The effects of stress on our health are pervasive and insidious. Even if you don’t feel particularly stressed, if you live in the modern world your cells are most likely operating under stress conditions. From sleep to digestion, immunity, blood pressure, fertility and mental health, stress affects every body system. If we want to attain and maintain balance, health and wellness, it makes sense that managing our stress is an essential part of self care.
We are evolved to respond to and deal with stress. Our bodies are physiologically designed to cope with danger – when faced with a threat, our bodies release stress hormones that help us stay alert, and blood is diverted to our heart and muscles as we prepare to fight, or flee from, peril. Ideally, when the threat has passed, our nervous system returns to a relaxed state and our body resumes its everyday functions of healing, digestion and reproduction. Our bodies strive to maintain the balance between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest, nest and digest) nervous systems. Ill health can occur when this balance is distorted.
Unfortunately, modern life is full of triggers that conspire to keep our body in a state of constant vigilance. The chronic, low levels of stress of day-to-day living causes our sympathetic nervous system to dominate, leading to widespread wear and tear on the body and a variety of health problems and imbalances.
We can’t change the world we live in, but we can change our response to it. By adopting new lifestyle practices that balance our nervous system and regulate our stress response, we can ensure that our bodies respond appropriately to stress, and minimise the harmful impacts of modern life on our health and wellbeing. Like any exercise, small amounts of regular practice are the key to long lasting change.
Chronic stress affects our health in a myriad of ways including:
The stress hormone cortisol suppresses the immune system, leading to an increased susceptibility to infection and chronic inflammation
During a stressful event, our muscles tense, ready to fight or flee. Prolonged stress can lead to persistent muscle tension causing back, neck and shoulder pain, headaches and jaw clenching.
Heart and blood pressure
Both increase in times of stress. Over time, high blood pressure can damage blood vessels and increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Stress is known to have detrimental effects on fertility and the production of healthy sperm. Babies born to stressed parents may be more likely to experience health problems including depression and anxiety.
Persistent stress may increase the demands on the glands that make stress hormones, the adrenal glands. Adrenal fatigue causing exhaustion, muscle aches and insomnia may result from long periods of stress or chronic illness.
Blood and energy are diverted away from the digestive system during periods of stress. When stress becomes chronic, digestive dysfunction including reflux, GERD, nausea and malabsorption of nutrients can result.
Constant activation of the fight or flight stress response can result in hyperarousal and increased vigilance, impacting on our ability to regulate our responses and maintain calm. Hyperarousal can lead to insomnia, which in turn decreases our resilience to stress.
Stress and anxiety can make it difficult to make healthy choices around food and lifestyle – it is common to turn to alcohol, sugar and fast food in times of pressure.
Five ways to tone your parasympathetic nervous system and relieve stress naturally
Sing Sing Sing
Singing, chanting a mantra or humming all stimulate the body’s natural relaxation response. Singing with other people is particularly beneficial – it promotes the release of oxytocin, the love hormone, that promotes bonding and social interaction. If you don’t like to sing, gargling activates the similar areas of the throat and also increases parasympathetic nervous system tone.
With so many styles of meditation – transcendental, qi gong, loving kindness, zen, mindfulness, yoga – there is bound to be one that suits you. Studies suggest that meditation changes the anatomy of the brain, and that different types of meditation alter different brain areas. Meditation also reduces blood pressure, heart rate and other physiological measures of stress.
There is no right or wrong way to meditate, so it probably doesn’t matter which one you choose, as long as you enjoy it and you do it consistently.
Acupuncture and Herbs
Most people find acupuncture a deeply relaxing experience and this is why – acupuncture downregulates the body’s stress response and stimulates the vagus nerve. It also sends a range of happy chemicals – serotonin, endorphins, cannabinoids, dopamine and oxytocin – coursing through the body. The Chinese herbal pharmacopeia contains a number of medicinals that calm, soothe and regulate the nervous system to help balance the stress response.
Abdominal breathing is great if you don’t have the time or mental space to do anything else. Controlled deep breathing encourages calm and tells your body that everything is ok. Breathe deeply into your belly; it should be moving as you breathe. I use a phone app with a simple visual that guides my breathing in and out to the count of 4. If you have an Apple watch, the Breathe app is already installed.
Fun with Friends
People with stronger tone in their parasympathetic nervous systems have more positive emotions and are more socially connected. This relationship flows in both directions – spending time with friends and loved ones and sharing moments of social connectedness increases activation of your parasympathetic nervous system. Laughter also activates the nervous system and stimulates the release of feel-good endorphins, promoting a sense of calm and contentedness.