Did you know that chronic stress can (and probably will) make you sick?
Humans have two branches of the nervous system – the sympathetic (or fight-or-flight response) and the parasympathetic (or rest-and-digest system). These systems are always working in balance so that our bodies effortlessly respond to the environment around us.
The parasympathetic branch of the nervous system governs recovery, digestion, reproduction, sleep, immunity, mood regulation, attention control, and everything else that helps us to thrive in our day-to-day lives. The sympathetic branch of the nervous system is focused entirely on ensuring survival when a threat is present (for example, running from a bear!).
When something makes you go on high alert (fight-or-flight), the rest and digest system is put on the back burner so that you can respond rapidly to get to safety. What good is digesting your food if you get eaten by a bear? You need to run! So, in threatening situations, your heart rate goes up, blood is diverted to your skeletal muscles, and the fear center in your brain is activated to get you away from the threat. This results in low heart rate variability (HRV), the rate of change of the heartbeat over time, which is our most reliable measure of resilience and recovery from stress.
The problem is that chronic stress from modern life is constantly sending signals to our bodies that were under threat. This excess of activity in our fight-or-flight response has real consequences for our wellbeing and our long-term health.
Ok, so what can be done to avoid (or at least decrease) illness when we can’t necessarily avoid the stress in our lives?
Listen to your body! You know yourself better than you think you do and can feel when something isn’t right. If you start to feel your physical or mental wellness declining, STOP and ask yourself, “what can I do to slow down a little bit so that this doesn’t get worse?” For some of us that might mean saying ‘no’ to plans with friends over the weekend, for others it might mean taking a personal day to rest. Nobody knows you better than YOU!
Take care of yourselves, Fam!