Understanding Stress

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive -Henry Miller

Like an over-excited squirrel, I enter phases of digging through the piles of stress-related research.  Sometimes, I can’t stop. I have moment after moment of “aha!” and “of course!” as I can apply new findings to my own experience.  I light up hearing about the newest conclusions and correlations as we put together the seemingly endless puzzle pieces.   

Attempting to find more ease and understanding of my own nervous system has become a life’s work. (I’m lucky, I get to study it firsthand, every moment!) I hold strongly to my intention of sharing what’s helped me along the way.  I’m hoping to support others who are also trying to get back to a state of calm, balance, and most generally, health! Despite the catastrophic rise of stressors in this modern world, we are finding ways to feel better and live more gracefully with what is.

Imagine what would happen if we could all turn down the intensity of our stressors; perhaps it would open up more space for us to function more creatively, cooperatively, to actually pursue the aspects of life that feel meaningful, revitalizing, and impactful. 

What would it look like to have the energy, clarity, and vitality to focus on our relationships and our passions? How would we feel if we could easily spend more time helping each other, on being fully present in our lives so that we can enjoy the wild journey as it happens, even if just a little bit more?  

Understanding the Stress Response

Up until this week, I’d only ever heard about fight, flight, or freeze when it comes to reacting to stress.  I’d learned about how trauma is stored in the tissues, how our brains literally rewire in response to chronic stress, and how these changes pass down from generation to generation.  I’d read about how our gut microbiome influences our stress response, and how even the types of fibers we eat or the mindset we practice most can impact not only the strains of bacteria that proliferate, but also influence the cascade of hormones released in response to perceived catastrophe.  

What I hadn’t heard about were the 5 stages of the stress response, despite having experienced them myself on this wonderfully bumpy ride.

The stages are broken into:

  1. Alarm (fight, flight, or freeze)
  2. Resistance (breakdown)
  3. Recovery (return to baseline)
  4. Adaptation (to constant stress)
  5. Exhaustion (burnout)

Our physiology changes drastically  in response to stress, as our bodies flood with chemicals preparing us to respond accordingly.  Our limbic system kicks into gear and we feel it. We might notice shallow breathing, sweating, and increased heart rate as our systems shift towards excitation, ready to respond to the looming threat.

In the short term and in response to real danger, this is a wonderful system! Our brain, noticing a threat, wisely alerts the thyroid and adrenal glands, signaling the flood of cortisol and adrenaline. Hulk-like, we are poised for action.  If all goes well, the body enters a stage of recovery once the threat dissipates.  

However, the persistent demands of our culture have seemingly shifted humans into stages of adaptation and burnout.  We react to psychological stressors as if they are real, physical threats, priming our bodies to react accordingly. Yet, without a real threat, and the lack of discharge, the body stays perpetually primed for disaster.

If you’re alive and mentally aware enough to be reading this, you’re likely aware of how just managing daily life can be stressful: we’re constantly bombarded with demands, schedules, obligations, and obstacles.  

We might find ourselves unable to sleep, dragging ourselves to work long shifts in a windowless office that drains us, wincing with chronic back pain and mysterious brain fog, wishing we had a vacation, wishing we had more time to do all the things we wanted and needed to do in this short life.

On top of that, we might experience blood sugar swings when we zoom out the door and trade breakfast for a black coffee, fill our brains with negative, inflammatory thoughts, feeling lonely, purposeless, overwhelmed, complicated even further by the continual stressors of unnatural blue light exposure, constant EMF exposure, environmental toxins like mold, metals, glyphosate, microplastics, endotoxins released from the critters and infections within us, and even the psychological stressor of living in a country run by a lunatic.  The list goes on, the stress expands.   I’ll spare you!

With these perpetual stressors, the body is forced to adapt to less than ideal conditions.  It can’t run away and wisely calm down shortly after, as would be ideal, and instead must adjust to a new (pathological) normal.

What sparks my curiosity is when we skip the recovery phase.  Instead of resting and repairing, we adapt, yet not in the positive way the word “adaptation” might suggest.  The brain recognizes the higher levels of stress as the new normal: the stress is here to stay, it says. If this phase is prolonged, cortisol stays elevated, and the body begins breaking down its own muscle, bones, and nutritional reserves in order to continue functioning as optimally as possible. 

Adapting to Long Term Stress

As the body adapts to this persistent, unrelenting stress, diseases of adaptation ensue.  The characteristic symptoms include (but not limited to):

-chronic fatigue, no matter how much you sleep

-feeling crummy

-insomnia, broken sleep, or even excessive sleeping, never feeling rested

-extreme hunger, or no appetite at all

-loss of libido (what’s the point?)

– reduced capacity to experience joy or pleasure (even in things that used to be fun!)

-memory and concentration impairment (feeling like you’re losing it)

-lack of inspiration, life feels meaningless, joyless

-hormonal swings, or chronically high levels of cortisol, estrogen, and serotonin

-unexplained aches and pains

-high levels of inflammation, stiffness in the morning

If these diseases of adaptation continue long enough and the body isn’t able to recover, stage five of exhaustion follows.  

Essential nutrients become depleted, the thyroid and adrenal glands down-regulate, auto-immune conditions stealthily arise.  The chronic, debilitating, and wildly complex issues take hold, as the body puts all remaining energy into just keeping the vital organs alive.  This is what survival mode looks like. This is where I plateaued for many years.

The biological systems designed to keep us safe in the short term, innocently make us chronically ill once turned on for longer than planned.  In the field of psychoneuroimmunology, we are finally understanding how these states of chronic stress impair the immune system so drastically.  This impairment results in brain changes and limbic dysfunction that disrupts the stress response and dampens immune function even more.  

Yet again, a vicious loop, exacerbated and fueled by living in an increasingly stress-filled world and not having adequate methods to manage these stressors.  

Being “sick” becomes the new norm, and the body makes do with what it can. 

So, what the heck do we do?

As I pause to reflect on my own journey with long term stress and symptoms driven by adaptation and exhaustion, I realize how recovery requires a multi-pronged approach.  

Mindset: We have to first accept that stress is a normal, natural part of life.  Short term stress, with ample opportunity to recover, actually enhances cognition, increasing our capabilities and motivation to meet the obstacle at hand. It’s analogous to the gains made in strength training if we allow ourselves proper recovery.  However, we need to shift our relationship and reaction to persistent stressors. We need to turn down the intensity of those we can control and minimize the effects of those that we cannot.    

In a state of severe depletion and exhaustion, this takes time and commitment.  We need to meet ourselves where we are at to slowly fortify the layers that need it most.  Choosing positive thoughts –deliberately!– that actually signal to our stress systems that all is well is the first step.  Surrounding ourselves with people, sounds, images, colors, smells, and landscapes, moving our bodies appropriately–to the best of our ability– that allow us to feel calm, safe, and hopeful is not a luxury: it is required.  Removing the stimuli that leave us feeling drained and scrambled is equally as necessary. Believing in your body’s ability to heal doesn’t hurt, either.

If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever. -Dalai Lama

Fuel: Next, we need to make sure our bodies are fueled with proper and timely nutrition to support an adaptive stress response.  A starved and inflamed system will struggle to respond to external stressors if it’s trying to balance out the chaos within!   If our bodies are not properly fueled, the stressor will lead to further stress on the system as it fails to recover or shift out of the detrimental stage.  Blood sugar swings will continue sending off signals of alarm, and without proper building blocks, like protein, saturated fats, the body cannot repair.

Yet again, the work of doctors like Zsofia Clemens, Paul Saladino, and Ray Peat bubbles to the surface, with simple ideas to minimize the physiological effects of stress by addressing intestinal permeability, blood sugar swings, pathogens, and hormonal dysregulation.

When the body’s interconnected web of systems have the tools to perform optimally and in a relaxed manner, our biology responds with robust immunity, resilience, and energy.  To contrast, while the body is breaking down in response to heightened levels of stress hormones and inadequate fuel, we face challenges. Our bodies kindly request an assortment of vitamins, minerals, and calories just to preserve critical functions of survival.  At a high level, we need adequate protein, glucose, fat, and vitamins C, D, E, B1, B6 and B12, calcium, magnesium, copper, sodium, potassium, selenium, and zinc, among others, just to function normally.  If the gut is so impaired that even benign foods cause issues, an extreme elimination diet with easy to digest, nutrient dense foods might be the best place to start. (Animal products to the rescue!)

Listening to what allows your body to feel fabulous is critical.  

We can seek nutritional advice from expert after expert, but trusting ourselves and experimenting will save a lot of time (and money!)

  Removing hard-to-digest and irritating foods, gums, additives, PUFAs, and problematic fibers will also go a long way, especially if you have a compromised gut and some stealth infections.  For me, that meant giving up my love affair with almost all fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. My heart, taste buds, and even mindset sure loved massive bowls of beans, brown rice, and broccoli and the nightly salted almond butter-banana combo, but my gut suffered tremendously. 

 By learning what foods worked for me and what needed to be removed, the internal stress present in my body decreased dramatically.  As a result, my appreciation and enthusiasm for animal-based functional foods like oxtail, liver, pastured egg yolks, and oysters has grown wildly. (I’m excited just thinking about oysters!)  These gems provide the much needed building blocks in generous and impressive quantities.  

By removing hard to digest foods packed with anti-nutrients and gut irritants, adding in innocuous fibers to mop up the endotoxins, my cortisol levels started declining so that my gut had the energy to start working again.  (It’s like magic, I tell you!)

Toxins: On top of proper nutrition, mitigating the hidden impacts of toxins in our bodies is essential when it comes to down-regulating the stress response and allowing our bodies the best possible opportunity to heal.  If your physiology is shifted so as to keep you in a state of panic or exhaustion at the biochemical level, recovering becomes difficult, if not borderline impossible.  Thinking calm thoughts and being extra positive isn’t enough if biochemically, your body is under attack.

With chronic inflammation caused by problematic foods, infections, parasites, heavy metals, mold toxicity, pathogenic gut imbalances, excess stress hormones and endotoxins, the body is constantly getting the signal of alarm.  This signal depletes the building blocks that even a balanced diet might provide. Even just thinking about these biological stressors wreaking havoc in our systems is stressful!  

I will be the first to raise my hand, agreeing that this process is much easier said than done.  Peeling back the ever-shifting layers of chronic infection, especially in a depleted state, requires patience, persistence, trust, a team of support (thank you, everyone!) and continual experimentation.  

There is no magic pill or easy fix.  Time is on your side. By pruning back the culprits and of these toxic by-products, you’re giving yourself the leg-up necessary to heal.  To mop up some of the toxins and decrease the transit time of the bowels to shuttle out the waste, I make sure to eat a carrot salad (or some other insoluble fiber, like in well-cooked mushrooms or bamboo shoots) every day. Again, thank you Dr. Ray Peat for doing the research on carrots, and my sister for gently suggesting the salad! 

Relaxation: Once the toxic load has been reduced and the body has the necessary building blocks to shift out of the alarm phase into recovery, it is a continual process of enticing the body into the parasympathetic state. This is paramount. 

Healing and cellular repair can only happen when the parasympathetic state of relaxation is dominant.  Beyond moving and thinking in ways that are supportive to lowering the stress response, you must train yourself to actually enter a state of rest.  

Your heart rate slows, your breaths deepen, and you might even notice gurgling in your belly as digestion resumes.  A feeling of well-being, calm, and restfulness washes over you when the parasympathetic state takes over.  

In terms of brain rewiring, fueling the stories that allow your brain to soften to a point of safety will signal to the body that it can let down it’s guard and work on healing.   Intentionally choosing hopeful, inspiring, and beautiful thoughts, in whatever shape that means for you, start this process. I personally trace back to un-rushed moments of joy and laughter with loved one’s, savoring the details of those experiences so as to recreate them in my mind.  I’ve learned to continually shift my perspective, intentionally, to see the humor and abundance in situations, especially the miserable not-so-rosey ones.

We are also learning that the vagus nerve, governing the parasympathetic state, can send signals of safety to the brain. In fact, 80% of the signals are sent from the body to the brain via afferent nerve signals.  If we can calm our bodies, our brains will eagerly follow. While relaxation seems like a no-brainer, I have found engaging the relaxation response to be the most difficult, given a high load of physiological triggers setting off a perpetual stress response.  Yet, with enough time, learning to calm my system marks the most rewarding and impactful process. By taking ownership of the quality of thoughts, I remind my cells that they are safe and that they can function optimally.  

As I’ve mentioned before, teaching the brain to calm down, to relax, to find ease, humor, and delight is a moment to moment practice, especially if the internal stressors of chronic depletion, malnutrition, and infection still play a role.  I’m continually having to pause, practice, pause, practice, punctuating my life with moments of calm so that I can move beyond just living in hypervigilance or profound exhaustion.  

Thanks to the work of many gifted healers, conversations, youtube videos, and podcasts along the way, I have been continually reminded of two of the simplest and most impactful tools at our disposal:

BREATHING and Guided Meditations.

With breathing, it always tickles my toes that the simplest tool is often the most overlooked.  Yet again, I raise my hand to plead guilty! 

I’m quick to research supplements, diets, devices, lasers, shamans, and treatments to help calm my system down and completely forget that starting with the breath might lead to a greater impact, at no cost.  I’ve been told over and over and over again, to breathe, to focus on deep, belly breaths. Over and over again, I forget.

So let me serve as a reminder to you and to myself: the most affordable, perhaps most impactful practice you can do to thrive is to breathe fully, deeply, as if your life really did depend on it (because it does!)

Multiple times a day, pause, and breathe deeply and fully. You’ll start to catch yourself forgetting to breathe sooner the more you practice. You might even find yourself looking forward to your breathing breaks. Build in the gaps. Take the time, you won’t be sorry.

When it comes to meditation, the research of its positive impact on stress levels  is extensive and unanimous. We all agree that meditation benefits our nervous system.  Yet again, I made excuses. I found that I didn’t have time, and the few times I’d sit to meditate, I noticed my thoughts speed up even faster, feeling even crummier and more panicked than before I sat down. (I grew to detest meditation, while also wishing I could benefit from it without having to actually do it.)   However, this is not the case with guided meditations. There is something so luxurious, so soothing, so balancing when a chronically overactive brain can just focus on someone else’s words and learn to slow down.

Life isn’t as serious as the mind makes it out to be. -Eckhart Tolle


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