Stress, Sickness, and Stupidity
These are unprecedented times we live in, with the level of uncertainty the majority of us have never experienced before. Making mental health a priority is an absolute must now, as long-term stress adversely affects not only mental wellbeing but also our physical health and intellectual capacity.
Stress works great for us as a response to a short-term, life-treating situation. Stress hormones prepare us for fight or flight: blood is pushed into arms and legs, and the immune system shuts down to save energy (who would care about some virus or bacteria while being chased by the tiger?). As the inner protection is on hold, our body opens up to infections and inflammations: and this is when we get sick.
Stress not only lowers our resilience but also our IQ! We literally become dumber. In this state, we have no chance to create new solutions, to offer breakthrough ideas, to think logically. If you have ever frozen in fear during an exam then you would know exactly what I mean.
Sounds a bit scary, yet we’re far from helplessness! Nature has endowed us with excellent internal mechanisms to help overcome extreme mental and physical conditions. Keep on reading, and you’ll learn some practical tips (backed by neuroscience) to reduce stress while at the same time also stay focused and think sharp.
Don’t Forget to Breathe
Sounds ridiculous, right? Breathing is not something we usually focus on, it’s just happening naturally. We’ve never been taught to breathe, and too bad, as breath is the first thing that changes under stress, sending a threat signal to the brain. While short and shallow breath warns the brain of impending danger and mobilizes the body to fight or flight response, slow and deep breath sends ‘I am safe’ message.
The tip no. 1 for you is this: Whenever you feel like stress is overtaking you, focus on your breathing. Take six slow breaths: inhale deeply through your nose for five seconds, and exhale slowly through your mouths for another five seconds. Conscious, slow breathing helps deactivate the stress response system that is activated under stress. With the slow breath and ‘I am safe’ message being sent, the brain puts the body back into balance, making healing, regeneration, and cell growth possible again.
Feel Elevated Emotions
A part of our uniqueness as human beings is the ability to consciously choose what emotions we want to feel. Feelings are another way of signalling the brain the chemistry as our heart and brain are in constant communication. The quality of this conversation (that can be measured electrically) tells the brain what chemicals should be released to serve best our current state.
When you feel emotions such as stress or fear, a very chaotic signal is sent from the heart, telling the brain you need high amounts of adrenaline and cortisol to respond quickly to some life-threatening situation. However, when you shift your inner experience into compassion, caring, appreciation, or gratitude, the signal from the heart to the brain becomes harmonious and coherent. As a result, very powerful healing chemistries are triggered that strengthen the immune system and promote cell rejuvenation. Since the brain can’t be in these both states at the same time, when you’re in a state of heart-brain coherence, there’s no room left for stress. You simply can’t be stressed out and be grateful at the same time.
Here’s the exercise to practice daily: think back of the event from your life that you felt extremely grateful for. Think of this one situation, recall it with all the details, step into this moment as you were there again. Maybe it was the moment when you held your child in your arms for the first time. Think of anything that filled your heart with extreme gratefulness and feel this situation with all your senses. Just 3 minutes is enough to trigger positive healing chemical reactions that will last up to 6 hours.
Be Nice to People and Smile
Did you know you’re able to create your own antidepressant in your brain? It’s called serotonin, and it’s a very powerful drug (Prozac mimics its effect). Serotonin makes us feel proud, confident, and amazing! This drug is released when we get Facebook likes or when we receive praise, flattery, and compliments. Everybody loves that feeling, right? But what’s interesting is that your brain releases serotonin making you feel great not only when you are praised, but also when you compliment others. Find a reason to compliment people as often as possible – you’ll feel happier and more fulfilled.
Plus, don’t forget to smile! Smile and laugh a lot! If you can’t find any reason for laughing, fake it! Stick a pencil between your teeth and keep it like that for two minutes. You’ll signal your brain to release serotonin, as it would happen with a spontaneous smile. Medicine records cases of patients who ‘laughed themselves to heal’. That’s the great power of body & mind connection.
Let your Body Speak for You
Our body has constant communication with the brain: we call it the ‘body language’. When you make yourself small with a weak body posture (shoulders down, chest and arms folded, you look down) your body signals the brain to release cortisol and inhibit testosterone (which is the hormone of power, dominance, and confidence). That’s a recipe for stress! Yet with the open body posture (‘Wonder Woman’ pose) you increase the level of testosterone and lower the cortisol level, consequently making you feel less stressed out and more confident. Studies show 2 minutes of power posing is enough to decrease stress hormone by 25% and increase testosterone by 20%.
So, the next time when you’re getting nervous or worried, open up your chest and stretch your body. Pretend to be a Wonder-Woman, or an alpha-male gorilla showing who’s the boss in the jungle. You’ll be surprised to see how different you’ll feel after just a few minutes.
And finally: Sweat!
You wake up. Instead of scrolling social media, go jogging, jump rope, or do any form of mid-intense workouts for 20 minutes. Cortisol level is in its highs in the morning so don’t pump it up additionally by reading your newsfeed but exercise! Sweating, as your first daily activity significantly lowers stress chemicals in your body.
To be fully honest with you, there are some side effects of morning workouts, such as improved focus throughout a day, cell rejuvenation and anti-ageing, losing extra weights; I don’t think you’d mind with any of these, however.
Written by Dr Anna Kaminska