Feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout are becoming all too common in today's world. Constantly being in survival mode can get you stuck in a fight or flight response, which is great if you are immediate danger, but most often, that is not the case.
If you are in a dangerous situation, the chemicals that your brain releases during fight or flight will help you get yourself to safety, but when you get stuck in this mode all day every day, your body begins to experience the negative effects of these chemicals.
This stress response starts in your brain and eventually makes it way to your adrenal glands where adrenaline and cortisol are released. These hormones and the associated physiological changes are meant to be a short term reaction that occurs when you are doing something like running away from a bear. This same response is what is activated when you are under chronic stress. Chronic stress is what you experience when you are dealing with a never ending to-do list and don't have time to rest and relax. When you try and keep up with this lifestyle with caffeine, you are only postponing the inevitible crash.
Eventually you'll pay the price. The problem is that you probably won't believe me until it gets so bad that you can barely peel yourself out of bed in the morning or until your afternoon naps at your desk get you in trouble at your job. Being stuck in survival mode can lead to serious symptoms and medical conditions such as excessive fatigue, difficulty losing weight, brain fog, memory issues, poor sleep, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and several autoimmune conditions.
The good news is that your body has built-in systems that can help you respond to stress in a better way, you just need to learn how to active them. Neurotransmitters and hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin help to keep your body healthy and can improve your sleep, immune system, digestion, and overall hormone balance.
I often see patients and clients who assume that stress, fear, or anxiety is just how they are wired or how they are meant to be and assume that the symptoms and medical conditions that they are suffering from are the result of bad luck, or bad genetics, or from bad habits that they say they know they need to change. While some of that might be true it is possible to improve your stress response to avoid and reverse some of these issues.
I want to talk about some strategies that will help you step out of your place of stressed out and stuck in survival mode into a place where you can truly thrive and flourish in your life.
Take a moment to pause
Your parasympathetic nervous system response holds the very important key to getting out of survival mode and into thrive and flourish mode. This response is typically known as "rest and digest mode" because it is how your body restores and repairs itself. You know that feeling you get while you are sitting on the beach during a vacation? That's how rest and digest mode feels. The issue is that most of us fail to take the time to do the things that activate this mode. We are afraid to put things on pause and tune out for 30 minutes to get ourselves centered and rebalanced. While your to-do list might not get shorter while you are taking time for yourself, your ability to breeze through in effortlessly will improve drastically if you take a few moments to pause regularly.
Just say no
Saying yes to too many things is part of what prevents you from feeling like you are able to turn off your phone and do some yoga or abandon your to-do list and go for a walk. The next time you get ready to say yes to something, consider what your inner voice is really telling you. If that voice is unsure or says no, you should consider saying no as well. If it's not a "heck yes!" then it's probably a good idea to say no.
Go The Eff to sleep
Seriously. Lack of sleep is only making things worse for you, (and your body sees it as a stressor). 82% of Americans feel that an extra hour of sleep would be extremely beneficial to them. We need a minimum of seven hours of sleep most nights in order to not be at a higher risk for many illnesses and health conditions. If you aren't getting enough sleep, your stress hormone, cortisol, easily gets out of control which affects almost everything in your body. Make going to bed and waking up at the same time a priority. Avoid screens for at least an hour before you go to bed. The blue light emitted by electronic screens causes disruptions in melatonin which is the hormone that signals that it's time for sleep and that helps our brains and hormones rebalance when we do finally get to sleep.
Make the choice to feel amazing
When it feels like you have six spinning plates in the air, take a few minutes to turn your focus inward and connect with how you want to feel. Then make a list of five things that are getting in the way of you feeling that way. Focus on the things that are inner obstacles instead of the things that other people aren't doing for you. Then find at least one solution that will help you get to where you want to be. Start working towards this place where you feel great. Do it. Right now. Making a list of things that you are grateful for can also help. This isn't something that comes easy to most people, it often takes some practice to be the kind of person who can sit down and write 10 things down at once.
balance your blood sugar
We've all skipped meals or had something that stopped the growling in our stomachs but didn't actually fuel us. Stopping to eat might not seem like a priority, but when your blood sugar is low your brain actually switches into survival mode. While your brain can do a lot of amazing things, knowing the difference between actual danger and stress that's not dangerous is not something that is does well. If you don't eat, your body turns on all the mechanisms that will help you make it to your next meal (even if that might be days away in the case of our hunter-gatherer ancestors). Carbohydrate and sugar cravings, inability to focus, low energy, and lack of mental clarity are all the result of survival mode in this case.
Eat when you get up in the morning. I have heard all of the excuses about why you are not a breakfast person or how you do not have time to eat when you get up. I don't care. If you truly want to feel better, you need to find a way to eat something nutritious for breakfast. If you drink coffee, make sure that you drink it with your breakfast, not before and definitely not instead of breakfast. Coffee is not breakfast. I repeat, coffee is not breakfast. When you eat throughout the day, make sure that you are getting some high-quality protein as well as some good fat sources (like nuts, eggs, or avocado). You should also include some nutrient-dense carbohydrate source like sweet potato or squash, and definitely make sure that you are eating plenty of non-starchy vegetables as well.
Whether you take a five minute break during your work day or some extra time off over the weekends, take some time to stop and focus on yourself. Even though at first, you might feel like your work will suffer, it won't. You'll come back to whatever you are doing with more energy, more creativity, and you'll be more effective.
Here are some ways to stop and shift into rest and digest mode:
- Take some slow, deep breaths for five minutes before you get up in the morning and before you go to sleep at night.
- Take a hot bath in the evening. Add epsom salts and 5-10 drops of your favorite essential oils to relax and reap some aromatherapy benefits as well.
- Get outside. Being in nature helps you to be calmer and more grounded and relaxed.
- Write in your journal. Writing can help you process your feelings and alleviate stress. If you write things down, your brain no longer has to keep track of it and you can relax.
One thing that I often prescribe for my patients who tell me that they are feeling extra stressed and don't have time for any self-care is to find or make five minutes to be alone. I don't care what you do during that five minutes so long as you are alone and you are focused on yourself and what you need. You are also not allowed to tell me that you don't have five minutes. Because, while I know I just told you to get at least seven hours of sleep each night, you can get up five minutes early to have five minutes to yourself. I had a patient who worked from 3am until 1pm four days a week and then cared for her elderly parents the rest of the time, she was able to make five and eventually 10 minutes for herself, so I know you can too!
Phone a friend
If you've ever called your friend when you were feeling anxious or sad and suddenly felt better, there's a reason for that! Researchers at UCLA have identified this as a "tend and befriend" stress response and believe that this is how women have evolved to protect themselves. In the world of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, being pregnant or having small children would have prevented or made it difficult for women to run from danger. Gathering together with others instead is what saved their lives. This has evolved into women having a desire to gather together when they feel threatened or vulnerable.
The research suggests that along with our stress hormones that are released in large amounts when we are faced with a stressful situation, a small amount of oxytocin is also released. Oxytocin is also called the "cuddle" or "love" hormone because it triggers and strengthens our bond with others, helps us to feel calmer, and boosts our confidence. Connecting with someone else when we feel stressed amplifies the release of oxytocin. You don't have to call your friend and talk about why you are feeling stressed or sad, simply making a connection with another person does the trick.
Being chronically stressed does not do us any favors. It makes us irritable, tired, unhappy, and sick. But, you can choose how you respond to stress and keep your health intact! Staying healthy and resilient against the effects of stress does require some effort and requires that you prioritize your health. With some practice you can shift your stress response into a more intentional and less damaging response.