A couple weeks ago, the theme of my IIN health coaching module was stress. Besides food and exercise, there is another very important component to facilitate healthy aging, and that is stress. Stress effects the entire body and influences how good or bad we sleep, eat and age.
Our stress is regulated through our nervous system. There are different parts to the nervous system and can essentially be broken down into two parts. There is the CNS – central nervous system. The CNS is governed by your conscious thinking mind, which means you are in control and can chose to, for example wave your arms, go for a run or do some squats. The other part of the Nervous System is the ANS – autonomic nervous system. The ANS is governed by your subconscious mind and means you can’t get in there and instruct it what to do. You are not in control. It governs functions in your body such as how quickly your heart beats or how quickly your hair and finger nails grow.
There are two branches to the ANS: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is the fight or flight response or also known as the red zone. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the rest, digest, repair and reproduce part of the ANS, also known as the green zone.
The fight or flight response is a protective mechanism from the body signalling that there is imminent danger. Thousands of years ago this response was initiated when you experienced a physical stress and your life was literally in danger, i.e. a lion was chasing you. When you are in the red zone, your adrenaline kicks in and your body puts protective responses into action to bring you to safety.
In our modern society, we rarely experience these physical threats anymore. However, the challenge for us today, is that most of us still live in the red zone 24/7 due to the perception we are under pressure. Our adrenaline is continuously pumping as we multi-task emails, a full schedule and try to balance our busy lives. We are constantly reacting in this fight or flight response mode, aka the red zone, to the stresses of modern life. The stress we experience in the red zone is psychological stress. Living in both zones is desirable and only relying on the power of the red zone on special occasions (when there is a real threat such as when we have to slam on our brakes when a car pulls out in front of us). After the danger is over, we should be able to calmly move back into the green zone.
The bad news is this constant state of fight or flight places the body under continuous stress affecting our health negatively. However, the good news is, we do have the power to change our response and move away from the red zone and into the green zone. We have the power to choose what stresses us out and how we react to it. Is an empty inbox every night before you shut down for the day really worth the ulcer in your mouth? Do you really have to be available for calls after 6pm when you are winding down with your family spending quality time reconnecting? Is responding to emails or calls on the weekend truly necessary? In some cases, absolutely. But it many scenarios, the perception of stress is what causes the most harm. For example, over the Christmas holidays I was 3 weeks behind in my IIN course work. Being behind on anything automatically causes stress and anxiety for me. As I noticed my stress levels creep up, I stepped back from the situation, took a few deep breaths and made a plan. I acknowledged where I was at, where I wanted to be and made a realistic and achievable plan to catch up. I allowed myself the space to put in the extra work in my own time and my stress levels immediately went down. And guess what? Having that plan in place and acknowledging the situation, I was totally more productive working in the green zone than I would have been in the stressed out red zone forcing myself to get things down right away.
So how do we get in to the green zone? We can activate the parasympathetic nervous system with diaphragmatic breathing, i.e. taking long full deep belly breaths and even longer exhalations. When adrenaline is driving us, we take short and shallow breaths breathing more from our chests. But when we consciously take deep belly breaths (like babies do) we communicate to every cell in our body, via our nervous system, that we are safe. And from that place, health and well being is optimal.
A simple practice to keep you in the green zone is to consciously slow the breath to about five to seven breaths per minute. This may not seem like a lot if you are not used to deep breaths, but the more you practice, the easier it will become. You can start by inhaling for a count of three or four, then exhaling for a count of four (ideally the exhalation is longer than the inhalation). Your breath doesn’t need to be deep, just slow and smooth. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but after about ten minutes of this slow breathing, the parasympathetic nervous system will become dominant and you are back in the green zone.
If you practice this breath every day, you will begin to build new breathing habits and become more mindful. The other benefit of focusing on your breath is that it pulls you into the present moment. You are living in the now and not worrying about the past, or anxiously thinking about the future. The changing thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the mind are its states, but the mindfulness that you build through breathing, yoga or meditation is called a trait. The mind’s traits, not its states, have the most impact on how we interact with other people and the world we live in.
Another key concept to understand around the nervous system is that it significantly influences the fuel that our bodies use. Our body can only burn two types of fuel: glucose or fat, or a combination of both. When we are living in the red zone, the body immediately resorts to the fast burning fuel, which is glucose. If you are constantly in the red zone, the body will never get to burn fat as fuel because it will always turn to your glucose stores to keep you safe from danger. Being in the red zone causes an increase in heart rate, oxygen and blood flow, shutting down digestion, growth and reproduction so that all the energy can go to our brains and our muscles. This is why, when you are stressed, you may have noticed that you are not able to burn fat and lose weight, even though you are working out like crazy and have a healthy diet. The old equation of calories in vs calories out no longer holds true. When we are in the green zone, our body very efficiently uses our fat storages for fuel.
One last area to be mindful about when you tend to live a fast paced stressful life, is the area of sleep. When we have high levels of adrenaline pumping through our body at all times, when we are in the sympathetic nervous zone, the body doesn’t really want you to sleep restoratively because if a lion really did start chasing you, you may not wake up in time so it keeps you in a slightly aroused state of consciousness.
Creating a mindful bedtime routine, eating an early dinner, turning off all devices at least one hour before bed and sleeping in a cool and dark room are all great ideas to help promote a peaceful and restful nights sleep.
As you become more mindful and slow down, it becomes easier to navigate stress in your life. You react less and rather act from a focused and calm place making the outcome more favorable.
Finally, we must remember that our body is an incredibly complex and beautiful machine and is working for you and all times and not against you. For example, every day our heart beats 100,000 times and pumps 7500 litres of blood through 96,000 km of blood vessels. How incredible is that? For most of us, we don’t even have to think about that. It just happens every day like clock work. Our bodies are so precious and unique and once you begin to understand the miracle that you truly are, you begin to change how you treat your self and how you nourish yourself. When you are in touch with the preciousness of life and the gift that life really is, you are more in touch with the food that you consume and how you treat your mind and your body. Healthy food, mindfulness and consistent exercise is the ultimate version of self-care.