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All About Stress

Updated: Jun 24, 2023



Last week, something dawned on me—I was deep in the clutches of stress. After returning from a 7-week trip abroad and jumping straight back into work upon my return, I failed to notice the telltale signs that my body was in a chronic state of stress.


Today, I want to take a moment to break down the basics:

  • How do our bodies respond to stress

  • How we can identify those sneaky stress signals

  • How to tackle stress


How We Respond to Stress

Our bodies possess an ancient response system known as the fight or flight response. This mechanism dates to our days as cave dwellers when we needed to remain alert for potential threats, such as sabretooth tigers or other predators.


In the face of danger, our bodies initiate a stress response that increases blood flow to our limbs, enabling them to gain strength for fighting off or escaping from attackers (flight). The sympathetic nervous system plays a crucial role in this process, elevating our heart rate to increase the circulation of blood to our limbs. Simultaneously, it reduces or temporarily shuts down non-essential bodily functions that are not crucial during an attack:

  • During stressful situations, it is common to have trouble eating as our digestive system does not operate optimally. (Can we really concentrate on eating when a sabretooth tiger is about to eat us? )

  • Certain aspects of our nervous system are affected. For instance, have you ever found yourself stressed before a test or performance, only to have your mind go blank? This scary situation can be traced to our stress response affecting our memory.

  • Our stress response can also affect our immune system. When we are in immediate danger, our body is less concerned about a bacteria or virus that may cause harm in weeks. Our body needs to respond to the threat immediately!

Once the threat, such as the sabretooth tiger, has retreated, our body's parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. It works to lower our heart rate and restore all bodily systems back to their normal functioning state. This response is how our bodies have evolved to cope with dangerous situations.


Living with Constant Stress


So our flight or fight response triggers a state of stress to safeguard ourselves, and once the threat subsides, our bodies return to their normal state. However, what happens when stress becomes a constant presence in our lives?


Consider the following scenarios: We begin our day by listening to the news, then set off for work and get stuck in a frustrating traffic jam. Our washing machine unexpectedly breaks down, and we worry about the health of a loved one. We find ourselves responsible for the care of a parent or spouse, struggling to find time for a proper meal and resorting to unhealthy junk food. We endure the frustration of being put on hold for an extensive period, only to be disconnected. We are burdened with filling out countless forms, overwhelmed by a mountain of bills, and drowning in paperwork.


Can you picture it? For many of us, this constant state of stress has become the norm, and the bodily functions that slow down during the fight or flight response are persistently compromised.


It's important to recognize that prolonged stress can lead to physical and mental ailments, including memory loss, as highlighted in our blog post on Stress and Dementia. This underscores the utmost importance of actively reducing stress in our lives.

Who Me? I’m Not Stressed!

When we think of being stressed, we often envision someone in a state of panic, screaming and pulling out their hair. However, the reality is that many of us don't even realize we're stressed because it has become our everyday norm. Stress has blended so seamlessly into our lives that we hardly recognize its presence anymore.


After a reflexology session, it's not uncommon for clients to express their surprise, exclaiming, "I had no idea I was so stressed!" It is only through experiencing true relaxation again that we come to understand the extent of our stress.


Being able to de-stress is a learning experience that takes time. We must gradually reintroduce ourselves to the sensation of living without constant stress.


Having taught hand reflexology worldwide, I've had the opportunity to witness the prevalence of stress among people across the globe, even in surprising places like New Zealand. Giving hand reflexology during my workshops, has allowed me to witness firsthand the profound levels of stress people carry with them in various corners of the world.


The Vagus Nerve

In recent years, the vagus nerve (pronounced like "Vegas") has gained considerable attention within holistic health communities and across social media platforms.


When I studied Reflexology more than 25 years ago, the significance of this nerve as a stress-relieving powerhouse was not emphasized, nor did we learn about a specific reflex point associated with it. However, nowadays, it has emerged as the latest trend, touted as the nerve we need to stimulate in order to reduce stress.


The vagus nerve holds a prominent place among the pairs of cranial nerves, being the longest one originating from the brain. It runs from the lower part of the brain through the neck to the chest and stomach. It plays a vital role as part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which actively works to restore our body to its normal state following periods of stress.



Stimulating the Vagus Nerve

Whenever I come across tips for stimulating the vagus nerve, I can't help but envision someone playfully strumming it like a guitar string. It's a fun thought, but in reality, stimulating the vagus nerve involves training it to achieve better overall function, leading to long-term improvements. By increasing what is called vagal tone, we enable our parasympathetic nervous system to help us relax faster after experiencing stress.


It's crucial to note that stimulating the vagus nerve is not a quick fix for stress relief, despite the portrayal sometimes found on social media platforms. It's a process that requires consistent and ongoing practice of stress-reduction methods. By incorporating these practices into our lives, we can help our bodies recover from stressful situations more efficiently.



Recognizing Signs of Stress

There were three key signs that helped me realize I was experiencing chronic stress:


Dry skin:

I noticed the skin on my feet became excessively dry, and I experienced a scratchy sensation when putting on running pants. However, after reducing stress, the dryness disappeared.


This observation always leads me to question whether our investing in more moisturizer is the solution to a dry skin problem, or if the root cause lays in reducing stress itself.


When we are stressed, the hormone cortisol increases, which can impede the production of healthy oils in our skin.


Eyesight:

After experiencing improved eyesight during travel, possibly due to reduced screen time, I found that upon returning home, my reading ability had deteriorated.


However, after reducing stress, I was surprised to find that I could thread a needle without the need for eyeglasses. I even repeated the task four times to confirm it wasn't a fluke. This achievement was something I hadn't been able to do without glasses for around 20 years.


It's interesting to consider how many eye issues may be linked to stress rather than solely requiring glasses.


Stress can lead to elevated levels of adrenaline, which can result in blurred vision, while high cortisol levels can impede blood flow to the eyes.


Poor sleep:

Despite employing my various techniques to improve my sleep (“Sleep Well for Brain Health”), I struggled to fall asleep and experienced a particularly restless night. It was at that point I realized that this wasn't merely latent jet lag, but rather stress that was causing my insomnia.


As I actively worked on reducing stress, my sleep gradually improved—I found it easier to fall asleep and began sleeping through the night.


Elevated levels of stress hormones, especially cortisol, can interfere with our ability to fall asleep and result in fragmented sleep.


Chronic stress can manifest in various other ways, including headaches, high blood pressure, sexual problems, and emotional issues such as depression, panic attacks, and anxiety. It's important to recognize these signs and take proactive steps to manage and reduce stress in our lives.


(Note: It's always advisable to consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice and guidance regarding individual health concerns.)



How to Reduce Stress

1. Reflexology

Reflexology is a holistic therapy that involves applying pressure to specific points on the feet, hands, or ears, known as reflex points. These reflex points correspond to different organs, systems, and areas of the body. By stimulating these reflex points, reflexology therapists aim to promote relaxation, balance, and overall well-being.


Reflexology stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and, in this way, helps counteract the effects of chronic stress and promotes a state of deep relaxation.


Reflexology has been found to support the regulation of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline.


You can do some hand reflexology on yourself, but for chronic stress, it is best to go to a trained reflexology therapist.



2. Acupuncture:

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medical practice that involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body. By targeting specific acupuncture points, practitioners aim to restore balance and promote overall well-being, thereby alleviating chronic stress symptoms.


Personally, Japanese Acupuncture with Mali Shalem had a great affect this week on my eyesight – I credit her for being able to thread a needle again without glasses!


3. Meditation:

Meditation is a mindfulness practice that involves focusing one's attention. Regular meditation has been shown to have a positive impact on stress reduction. It helps calm the mind, relax the body, and improve overall mental well-being.


By practicing meditation, individuals can cultivate a greater sense of self-awareness and develop skills to manage stress more effectively.


To learn how to mediate read our blog post: For Your Brain’s Sake Stop Thinking



4. Cold Water Therapy:


Cold water therapy, also known as cold hydrotherapy, involves exposure to cold water for therapeutic purposes. This can be done through cold showers, ice baths, or even cold-water immersion.


Cold water exposure has been found to activate the body's stress response, leading to an increased production of stress-fighting hormones like norepinephrine.


Amidst the pandemic, many individuals discovered the Wim Hof method, which incorporates willpower, exposure to cold water, and specific breathing techniques. As someone who isn't particularly fond of cold temperatures, I never thought I would consider cold water therapy. However, my perspective changed when Sally Kay, the brilliant creator of the Reflexology Lymph Drainage Technique, encouraged me during the International Reflexology Conference in Ottawa. She explained how exposing oneself to cold water trains the body to better cope with stress. Intrigued, I decided to give it a try.


To my astonishment, I can now endure a cold shower for approximately 30 seconds to 1 minute following my regular shower. I am immensely grateful to Sally for encouraging me to be courageous and explore this unconventional method for stress management. I suggest learning properly how to do this cold water therapy, but you can just splash cold water on your face to also help reduce stress. I probably should have written a seperate blog to include the many other ways to reduce stress. These include massage, deep breathing, aromatherapy, Tai Chi, Qigong, yoga and guided imagery. Remember, finding the most effective stress reduction methods is a personal journey. It's worth exploring different techniques and discovering what works best for you

It's important to note that all of the above therapies are not a substitute for medical treatment, and individuals with specific health conditions should consult with their healthcare provider before undergoing any therapy.



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