When I first started meditating to deal with stress, I remember feeling frustrated with the whole “connect to the body” thing. How?
Every time I tried to focus on the sensations in my arms or forehead, I’d get thrown off by thoughts. Horrible, loud, tornado type of thoughts. By the time the meditation session finished, I’d managed to spend 90% of my time stuck in a thought cyclone and 10% mildly aware of my body.
And I hated it.
It felt like a failure at a time when I was over my failure limit, thank you very much.
Of course, the point of this exercise is to take a brief exit from those mad, whirling thoughts and check in with your body. Hey, how’s it going body? Are we doing okay?
Often times you’ll find that the muscles around your eyes and jaw are clenched. Maybe you’re wearing your shoulders as earrings. In these moments, you catch yourself tightened into a ball and you are free to release, if just for a moment.
If you’re like me, you may have to repeat this release every minute or so, but man, when you do? It’s momentary heaven. Like, “Hey, this must be what easy-going people feel like. Sweet!”
All those clenched jaws, tight shoulder moments are signs of stress inside of your body and you shouldn’t ignore them.
When Chronic Stress Impacts Your Physical Health
Of course, far too many human beings are not taking any time whatsoever to slow down and give their body a check-in. And so the stress stews, sits in our guts and muscles, waiting.
And man is stress patient.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that is designed to trigger our stress responses, evolutionary safety measures put in place for life on the savannah, but not so much our high-pressure, modern-day world.
Every breaking news alert on our phone, every rage-inducing tweet, every moron that cuts us off in traffic, every argument with a significant other or child, activates this “fight or flight” response in our body. And then there’s the stuff we bury deep down because we can’t deal with them.
Regret, guilt, shame. A mortgage payment that went unpaid…again. A job that is lost. Or a marriage that is no longer working.
All of these things pile up inside our bodies and make us sick.
We don’t always notice because we often use alcohol or shopping or sex as a way to take the edge off. But none of these things actually improves your quality of life or stress levels. In fact, they are likely just piling on an already bad situation.
And if you’re here, you probably already know that because maybe alcohol became your go-to strategy and now it’s backfired.
Physical Symptoms of Too Much Stress
I think most of us recognize the emotional symptoms of stress. We’re a bit testy and feel like we are going to jump out of our skin. We may also recognize that our heart is racing or adrenaline has spiked. Maybe we’ve got a headache. Perhaps the urge to scream or hit something wells up.
But there are other physical symptoms of stress that you may not realize are connected. These include:
- Low energy
- Upset stomach, digestive problems, constipation, or diarrhea
- Tense, sore, or painful muscles
- Chest pains and rapid heartbeat (hello anxiety!)
- Frequent colds and infections
- Sexual dysfunction
- Nervousness, shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
- Dry mouth or difficulty swallowing
- Jaw pain and teeth grinding
I read lists like these and catch myself nodding my head “yes” to a lot of them. There are months where I feel like 80% of my time is spent battling a cold and that I should hold stock in Advil Cold & Sinus.
And then there are the pills for the stomach issues, the pills to help sleep better, the pills for the headaches, and the caffeine to power through despite all of it, which only makes you jumpy again when you should be dialing down.
Chronic stress is a hellacious cycle and far too many of us are stuck in it.
Longterm Effects of Chronic Stress
When we let this stuff go on for too long, it has a serious impact on our health. The list above is bad enough, but it doesn’t stop there.
We live these super stressful lives and spot treat the symptoms here and there only to wind up with major chronic diseases like:
- anxiety, depression, and personality disorders
- cardiovascular disease
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- menstrual problems
- sexual dysfunction
- permanent hair loss
- acid reflux
- ulcerative colitis
There are all bigger things that require bigger, more expensive pills and more discomfort until, I imagine, our bodies decide to give out entirely.
So what do we do about it?
Here’s the thing.
Yes, there is the standard go-to list of things you should do and they’re all great:
- eat healthy foods
- avoid too much caffeine or sugar
- breathing exercises
But what we aren’t talking about is the fact that we need to completely revolutionize the way we live our lives. Easier said than done, especially when structural change is so integral to our ability to do this.
Reducing Stress for Improved Health
Let’s look at the ways we inadvertently opt in to stress every day and how we can change the way we live in order to opt back out.
Limit Technology Use
Technology is stressing us out.
We become glued to our phones, constantly bombarded with a barrage of pings, dings, and red notifications. At the whiff of downtime, we instinctively reach for our phones and start checking social media, scrolling, liking, judging.
Even when we don’t mean to, we catch ourselves sidelining genuine interactions for virtual ones. We bear a lot of the responsibility, but it is also worth noting that these apps are designed to keep us addicted and scrolling.
And the thing is, every time we get one of these little dings, we active our sympathetic nervous system, sending a small dose of adrenaline to our body. The adrenaline boost, in turn, “increases heart rate, pulse, and muscle tension, and shunts energy from the brain to the muscles.”
It takes 30 minutes for the body to return to baseline after each of these boosts.
But with Americans unlocking their phones an average of 100 to 150 times per day, we aren’t really returning to our baselines. Instead, we’re opting into a day filled with adrenaline spikes that we never truly come down from.
If you haven’t read Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, I highly recommend giving it a read and trying to implement some of his strategies. You will be amazed by how much your life changes and improves by being more proactive in how you use technology.
Prioritize Getting Good Sleep
We don’t sleep enough. And even when we do, it’s not of great quality.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that 45% of Americans “say that poor or insufficient sleep affected their daily activities at least once in the past seven days…”
We toss and turn, wake up multiple times, and 35% of us report that we do not wake up feeling refreshed. Stress is one factor that impacts our sleep quality.
It’s a vicious cycle. One of the reasons we are stressed is because we are fatigued and don’t get enough sleep. But we don’t get good quality sleep because we are stressed.
And a lot of that has to do with the fact that we are opting in to stress throughout our days by staying perpetually “plugged in” (among other things…more on that) up until it’s lights out.
We don’t prioritize sleep or recognize it as an important value.
In fact, we (bizarrely) praise people who forgo sleep for the pursuit of better grades and bigger profits. For burning the midnight oil and putting in 50+ hour work weeks.
And it’s killing us.
Just like with stress, sleep deprivation leads to:
- poor memory
- trouble concentrating
- weakened immunity
- high blood pressure
- weight gain
- low sex drive
- risk of heart disease
- risk of diabetes
- mental health problems
And if you notice, a lot of these are the same symptoms you get with chronic stress. We can opt-out of this by practicing good sleep hygiene, unplugging at night, and readjusting our values.
Is that promotion more important than your long-term health?
Reconnect with your Core Values
We live in fast-paced times and for many of us, that is piling on to our already elevated stress levels. We’re afraid to branch out of our comfort zones and try something new.
How will we pay the bills? If you’re an American, you can probably add, “what about my medical costs?” into that equation.
How many of those do we deliberately opt into?
Is there any reason you can’t switch jobs or take a lower-paying job that would make you happier? How many of those bills are truly necessary?
Of course, I’m not talking about people who are hit with devastatingly high medical costs or endless college loan payments. Nothing hardship-related.
I mean the bills we choose like: car notes for vehicles we didn’t need to spend so much money on, or house payments for homes that are above our means, cable bills, and any effort to keep up with Joneses.
How much of your stress comes from trying to attain things that you might not actually need?
We want to provide a good life for ourselves and our children, but maybe we need to re-examine what that looks like.
Because a happy, healthy, available parent is one of the best gifts we can give to our kids. And right now, we aren’t offering that to them.
Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
Something that social media use has exacerbated is the comparison trap. Teddy Roosevelt is credited with saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy” and ain’t that the truth.
How much of the stress we opt into is a direct result of us comparing ourselves and our lives to other people, feeling somehow deficient, and then investing precious energy into “keeping up?”
I’m very guilty of this.
I shudder to think about the amount of money I spent on clothes I didn’t need or pricey brunches I didn’t have to attend, restrictive diets I tried (and failed), or any other number of things I thought I was MEANT to be doing in order to be happy.
I’d see people doing what I wanted to be doing and, rather than feeling inspired, I felt envious and crushed. Less than.
That kind of mentality piled more stress onto my life (and waistline).
We can control many of our stress triggers.
What if we allowed ourselves some compassion and space to grow? To do something revolutionary like define success and happiness on our own terms?
And, I believe, that requires another layer of unplugging. If you’re like me, you’re easily influenced by advertisements and all the old psychology tricks they use inside of stores to make things jump out and say, “buy me!”
We should invest more time in curating our world to optimize our happiness and sense of calm. If certain people on Facebook make your blood boil, unfollow them.
If following a bunch of fitness accounts on Instagram deflates you, then delete them. When you log onto Pinterest to find weight loss tips and get flooded with information overload, log off.
Get some fruits and veggies. Throw out the processed stuff. Start from there.
It’s so easy to want to hop onto every new lifestyle and wellness trend, setting your hair on fire in the process.
But what if we didn’t?
And yeah, I know, you’re going to hear people go on about being tough and not letting what’s on the internet bother you, etc. But that’s not realistic advice. There are so many stress-inducing things in our world that we have no control over.
It’s in your best interest to safeguard your wellbeing from things you can control, and if that means unfollowing your crazy Uncle Reggie on FB, then so be it.
Besides, what stresses one person might not bother you and vice versa. So really, another person’s opinion about what you should and shouldn’t tolerate is none of your business. Do you.
Work Stress and Your Health
How many of us opt in to stress by staying in jobs that we absolutely hate with a passion?
When I first moved abroad, the stress of the work, living in a new country with very different value systems, and the copious amounts of alcohol I drank to deal with it all added a whopping 25 pounds to my body.
Then I got pregnant and added about 50 more pounds.
While the baby weight came off, I’m still lugging around about 20 more pounds than I did before I moved to this country and I know that a lot of it has to do with the work.
I was not a great teacher, and yet I stayed in that job for 14 years.
Do not make that same mistake.
One of the greatest gifts sobriety gave me was the ability to imagine a life beyond the tiny box I’d put myself into. In the last five years of sobriety, I’ve learned new skills, switched careers, worked some shitty jobs, moved on to better ones, and all of these things landed me in a job I am happy in and excelling at.
Drinking me would have never gotten there.
In fact, drinking me was so busy being drunk or hungover every day that she couldn’t have put together a serious goal if her life had depended on it.
Everybody isn’t going to land their dream job or be able to make a go of it following their “passion,” but that doesn’t mean you have to be miserable and hate whatever pays your bills. Find something you enjoy, or at the very least, can live with.
Life Doesn’t Have To Be A Five Alarm Fire
There are so many things in this world that we have zero control over, but I think we greatly underestimate how much we actually CAN control if we have the courage to do it.
We need to do the everyday maintenance things: meditation, exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated.
But a sensible salad and a bubble bath aren’t going to keep your stress levels in a healthy range. You have to take bigger action as well.
If your life isn’t working for you, what can you change about it?
Because in a world that is in a constant state of go-go-go and “buy this” or “eat that”, it is easy to feel like you’re living on high alert (because you kind of are). What can you get rid of?
And it’s not easy.
Getting off your phone when you’re accustomed to checking it constantly is not easy. Working on curbing impulse buys is not easy. Choosing to love yourself even if you don’t look as good as you’d like (yet) is not easy.
But the payoff is huge.
Slowing down. Shrinking our world into a manageable size. It’s possible to get off the hamster wheel and allow yourself space to breathe.
You deserve some peace. We all do.
If we don’t proactively try to get there, we’re going to continue to be worn down, sick, stressed, and prematurely aged by the chaos of our lives.
And what good does that do?