I think it’s obvious why broaching the subject of stress on a website dedicated to former and current addicts is important. People on the addiction continuum, which is to say most of us, might not have the best coping mechanisms for stress. We might try reaching for substances, food, or behaviors to deal with the stress, ultimately causing more stress. Before I talk about ways of coping with stress, let’s get a very general view of what stress is physiologically.
Our nervous system consists of the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Within the peripheral nervous system lies the autonomic nervous system; it is in charge of the automatic going ons of our internal organs. Within the autonomic nervous system lies the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These are also known as the fight, flight, or freeze nervous system and the rest and digest or breed and feed nervous system, respectively.
When we are stressed out, the sympathetic nervous system switches into high gear: our heart rate increases, our bronchial tubes relax to take in more air, digestion decreases, our bladder sphincter tightens, our pupils dilate, and our adrenal glands secrete epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline).
When we are relaxed, our bodies down-regulate as our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in: our heart rate decreases, our digestion increases, our bladder sphincter relaxes, our pupils constrict, and our adrenal glands don’t pump out adrenaline. So when you are getting a massage and all of a sudden your stomach starts making noises, this means that you are really getting relaxed.
My anatomy teacher taught us to think of the parasympathetic/sympathetic nervous systems continuum rather than an either/or. Imagine that at a 1, you are ultimately relaxed, like a snow monkey sitting in a hot spring; and at a 10 a mama bear is chasing your ass. According to my anatomy teacher, most Americans are operating at a 7. Looking around at people, though I am not sure where he has pulled this number (it might have been from his ass), I totally buy it.
Our bodies are highly evolved machines for dealing with threats in our environment. The issue now is that it cannot distinguish between actual threats and perceived threats. Stress is a state of mind. We can train ourselves to be running on the more optimal side of the continuum.
Not all stress is bad. We need some healthy stress in our lives, or we all might just turn into blobs. Eustress, the good type of stress, is the type of stress we feel when we are excited, going on a first date, learning a new dance, sudoku, giving a speech, those are fine. Even acute stress is okay—like when someone jumps out and scares you. Chronic stress is our silent killer—people who are unhappy with their home life, or who have a really stressful job.
The Vagus Nerve
Our parasympathetic nervous system is connected to the vagus nerve. It is involved in decreases heart rate, digestion, helps with calming and relaxation, and so much more.
Vagal tone, or your vagal nerve activity, plays a roll in your ability to relax after perceived (or real) stress. People with high vagal tone can relax more quickly than those with low vagal tone. High vagal tone reduces your likelihood of diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. It has been found in research that low vagal tone is associated with high levels of inflammation. Chronic inflammation is now being attributed to Alzheimers, cancer, obesity, asthma, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, and more.
Ways to improve your vagal tone.
Aside from getting an implant in your neck to stimulate your vagus nerve, there are these activities that can help stimulate your vagus nerve:
Deep breathing- I have talked about breathing in a couple of different articles. Diaphragmatic breathing is not quite, but almost a panacea and will stimulate your vagus nerve.
Brahmari breath (humming)- hum or buzz on your exhale, or chant Aum.
Meditation- specifically loving-kindness meditation. This helps us feel more connected, which impacts vagal tone.
Cold water on the face or cold shower- For magical reasons, this stimulates your vagus nerve. Pro tip: when you’re out walking in nature, which reduces stress, and come across a cool stream, splash that water on your face, hitting the top of your forehead. Mmmmm.
Connection- make sure you have healthy relationships with other humans. This is so important for our health, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Not so ironically, the same things that improve vagal tone are also things that reduce stress.
Let's talk about stress and the “b” word. A lot of stress is caused by perceived busyness. And as I have heard mentioned by various people, busy is a state of mind. I know, I know, you work full time, and you are a mother, or a student, a wife, etc. We all have full lives and we all have 24 hours in our day. We get to decide how to spend it.
If you find that you run around like a chicken with your head cut off, figure out what the hell is really going on. Sit down, put your phone in another room and journal about what is essential and what can be cut out. Make this a project. Get serious about cutting shit out of your life. Learn to set boundaries. No is a complete sentence.
We do not get too busy to do things, we are just not making them a priority.
I am not too busy to do laundry, I just choose to watch Game of Thrones instead. See how that works? We get to determine what is important to us. When we make stress reduction a priority, we have less stress in our lives.
I know that all of this is easier said than done. We don’t change overnight. It all starts with a seed. What is your seed? Whatever it is, water it and take care of it a little each day; eventually, it will grow up and taking care of your proverbial plant will be automatic.