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Are You Over-Stressed or Under-Recuperated?

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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