Human evolution includes a long history of stress…
Years ago, my son was born prematurely and spent some time in the NICU. One afternoon, soon after I finally brought him home, I was sitting in a little house on the Texas military base where my husband was stationed at the time, and out-of-the-blue, I was smacked in the face with debilitating fear. I looked at the tiny human in my arms and suddenly had a full-blown freak-out. My mind went from that moment when I was holding him, all the way to the realization that I would die one day, and then my son would die, and everyone we ever knew would die at some point too.
We’re all going to die, I thought to myself. I can’t do this.
At that moment, trying to imagine every aspect of my son’s life and every part of my own, I experienced the worst panic attack of my life. I stood up, set my son down in his crib, and went running to the neighbor’s house. Pounding on the door, I shouted, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this!”
This woman, who barely knew me at all, ended up calling my husband at work, and he came home. My mind was chaos. I was taking on my son’s entire life, my entire life, and all the lives of everyone around us in one single moment.
I believed that if I could only figure out how it would all unfold, we’d all be okay. In doing so, I was making myself crazy.
Now my son is in his twenties, and honestly, thank goodness I didn’t know every aspect of the future—I’m grateful it unfolded one moment at a time.
But we all do this in different ways, right? We think if we only knew the answers to all the questions or could anticipate precisely what will happen when or knew every single thing the future held for us and everyone else, we could protect ourselves from pain. We fill our present with stress and worry about our future to avoid future stress and worry.
Every day you probably face multiple, stressful demands in your life that lead to overwhelm, anxiety, or even anger. Believe it or not, the human body is hardwired to react to stress in these ways.
Evolutionary psychology says that stress reactions helped protect prehistoric humans against threats from predators and other aggressors. But while we might not be running from sabertooth tigers or wooly mammoths anymore (at least, not often), that doesn’t mean our lives have become stress-free. Stress—whether the predator is a four-legged one or your email inbox—is a part of the human experience.
When you perceive a threat—for instance, a large dog barks at you during your morning walk—a tiny region at the base of your brain, called your hypothalamus, sounds an alarm in your body. This alarm system prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies—the kind needed to outrun a prehistoric predator. Cortisol increases sugars in your bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose, alters your immune system responses, and suppresses your digestive system, reproductive system, and growth processes.
This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation, and fear. The body’s stress response system was designed to be self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. You take some breaths, and you move on with your life.
But the human body’s prehistoric stress response hasn’t evolved in correspondence to the pace of modern life. YOU might cognitively understand it’s your ringing cell phone that’s ruining your day, but your brain still operates as though every ping is a deadly predator.
When stressors (like your inbox) are ever-present, you constantly feel under attack, and your fight or flight reaction is always on. The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes. This overexposure puts you at increased risk for numerous health problems, including heart disease, digestive issues, trouble sleeping, weight gain, anxiety, depression, and memory and concentration impairment.
Recent studies show that 77 % of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, and 73% regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress.
33% of people report living with extreme stress, while 48% feel their stress has increased in the last 5 years—and this data was collected BEFORE the global pandemic of 2020!
48% of people report lying awake at night because of stress, while 54% report stress causes them to fight with others. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
As humans, most of us are frantic to get away from the feeling of stress. We do everything we can to try to escape it—we hate the feeling, and so many of us think that we’ll feel better if we can just avoid it. But we can’t escape stress. Instead, we have to harness our power to take charge of it.
By identifying your stress triggers, you become more aware of when stress threatens to take control. Then you’re better prepared to take care of yourself physically and emotionally, filing a toolbox with stress-management strategies BEFORE stress responses kick in. For example…
- Eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, and get plenty of sleep.
- Practice yoga, relaxation techniques, or learn to meditate.
- Foster healthy friendships.
- Have a sense of humor and try to laugh often.
- Seek professional counseling when needed. If you feel that your stress is out of control, consult with your physician or health coach.
- Try meditation. As little as five-to-ten minutes of daily meditation has been proven to help the brain make new and better pathways and connections.
- Practice yoga, which combines many necessary activities that reduce stress, including exercise, body movement, and meditation. Take a class at a local studio or gym, or find a free video on YouTube.
- Practice deep breathing, an integral part of meditation practice. Taking deep breaths just five to seven times throughout the day delivers benefits. Simply pause, reflect, and take a few deep breaths every few hours or before and after meals to calm your nervous system.
- Practice positivity and gratitude by making an effort to think kind thoughts about your life and be grateful throughout the day. Positivity fuels you with natural chemicals that decrease your level of stress. Speak positive messages to yourself and others, or consider keeping a gratitude journal.
Instead of viewing stress as the thing that will destroy your health and ultimately kill you, what if we all started looking at our stress as an invitation to become healthier in body, mind, and spirit. What if your stress responses are an invitation from your body to transform? What if you thought of stress as the survival mechanism evolved to be instead of the fallout of negative stimuli? You might just lessen its power.
Want to learn more? There’s a book for that! Click here to take the first step towards greater awakening, awareness, self-love, and personal transformation.
If you enjoy reading Shut Up & Sit, then you’ll love receiving weekly love letters from Yedda! Each week you’ll get stories, wisdom tools, and mini doses of mindfulness delivered straight to your inbox. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about upcoming events, workshops, new products, and more.