How Can You De-Stress Yourself?

Avoidance or Action?

#1 Types of Stress

Good Stress: Positive Tension

Have you ever heard anyone say they need stress to push them forward?  Although this may sound unhealthy, and they may be leaning on stress vs motivation, there is some truth to this statement.  By definition, in a zero-stress environment there is little movement forward, if any.

When I was training for the Junior Olympics, my trainer introduced the idea of positive tension.  In my case, it was having a good connection, not pulling, but not lax, with my horse’s mouth, so we could communicate.  No tension meant zero communication. 

Positive tension serves us in athletics, communication and work.  Engage the gears of your car or bike, and you go somewhere.  This is positive tension.  Engage in conversation.  Positive tension at work is everyone engaged and moving towards a goal with purpose.  This drives productivity and progress.

What About Too Much Stress?

There can be too much of any good thing. Too much positive tension, ie, too much to do and not enough time can turn into negative stress.  Negative stress is when the pressure becomes too much, even if it starts as positive tension.  The pressure is either more than we can handle (due to underdeveloped stress management skills), or just too much pressure for anyone to handle.

Too much pressure for anyone to handle can be caused by too much work (doing more with less after layoffs), and/or increased other pressures like family life, layoffs, health, etc.  Stress is all of this added up from all parts of our lives.  I think of it like a bowl that can fit only so much water.  If stress goes up for one part, I need to find a way to remove it elsewhere. 

Over time we can make the stress bowl bigger. It is wise to have both skills: to be able to remove stress and to be able to handle more stress (ie increased resilience).

Finally, there is bad stress.  Bad stress is when we are stressed out about those things we cannot control, or someone in our lives is unloading their bad stress and anger onto us.  There are degrees and the extremes can be serious, even life-threatening.  This is where making changes, avoidance and increased resilience all help. 

#2 Resilience is Our Ability to Deal with Stress

Positive tension helps us progress and be productive, and if we could deal better with stress (make the bowl that holds our stress bigger), this would delay the moment when our bowl spills over.  This does not mean we are just taking on more and more stress. Instead, we are resilient and can handle more pressure, so we can be fully actualized to achieve all we want in life.  This is the reason to build resilience.

I have been on the other end, receiving bad stress, others’ anger, and getting better at “taking it”.  This is unhealthy.  This is not resilience.  This is survival.  Because we all have experienced some form of bad stress, we have learned the survival technique of avoidance.  This is a valid and useful tool.  There are legitimate reasons to avoid certain dangerous and stressful situations, people, and even emotions.

But what if avoidance is all we know for processing stress?  This can limit our growth personally and professionally.  For me this came in two forms: (1) thinking I could not manage people because I wanted to avoid the tensions that would arise, and thus (2) narrowing my identity to serve this thought.  I identified as an analyst (and I was good) which had me working for people, but not managing people.  This was my choice.  Once I chose to see myself as creative, my learning exploded into standup comedy, starting multiple businesses, managing people, etc.  Avoidance is one tool, but it cannot be our only tool.

#3 How We Process Stress

How does our body process stress?  What does stress look like to our body? The amygdala is the ancient center for fight or flight, ie instinctual response to danger.  If we are always stressed out, the amygdala is working overtime, which is bad for our health.  Stress is about survival instinct.  Too much stress is telling our body we are constantly about to die.

Isolation vs Connection

When we are babies, we need connection with our parents for survival as they provide food and shelter.  We are helpless.  In ancient times, tribes of hunter gatherers needed their community to survive and protect each other.  We have been around 200,000 years and have only had agriculture for 5-10% of that time.  Our instincts still tell us isolation means death.  And, so it does, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Why?  Because if our body is stressed from isolation, the amygdala is signaling away, and cortisol and adrenaline flow freely through us.  We are “burning hot” and this wears down our cardiovascular system and immune system over time.

Sympathetic vs Parasympathetic and the Vagus Nerve

Our sympathetic nervous system is set off by the amygdala, and we are in fight or flight mode.  Adrenaline and cortisol are flowing, we are ready for action.  Our digestion slows, as all blood and energy go to our arms and legs for action.  This is one reason we have upset stomachs when we are stressed: our body cannot digest properly at the same time as being in fight or flight.  Ask any ironman athlete how hard it is to digest food while running their marathon!  Our bodies are not geared to digest while on the run!

Ever hear the saying “let me digest that”?  It sounds calm, like the person will think it over.  This is the parasympathetic system, where the heart and lungs slow down, digestion kicks in, blood leaves the extremities and we calm down.  The vagus nerve connects the bottom of our brain (near the amygdala) to our key organs (heart, lungs, gut), and when the amygdala signals danger has passed, a healthy vagus nerve sends signals to organs to slow down and start digesting. 

Vagal tone is the ability to calm yourself quickly after stress.

That “Gut Feeling”

When you are stressed, do you ever have a “gut feeling” that something is wrong.  Does this seem weird?  It’s real!  95% of our serotonin receptors are in our gut, not our brain.  This neurotransmitter drives how peaceful and satisfied we feel.  Adrenaline and cortisol coursing through us with the amygdala signaling fight or flight through our vagal nerve to our gut, is not peaceful.  Digestion does slow, so we literally feel sick to our stomach, unable to digest, with our peace (serotonin receptors) threatened.

The Mind-Gut Axis Goes Both Ways!

A more recent finding is that with 95% of our serotonin receptors in our gut, not only does our mind tell our gut to be nervous, stop digesting, etc., but our gut tells our mind when we are in trouble.  A nervous gut, or an unhealthy gut, signals the amygdala to panic.  You can see how a vicious cycle can start!

Source of Stress

Stress is not only from someone yelling or us feeling isolated.  Stress can come from not nourishing our body, thus making it less resilient.  Food is a signal, a message.  Exercise can help with stress, but too much exercise right away, or obsessive exercising, adds to stress.  We can see that bowl getting overfull.  Sometimes its too much in the absolute (like eating 100% processed food), and other times we can benefit by growing our bowl.

#4 Tools for Processing Stress

Many think de-stressing is avoidance.  Avoid stressful people, situations, thoughts, feelings, emotions.  Sometimes avoidance is best, but avoidance is tactical.  Let’s get strategic.  Take the active approach towards stress by building resilience.

Since the ways we process stress stem from the amygdala setting off our sympathetic system, and the signals come through the vagus nerve to our heart, lungs and gut, then the solution to build resilience is to be able to calm ourselves after stress, and to be able to stay calm during stress.  This comes down to increasing our vagal tone and gut health.  Sound simple?  It is! 

Building resilience can be done 10 minutes at a time!

Build your vagal tone (mind-gut connection) and gut health.  Your vagal tone improves with use, by actively finding things that bring calm to your life.  This is not about avoiding stress.  This is about embracing the parasympathetic (calming) system and exercising it.  We live too much of our lives in the sympathetic system of fight or flight.

Improve your gut health where the vagus nerve connects and receives signals.  Gut health improves with better vagal tone and with better nutrition. To learn more, I recommend research from the top minds in the space, including Dr. Barbara Fredrickson on vagal tone and Dr. Emeran Mayer on mind-gut connection.

Here’s how to actively embrace and exercise your parasympathetic nervous system to improve your vagal tone and gut health.  This can increase your peace, immunity and cardiovascular health in just 10 minutes (feel free to stay longer!)

🎯 Connect with friends

🎯 Rewrite your identity as resilient

🎯 Walk in the sun, breathe deeply and meditate

🎯 Avoid sugar, fast, processed or junk foods

🎯 Eat whole foods, plus probiotics (yogurt, fermented foods) and prebiotics (raw garlic, onion)

A strong vagal tone and healthy gut mean you can de-stress your body actively and quickly.  This leads to better cardiovascular health, overall health and stronger immunity.  You thrive under positive stress, and living a productive, positive and peaceful life!

How do you prepare for or deal with stress?

#humanresources #mentalhealth #My10Min

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