Let’s face it, 2020 was a rough year for countries around the globe. Stress is still at an all-time high for many people. Now the impacts of the pandemic and the economy will not be resolved magically overnight. It will be a process and it will take time to get back to some semblance of normalcy. And the intense political stress is probably not helping people’s nervous systems.
What happens when people feel stressed, anxious and scared indefinitely? Not only does it impact a person’s health, but it can also impact their work performance, relationships and their overall quality of life.
As a stress expert, sometimes STRESS can be GOOD, it’s critical for our survival.
But the thing is, the body is designed to handle stress in short bursts, not to be in this constant state of fear, anxiety and stress where it doesn’t give the body a chance to rest and recover.
If someone is under prolonged stress ALL THE TIME, it actually does NOT help that individual perform better…instead the more likely thing that it will do is turn their brain on OVERDRIVE… overanalyzing, thinking of the worst-case scenario every moment of the day… so it REDUCES their focus, productivity and motivation.
When the mind is constantly racing and bouncing all over the place, how can someone really be performing at their best? It usually leaves them feeling exhausted, burnt out, and drained.
Fear also leads to self-limiting beliefs, holding people back from achieving as much as they are capable of. It stops them from going after what they want, never allowing them to get to the level of success they desire. Not only that, when high levels of stress, anxiety and fear get really bad, it can lead to a variety of health concerns such as high blood pressure, insomnia, digestive complaints, and fatigue.
Even though people cannot always change the stressors in their life, they can change how their body and mind responds to it. There are so many healthier ways to respond to stress than drinking, smoking, or binge shopping or eating.
And when someone is able to develop self-awareness and mindfulness, they can improve their focus, productivity, motivation, and performance! But it can also improve their immune function, sleep, energy, digestion and mood. And with enough practice and training, maybe they can even feel like they have some semblance of control over their life, even in the face of all this uncertainty and trying times. Perhaps even finding moments of joy and happiness.
The Truth About Stress
Prolonged stress and anxiety can impact the body in many negative ways such as weight gain, fatigue, diminished immune function, elevated blood pressure, disrupted sleep and digestion to name a few! It can also impact mood and cognitive function such as making it hard to focus and remember important tasks, and increases depression and anxiety.
Stress leads to increases in a hormone called cortisol, and elevated cortisol levels over time can lead to other issues such as:
Stress →↑ Cortisol →↑ Appetite ↑ Blood Sugar ↑ Stored Fat ↓ Testosterone
Understanding the Nervous System
When the body or mind is stressed, a person’s “sympathetic nervous system” is activated. It is better known as the “fight or flight response.” What happens to the body when someone is in “stress” mode is that their heart races, their pupils dilate, they sweat, and their blood pressure and cortisol rises. This is an important system to have to be able to exercise or handle dangerous situations.
However, the problem is, if someone is always in this “stress mode,” it overworks their adrenal glands, which is responsible for the output of the hormone cortisol in our bodies. Eventually the adrenal glands will be depleted over time, which can lead to brain fog, fatigue, sleep disturbances, weight gain, and it makes people more susceptible to getting sick.
The opposite of the “sympathetic nervous system,” is the “parasympathetic nervous system,” which is responsible for “rest and digestion.” In this state, heart rate and breathing slows down, blood pressure lowers, and fingers and toes can become warm because blood is pumping throughout the whole body, whereas in stress mode, blood pumps primarily to the heart so people can engage in fight or flight (such as running away).
The “parasympathetic nervous system” mode is where the body needs to be the majority of the time, but the high demands of work and life make that challenging for many people. However, it is possible to train a person’s body and mind to enter the “parasympathetic” state even in the most stressful situations. It does take time and commitment to achieve this but it’s entirely possible with the right tools and support system.
5 Steps to Break Free from Stress and Anxiety Naturally
1. Build a strong foundation of health
Is it a good idea to build a house on an unstable foundation? Of course not! The foundational components of health need to be strong and in place before anything else happens. That would include good nutrition, exercise, getting enough sleep, and drinking enough water. Nutrition plays a huge role in mental wellbeing. The food a person puts into their body can significantly impact their mood and energy levels.
• Focus on whole, non-processed foods
• Stay away from the SUGAR!
• Lean meats, veggies, fruits, seeds, some nuts, and healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, and fish. A little bit of rice and quinoa are okay too.
• Focus on QUALITY food, not calories
• Have a consistent morning and bedtime routine. Wake up and go to bed at the same time every night.
• Put in accountability structures (e.g., nutritionist, personal trainer, coach, friend, doctor)
2. Practice mindfulness – Mindfulness and meditation is not just for monks or hippies. Every person has tens of thousands of thoughts every day, and a lot of those thoughts are not productive to their goals, because they often dwell in thoughts from the past, or worry about the future and the things they need to do. It takes training and practice to live in the ‘present’ moment and go from having a mind “full” of thoughts to being mindful. Studies have shown that a mindfulness practice can increase focus, productivity, performance, and a sense of happiness and wellbeing.
Developing self-awareness and training the mind is crucial for someone to achieve freedom from stress and anxiety. It’s important to look deeper into relationships, job stress, and self-worth issues that influence thought patterns because it can help people discover the source of the negative or stressful thoughts, where they come from and how to free themselves from those thoughts. Having a regular daily mindfulness practice can help people stay relaxed and calm in the long term. Doing personal development or therapy are also beneficial.
• Some mindfulness apps to consider: Insight Timer, Breathing Zone, Headspace, Calm, Muse
• Or check out some of the free mindfulness exercises on YouTube
• Some personal development book recommendations: Loving What Is: 4 Questions That Can Change Your Life; The Four Agreements, Untethered Soul, Power of Now, Miracle Morning, Feeding Your Demons
• Personal development courses: The Landmark Forum
• Go to meditation or yoga classes
3. Work with a naturopathic or functional medicine doctor to explore any underlying health conditions or biochemical imbalances that could be contributing to the stress or anxiety
No, anxiety isn’t just “all in the head” sometimes. There are many health conditions that could be causing or contributing to high stress and anxiety such as thyroid disorders, autoimmune diseases and chronic infections such as lyme disease. It’s important to either rule out these conditions OR address the conditions to help alleviate stress and anxiety. Biochemical imbalances should be looked at too to evaluate if there are any vitamin/mineral/antioxidant deficiencies, or hormones/neurotransmitters imbalances.
Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that facilitate the transmission of signals from one neuron to the next across a synapse. Neurotransmitters work with receptors in the brain to influence and regulate a wide range of processes such as mental performance, emotions, pain response and energy levels. Functioning primarily in the Central Nervous System, neurotransmitters are the brain’s chemical messengers, facilitating communication among the body’s glands, organs, and muscles.
Numerous clinical studies have shown that inadequate neurotransmitter function has a profound influence on overall health and wellbeing. In fact, imbalances in certain neurotransmitters can lead to:
• Mood disorders, depression, anxiety
• Addiction, dependency
• Fatigue, lack of stamina, insomnia
• Chronic illness, immune deficiency
• Cognitive confusion, learning challenges, declining memory
• Weight issues, appetite control
• Low libido, sexual dysfunction
• PMS, menopause, andropause
• Fibromyalgia, chronic pain
Yes, there are a lot of natural supplements someone could take to alleviate stress and anxiety too, such as magnesium or the amino acid, GABA. But supplements are not always a one size fits all solution, as every BODY is different. Getting various biochemical and hormonal markers checked and evaluated by a naturopathic or functional medicine doctor can help someone determine what supplement might be the best fit for their physiology specifically.
4. Examine the source and root cause of your stress and anxiety with a professional
There is only so much a person can do inside their own head. Sometimes getting a professional involved such as a counselor or therapist can give a person some perspective on the validity of their negative thought processes as well as help them understand where those stressful thoughts come from. It could be self-limiting beliefs that they developed in their childhood that needs to be further explored. Other people live in a constant state of guilt that doesn’t allow them to take time for themselves.
Whatever the reason, it’s best to consult with a professional who is well equipped to peel back the mental and emotional layers that contribute to their stress and anxiety.
5. Take time for self-care
Smartphones these days DO a whole lot of processes and functions. They are running multiple applications all the time. It’s pretty miraculous all the things a phone can accomplish. But can a phone do any of those things if it is never charged? NOPE. Same goes for the human body. If a person is running and going all the time, and never takes the time to reset and recharge, guess what? They will not function very well or very fast, and maybe just not at all. Taking a moment to breathe or go on a walk can make a difference when a person is feeling like they are being run ragged. Those moments of rest can give people the energy to get back in the game of life and deal with whatever it throws at them more powerfully and confidently.
Dr. Alice Fong is a Naturopathic Doctor known as the “Virtual Stress Doc” and founder and CEO of Amour de Soi Wellness and Thriving Wellness Practice. She helps people break free from stress, anxiety, and burnout so they can optimize their health and increase focus, energy, motivation, productivity and performance using a 5-step holistic process.
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