Dealing with stress is a universal fact of modern life. It comes at you from every direction – at work, when commuting, and from family and social relationships. Even when you try to sleep you’re battling the stress of noise and light pollution.
Handle stress effectively and life is enjoyable and exciting. Plus your health gets a big boost.
In contrast, an ineffective stress response leads to low mood, loss of zest for life, a suppressed immune system, and a host of other health woes.
Many experts believe that unrelenting stress is the major cause of today’s epidemic of chronic diseases – everything from heart disease to cancer to depression. That’s why health gurus from A to Z recommend “stress reduction” and “stress management” methods to dial down the stress volume.
Most of these methods are effective if you follow through with them. But not necessarily as effective as they could be. That’s because they’re not always based on understanding the fundamental physiology of the stress response.
Two Secrets to Developing an Effective Stress Response
1. Stress Is an Inside Job
An external stressor doesn’t begin to take its toll on your body until your internal control mechanisms – your nervous system and endocrine system – kick into gear.
The ability to mount a stress response is vital to human survival. Without a robust stress response your cave-person ancestors couldn’t have fled from a raging forest fire or kept a step ahead of a charging rhino. Because these stress responses are so important evolution has automated them – they occur below the level of conscious awareness.
No matter how perfectly you try to control your outside environment — even if you’re living on the beach with plenty of coconuts to eat and waiters ready to refill your pina colada glass the instant you finish it off – your internal stress responses may be programmed to propel you into high alert based on the slightest provocation.
Even if you practice mental exercises such as meditation, deep breathing, or conscious relaxation, your efforts can only try to tamp down a stress reaction that’s already occurred on autopilot.
So the first secret to an effective stress response is to retrain your internal controls so they automatically respond more appropriately without you having to even think about it.
2. Too Much Hot Water Or Too Little Cold?
Here’s the second secret to an effective stress response: Your internal stress response is not regulated by a single volume control. Roughly speaking, your stress response has two volume controllers.
Imagine you’re taking a leisurely shower when suddenly the water becomes scalding hot. Do you reach for the hot water knob to turn it down or the cold water knob to turn it up? Or both at the same time?
Your stress response works the same way as your shower.
One part of your nervous system – the sympathetic system – helps you to run, fight, and spot quickly moving shadows in the forest. Another part – your parasympathetic system – helps you heal, recuperate, absorb nutrients, and rebuild your body. (Your endocrine and immune systems also kick in to support the actions of these two branches of your nervous system.)
You need both parts to work in harmony. But if you’re dealing poorly with stress, the problem could have two causes: too much sympathetic stimulation or too little parasympathetic. Or both. It can be hard to tell if your fight or flight reaction is too robust or if your rest and repair mechanism is too depleted.
Heart Rate Variability – The Most Important Diagnostic Test You’ve Never Heard Of
Fortunately, there’s a diagnostic test that can tell if you need less hot water or more cold. It’s a test for heart rate variability.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of your nervous system orchestrate subtle variations in your heart rate throughout the day based on your level of activity, emotional state, and other factors.
In general, your parasympathetic systems slows down your heart and your sympathetics speed it up. But each exerts its influence with a characteristic rhythms.
If you have your heart rate variability analyzed, both at rest and also when performing basic activities (such as quickly rising from a chair) the data can show the source of your problem.
Then you can formulate a plan to rebalance your systems and improve your body’s stress response.
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