Acute short-term stress brings cortisol and adrenaline hormones rushing into the bloodstream and puts us in a flight or fight (or freeze) state.
The heart rate increases, digestion slows, our breathing becomes rapid and the blood flows to our extremities. Our bodies act just as they should in these high stress moments (as if a lion is chasing us or a car is coming straight at us). We must act and act fast.
The problem is that we carry our stress with us, causing long-term, chronic stress on the body. We worry (or stress) about the future, the bills, the kids, our relationships. As a result, our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) stays activated and we are not able to relax enough for our parasympathetic nervous system (calm and relaxed) to be turned on. When we are in the calm parasympathetic place, our body can digest, repair, detox and heal because it is not using all its energy to defend itself.
Real and perceived stress have the same effect on our health, so we stay in a constant state of tension, which can lead to all kinds of long-term problems from adrenal fatigue to weight gain (yes, weight gain) and a compromised immune system.
As a society, our default mode is to “de-stress” by sitting in front of a screen (whether it be a TV, computer or smartphone) for a few hours and be entertained. Occasional entertainment is fine, but we end up spending more time watching a screen than we do anything else, including sleep. In the end, this supposed de-stressing only adds to our bodies’ stress burden. So, how do we de-stress in a healthy and productive way?
1. Instead of settling into a show or flipping through your smartphone, go for a 20-minute walk, sit down and meditate or stretch. You can do anything that you enjoy doing, but make it about reconnecting with yourself or nature. When you get home, make it a priority to put the gadgets away for a given amount of time, so you can do something healthy for yourself. Do this before you sit down and turn anything on.
2. Learn some breathing techniques that will bring you calm and increase your parasympathetic state. Take long, deep and slow breaths, inhaling to 4 and exhaling to 6 for at least 5 breaths. Do this twice a day to start and increase from there.
3. Laugh, smile and play. You can try laughing in the mirror or listening to something funny. Practice laughing on your own and let yourself be silly. Smiling—even fake smiling—helps reduce cortisol and adrenaline and increases health-enhancing hormones like endorphins. Play, whether by yourself by dancing and singing, or by spending time with an animal (dogs are great here).
In short, have some good, old fashioned fun!