humans are designed to move outdoors, and that’s why it works every time to pull me out of Superstress. Most importantly, I’ve learned to incorporate it into my weekly exercise routine. I hit the gym 2 or 3 days a week and spend at least 1 day a week exercising outdoors.
When Chad got home from his trip, we reflected on several things. One of the things we have both noticed after living in Superstress was how sensitive our bodies were. It seems like just when you get your breathing and thinking under control, the body will overrespond to another stress threat. Sometimes these can be very silly threats and we feel back to where we started–racing heartrate, muscle tension, stomach ache. It could be days or weeks or hours after we have started to feel better. I call these “afterschocks”. There’s been a big threat like an earthquake to the body. It’s usually accompanied by lots of smaller feelings of stress until the body has completely reset all of its signaling. It’s like trying to ride a bike you’ve assembled yourself when you haven’t tightened all of the bolts and screws. It’s going to feel okay at first, but it’s not going to hold up going up hill or very fast.
I warned Chad on the phone about the aftershocks and gave him the following advice–ease back into life and all of your thoughts very slowly. Stressful thoughts and feelings will resurface. Allow them to come and go. Be aware of your thoughts and don’t attach to the messages that are fueling the stress. Encourage yourself and talk through it.
Self talk through stress can be very powerful.I love messages like “You are in control. You’ve got this. You can handle this.” It’s kind of silly, but I give myself bonus points for handling things well and staying in control when I’m feeling out of control. If I’m calm and patient with the kids that’s 10 or 20 points. Smiling at the slow driver when I want to scowl, 20 to 30 bonus points. Cleaning up the house or something I’m really not wanting to do would be 100 points. Instead of being ticked off that I’m so stressed and being forced to continue parenting, driving, or cleaning, I’m working toward that carefree version of myself and not buying into the messages and thoughts that feed the stress response.
This wouldn’t be a Paleo blog if I didn’t talk about food. Surviving Superstress is a difficult task for the body. The body is striving for a sense of peace and homeostasis. To get back to that place takes nourishment. While it is so tempting to indulge in feel good comfort foods, sugars, alcohol, and grains will only fuel the stress hormones we are trying to keep at bay. A Paleo diet with meats and vegetables gives your systems an availability of nutrients and minerals that help all of your systems reset appropriately.
When Chad came home from his trip, we reset with healthy meals of grass fed meats, salads and potatoes, lots of rest and time outdoors. We spent unscheduled time with the kids and recharged our bodies in a way that would prepare us for whatever challenges lie ahead. I was proud to help him through his Superstress using all of the tools I’ve learned along the way. I gave myself 1 million bonus points for that.