Stress impacts the body and different body systems in so many ways. From our endocrine, digestive, and cardiovascular system, no part of us is left unscathed. In this episode, Melissa and Siria share how they deal with stress and give you multiple tried and true techniques to help you manage your stress.
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What Stress Does To Your Body And Tools To Help You Deal
We’re both in therapy. We’ve been pretty open about that, but a big reason that we both go is because we have a lot of anxiety.
If you remember from a previous episode, I said if I’m not feeling anxious, I’m not feeling anything at all.
That will be coming on a t-shirt soon.
Come to you soon.
Pod Productions will be issuing that. It’s something that even though we both joke around about it, it’s something that’s impacting our health and our well-being. One of the things that my therapist has certainly pointed out is that if my anxiety level is up at a higher level, it makes it harder for me to get down to a lower base. We’re trying overall to lower my anxiety. I hate to use the word normal but to a better base for myself. That way, I’m not operating always on high alert and being anxious as fuck all the time.
I know that stresses a universal human experience, yet how we experience it differs from person to person. I remember the reason why we focused on this topic was because you had a court case and I had a demanding client. We were operating at max capacity. We had no time to ourselves. I remember having a panic attack and I called you.
I can’t tell you the last time I had a panic attack where I was hyperventilating. I realized I was like, “Something’s got to change here.” Think that’s when we were like, “We can’t be the only one suffering from anxiety or being in chronic stress.” Others have to experience it, so why not talk about it openly on the show?
Talk about it here and come up with some tips and other things so that you guys get the benefits of things that may have worked for us or that we’re trying out. That’s why we brought it here, but it is something that impacts us in many different ways. The main thing of it is, why is it important for us to manage our stress?
When I was putting together my show notes, I was very surprised to learn that stress impacts every organ and every system within your body. We’re talking about your musculoskeletal system, which involves your muscles. You’ve talked about it before, so then, when you’re stressed, you typically tense up your muscles. You can clench your fist.Stress impacts every organ and every system within your body. Click To Tweet
Clench your jaw.
You’ll tense up, but then once that stressor has passed, you’ll typically relax. However, if your muscles are tense for long periods of time, this triggers reactions within your body that promote stress-related disorders. What I mean by that is like tension headaches, which you’ve mentioned on the show, migraines. For me, I hold my tension in my shoulders and my neck, but some people can also experience it as lower back pain or respiratory. I found this one to be very interesting. It does impact your respiratory system. We all like breathing. Do you like breathing?
It’s something I do unconsciously. I like it so much.
If you’ve ever been stressed or anxious, you might notice that you have shortness of breath and rapid breathing. I think I mentioned earlier that I had a panic attack, so I was hyperventilating. For most people, that’s fine, but for people with pre-existing conditions like asthma, COPD or even chronic bronchitis, it can exasperate your breathing problems.
I have asthma. Though, I noticed that it was harder for me to breathe when I had that panic attack. Our respiratory rate increases when we’re stressed, but I didn’t know that your body is going into that fight or flight mode. When you are increasing your respiratory rate, what your body is doing is it’s constricting some of the capillaries and arteries in your body and helping basically push most of your blood to your muscles.
If you need to take action and run, you can, but because your body or your heart is beating faster due to your increased heart rate or your increased breathing and it’s pushing this blood through your body. It can, over time, weaken blood vessels and arteries. It can increase high blood pressure and all of this. This can cause damage within your body, which I didn’t even think about how it was impacting my heart. You hear about people who work high-stress jobs and croak over from heart attacks, which is why.
This is a big part of it. Is there another system there because I want to talk about how cortisol plays into all of those systems.
I did. You can go ahead and talk about it but what you’re referring to is the nervous and the endocrine system.
Cortisol is the primary stress hormone that we have in our bodies. This gets secreted in the body and what it does is it causes sugar to increase in your bloodstream. It increases your heart rate, as you talked about, elevating your blood pressure and boosting your energy in case you escape from that bear. It’s doing all of these things. The other thing that it does is it blocks all non-essential functions.
I read about that and I was super fascinated by it.
It is something that I’ve read about it, but I experienced it. When we’re talking about non-essential functions, basically your body’s like, “We need to survive,” and because of that, your digestion’s going to shut down, your reproductive system and your growth. Anything else that isn’t important for you to live is going to shut down.
Some of the ones that I came across were like your hearing goes because it’s non-essential. You get tunnel vision. You hyper-focus on whatever it is because you need that increased concentration. They talked about whenever you’re highly stressed and said, “Think about whenever you’ve been stressed and you’ve tried to maybe insert a key into a door or you’ve tried to dial someone’s number and you can’t.” It’s because you lose some of your motor skills when you’re in that high-stress or high-anxiety state.
It’s amazing that this happens, but experiencing it. I’ve read this stuff before. I came home and the side gate to my house was open. The last time I came home and something weird happened, we’d had a break-in, which was many years ago. The reason I know that I went into fight or flight is because I had to pee. That was what I needed to do. It was like, I’m going to go home. I’m going to grab this real quick and I’m going to head out. I’m going to go do something else that I wanted to do. As soon as I thought my safety might be in jeopardy here, I backed into the car up. I didn’t even go into the house. I called the police and didn’t even investigate in the backyard.
I was like, “No, I’m not doing shit because last time something similar happened.” The house was a mess. There were all these things and you’d never want to interrupt a potential burglary in the process because you don’t know what those people could have. I went into fight or flight because I no longer needed to pee. I was no longer hungry. My whole focus was I need to keep an eye out, look out to see what is happening here.
Finally, the police showed up. As they checked everything out and everything was good, then I physically felt my body relax. I was like, “Remember that whole thing where you needed to go pee? We need to do that again.” I was like, “My body did the whole thing.” I went through this whole flight or flight in real-time. I don’t think I’d ever consciously observed it before to the point that I can now say, “That was a real difference of coming down and making sure we’re safe. Everything’s fine. Your systems are back online.”
When my system comes back online after an extended period of time under stress, I am exceptionally fatigued. I am so incredibly tired because either I’m holding my body tense or my body’s releasing cortisol. I had that spike in blood sugar, but now it’s down and now I’m depleted. Have you ever experienced that?
Especially after the mental stress we go through with the type of work we’ve engaged in. At times, it can add to that which is the heart of what we’re talking about here. We’re in chronic stress. The potential burglary was a fight or flight type situation, but our jobs get us into fight or flight. Our parenting, if you’re a parent, our interactions with our spouses or anything that creates this lack of safety will get us into this mode. We’re in modern times, we don’t have to necessarily hunt for our food or worry that a coyote’s going to come out or a cougar’s going to come out and kill us or anything like that.
I’ve been hiking and there was a bear around. That was a little bit freaky. By and large, we have all of this mental stress that we have to deal with, but our bodies don’t know the difference.
We’ve talked about the body keeping the score before and our body does tally everything. At one system that I didn’t talk about was the gastrointestinal system. If you’ve ever had butterflies in your stomach or if you’re nauseous, I learned that’s because stress affects and disrupts the communication between the neurons in your gut and brain.
This triggers abdominal pain, bloating, nausea and IBS and it affects your digestion and what nutrients your body will absorb. You can be malnutrition because of stress. According to the American Psychological Association, it’s not so much what chronic stress does to our bodies but what continuous activation of our nervous system does to our bodily systems. That’s what becomes problematic. It’s that continuous activation of what stress does to these different systems within our body that can cause long-term harm.
That makes sense because we no longer live in a time when you’re not going to have any problems. There have always been problems. You’re going to continue to have problems. It’s how you manage them and how you learn to live with the stress that you have that’s going to give you that impact of, is this a good stress for me that’s going to get me a little bit motivated or is this something that is going to give me long-term health problems?
There is a benefit to cortisol. That boost in energy helps me, for example, when I’m trying to meet certain deadlines for work because that certain stress gives me that little jolt of energy I need to finish that project. What you’re talking about is these extended periods of time, this chronic stress. It just wreaking havoc on your body.
Completely. What can we do about it?
Before we get into the tips, how has stress impacted maybe your mental well-being? I know we talked a little bit about the systems but let’s look at the brain and our well-being for a second.
For me, how it’s impacted my well-being has been with high anxiety and overthinking things to the point that I will make something bigger than what it is because I’m overthinking and stressing about it. That certainly came in. The other part of it is I’ve been shitty to myself because of it. I’ve been super hard on myself of beating myself up over something because of being in that tunnel vision, only seeing the worst possible outcome, and not allowing myself to step back.
I think that there have been many different ways that I’ve spent countless hours in therapy working on to make sure that I am managing those moments. Those high mental moments have led to me crying and panic attacks. I would say I was wrestling with a core belief and I was home by myself. Nobody was around. I was shook. I was shaking on the ground, crying in the fetal position because I was mentally fighting myself and my body was reacting with it. It needed to come out. It needed to happen then I was like, “Okay.” I was able to finally calm myself down and realize, “I probably need to make an appointment.”
I used to call that my semi-annual purge. It would surface at random moments. I remember turning to Vincent saying, “I need to excuse myself for about 30 minutes.” I would cry like a deep guttural cry, then afterward, I was fine. I was like, “That’s probably not healthy.” Again, that’s when I was like, “I probably should make more appointments with my counselor.” I was able to work through that. For me, how I’ve experienced stress or how it manifests itself for me is hyperarousal. No, that’s not sex. At first, I read that and I was like, “Tell me more.” It’s difficulty falling or staying asleep or experiencing restless nights.
If you have chronic stress, it’s going to impact your sex drive in a negative way.
That is very true. For me, my hyperarousal, I have trouble sleeping and because I have trouble sleeping, I am literally dead throughout the day. Even before we started recording here, I was telling Sydney. I was like, “I feel like I need to tape my eyes open,” because I’m having such a difficult time staying awake, but because I have lack of energy, it impairs my cognition, my intention span and my memory. Constant brain fog is what it feels like I’m operating in.
Also, I do have IBS because, again, stress manifests itself. If I’m stressed out, I’ll get a flare-up with my IBS, but I have an eating disorder. When I say I’m an emotional eater, I know that some people, when they’re stressed out, they will turn to food to cope. For me, I get super nauseous when I’m anxious. The fact that food does not appeal to me at all, so I won’t eat. I didn’t think that I was an emotional eater, but Vince was the one that pointed out to me that by not eating, that’s also emotionally eating. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but he’s right for the one time in his life.
Vince has been right more than once. We’ll give him more credit than that.
I also picked up harmful habits. I did smoke for a period of time and that was because I was extremely stressed. That was a way for me to release that stress. Lack of sleep, I had an eating disorder, I was smoking, it led to depression. When you talk about these highs and lows earlier, your anxiety is always up here and we need to bring it down to the base. To me, that caused depression. When I was in those low lows, it was hard to get out.
It’s like I want to not have such shifting moods and be able to recognize, “This is stress,” then consciously move to doing things to destress myself. That’s something that needs to be done in that moment. It could be, “I’m in a high-stress situation. I need to get myself out of it to feel safe.” I can start applying some of the things that we are going to talk about.
What are some of the things that you’ve done to help you deal with your stress?
Before I get to the ones that I’m going to suggest to people, Harvard Medical School suggests these ones. I want to go through them mostly because everything you read about destressing out there is going to talk about these things. They may or may not work, but I feel like it’s the can’t answers. It was like, stay positive, meditate, exercise, unplug, find ways to destress. This is a direct quote, “Simple things like a warm bath, listening to music, spending time on a favorite hobby.”
The way that you’re reading them is how I’m interpreting it because this is bullshit. It’s bullshit.
It’s like, “We know how to do those things but what are actual things that we can do to get ourselves out of this?” I swear every single article I read about destressing techniques all basically fell in these things. Now, these items are sound advice, but when you’re in the middle of it, like I remember having a paralegal. I’d be like, “Breathe.” She’s like, “If you tell me to breathe one more time.”
You did. You did do that a lot.
I like breathing because it’s an easy technique that you already have with you and can access very quickly. However, I do understand that a lot of this advice, even from the fancy places like Harvard are fucking annoying.
Do you know how much they probably charged someone and be like, “You need to learn how to breathe better?” Well, fucking thanks.
Meditate for one minute. It’s like, “No, you need to find ways that work for you.” Here are the things that have worked for me, walking. Walking has always helped me, whether it was doing a longer one-hour walk that I do or I would grab my headphones and go for a walk, provided that the law firm I was working at was not in a super sketchy neighborhood.You need to find ways that work for you. Click To Tweet
If I could go for a walk with one of my emo songs playing like, “That was perfect.” We think in the moment, “I don’t have time to take a break,” but you do. You have time to go for a quick walk, even if it’s around your building long enough to get you moving. That always seem to be a technique that would help me.
I’m going to dovetail off of that because one of the ones that I came up with was literally walking away from what’s causing me stress. I mentioned earlier that I called Sydney up and I’m like hyperventilating and at my wit’s end. I said, “I’m turning it off.” I turned off my computer for the day and I was like, “I’m done.” I had to walk away and I went outside.
I was only outside briefly for five minutes because it was super windy. It was enough getting out of the space. I noticed that my breathing went down. The tension that I was feeling, my body went down. My heart rate went down. My nausea subsided a little bit, but it was almost immediately and it’s walking away from whatever is causing you stress.
That’s a great tip. I love that, walking away because, guess what? It’s still going to be there. You don’t have to finish it that day and there’s usually going to be more room. For whatever reason, we get stuck in our heads that this must be finished now. Maybe you do have a deadline, but you can walk away, even if it’s for a little bit to get yourself out of that environment. The other technique that has worked well for me, especially when I am unable to fall asleep, is progressive muscle relaxation. What this is because Melissa has given me this look of like, “What the fuck is that?” Basically, what you do is you slowly tense up a portion of your body then release it.
I don’t know why I’m thinking about Kegels now.
That could be part of it. Basically, you start at your feet and you would tense up your feet and your calf muscles. You’d hold that for a little bit. I’d do it for a couple of seconds. You don’t want to do this to the point that you pull something or hurt yourself, then you slowly move up your body.
I’m laughing because I’m like, “Imagine pulling something. I was trying to destress and now I’ve pulled a freaking hamstring.
You’re trying not to hurt yourself. There are a couple of different ways that you can do this, but if you move up your body up to the different muscle groups and tense them up, then let them relax all the way up to your face where you scrunch up your face and you tense that up. You do it backward and you do that a couple of times. That’s going to help you fall asleep because you’re doing this tensing and relaxing process.
It’s also something that I’ve been doing in the positive intelligence work that I’ve been doing where the recommendation there is to tense up your whole body for ten seconds, then let it all go. You get curious and notice what my muscles are doing and how are things tensing? Sometimes you will tense things. You’re like, “I didn’t even know I had a muscle there,” but you can’t. That’s another one that you’re getting from the city, a toolbox. What else have you got?
I got exercise, specifically hiking. Maybe this is selfish. I love that my phone loses reception and I am disconnected from the outside world. It’s similar to what you’re talking about with tensing because I see that it’s like a focused effort, like you’re focusing on that particular body part and you’re being present. When I’m outside, I will focus on the warmth of my skin, the wind in my hair and the beauty that surrounds me rather than all the stressors that are currently present in my life at the moment, which is nice. I get that from being outside, but if I can hike, even better.
Hiking and being in nature are so good for you to feel better. I love being in nature.
I do too.
We need to go hiking.
I’ve been asking you for like years now.
I know. Another technique that I’ve got here is box breathing. I was going to bring breathing because it’s super easy and something that you can do. Let me tell you what box breathing is. You do it for four counts where you would breathe in for four, hold it for four seconds, let it out for four seconds, then hold for four seconds before breathing again. It’s pretty cool because Navy Seals use this to intentionally bring their heart rate down. It has been known to get your whole system to slow down.
I like that. I mentioned earlier that I was having problems with sleeping and one of the things that I did was because my mind is racing, I’m thinking about emails and things that I didn’t accomplish or finish in the day, that it was keeping me up. I started listening to audiobooks like odd overdrive. Before I would go to bed, I would turn off all the lights and I would focus on this book.
It allowed me to focus on one item that wasn’t related to work, life, or any of the stressors. It was nice because not only was I in a more relaxed state, but it allowed me to fall asleep more deeply. This was something I couldn’t do before because I would stay awake for hours trying to mute all the nonsense going on in my brain.
Sole focus. No multitasking with the audiobook, right?
You can’t. That defeats the purpose of the audiobook, in my opinion, or typically, what will happen, damn ADD. If I do anything else outside of listening to the audiobook, then I’ll forget what I listened to then I have to go back and figure out where I stop listening and rewind. It’s not worth it.
Only the one thing. One last technique that is a new one that I found while I was doing my research for you guys that I thought, “This one’s pretty cool. I like this one because it gets you into all of your senses.” It’s called the 5 4 3 2 1 technique. Basically, you name five things that you see, then find four different things that you can hear, three is touch, so you touch three different things, two is you try to identify two different smells, then one, you try to identify one thing to taste. Engage all of your senses. 5) See. 4) Hear. 3) Touch. 2) Smell. 1) Taste.
Are you putting something in your mouth?
You can or maybe you notice what your saliva tastes or you might put something in your mouth.
We’re recommending stuff. Be wise with what you put in your mouth, readers. Be caution.
Always be wise. What I like about this and why I wanted to share it with you is if you get into your senses, even for as little as ten seconds, that’s going to get you into the present moment. Any one of your senses that you can focus in on when you’re like, “I’m super stressed out now.” I’m going to focus on what I’m looking at or I’m going to focus on hearing something. Any of those things are going to get you back into your body and get you into whatever other techniques or things that you may need for yourself.If you get into your senses, even for just as little as 10 seconds, that's going to get you into the present moment. Click To Tweet
I know you said one last thing, but I do have one that I have used for destressing and it might go against the norm because I know we’re all talking about living with intention, meaning in purpose and everything like that. I’m going to say explore medicinal routes. The reason why I say that is because this was the last resort for me.
I’ve tried so many things to reduce my stress levels and improve my sleep. I exercise, went to counseling and ate healthily. I was pretty active socially, but nothing seemed to help my level of anxiety. I spoke with my counselor about this and she said, “Maybe you should start seeing a therapist and discuss the option of taking medication.” I was hesitant about taking medication because if you read our previous episode, I talked about my endo and me taking birth control. I have a negative experience with taking medicine in general.
I was trying to explore all other holistic methods prior to even considering medication. At the start of the year, after suffering from chronic stress for several years, I was like, “I’m going to talk to someone. It doesn’t mean I’m going to take any pills, but I’m going to talk to someone.” I met with a therapist and I started off on low-dose anxiety medication and sleeping aid. While we’re still adjusting the doses on some of the things, I have noticed that I have more energy that I don’t binge eat like I used to. I’m more relaxed and I’m less quick to anger or experience irritability, believe it or not.
I do believe it. She’s not snapping my head off as much.
I want to put that out there because I know that sometimes there’s this negative stigma when we think of medication. What I found is when I was telling my family that I was starting to explore medication and anti-anxiety, I’m like the last one of my family to go on anti-anxiety medicine. I was like, “Maybe this is a genetic predisposed type of thing.” Sometimes our bodies, no matter how much we try, operate below the baseline a little bit.
You need a little pick me up to either fight depression, fight anxiety, help with sleep. I want to put that out there as something to explore. I’m not saying to overdo it in any way. See what works for you and if medicine is it, don’t consider that as a failure on your end. Maybe sometimes our bodies can’t operate the way we would like them to.
Sometimes you need that extra help. I think being on medications that you need. I have high blood pressure. I take that because of the chronic stress in my life. There are other things that I could do to try to reduce that to get off of the medications, but sometimes you need that help to make sure that you don’t kill over and die anytime sooner or that you’re having a better quality of life.
Medicine is an option, talking with your doctor and going through all of that. I’ll leave you with this. If you find yourself constantly needing to destress and you’ve tried all the things and you’ve tried medication. It might be something where you need to look up and look at the situation that you’re in. Look at the place that you’re in and that environment. Is this a place that you want to stay in? What’s the cost of you staying here? Basically, is the stress worth it?
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