The art of living is partly enjoying when things go well and life is in flow, and partly adapting to challenges that surprise us unpleasantly. Common stresses can throw us off on body, mind, energy, and spirit levels.
Physically, we now know that stress creates inflammation in the body, and that the relaxation abilities of our physiology are disrupted. One of the key relaxation systems is the parasympathetic part of the nervous system, that supports blood flow to the abdomen and inner organs, smooth digestion, and heart health by reducing blood pressure and heart rate. Another key system is our brain wave pattern, which has difficulty relaxing into alpha rhythm, when the mind is stressed. Inflammation occurs in the body, including the brain. When sleep is interrupted, then the deep sleep during which astrocytes clean and restore the brain, is not accessed.
What do we do when this happens, and how do we prevent high stress responses?
The first thing to do is to notice and accept when a big change causes stress. Pay attention to the changes on body, mind, emotion, and spirit levels. Identify when the stress first started. In psychiatry, we identify common stressors as big changes in the spheres of your home, physical health, mental health, relationships, finances, career, re-emergence of past trauma, and significant losses on material or personal or spiritual levels. The next thing we ask about, is what changes have occurred in the supports in your life. These supports can be physical practices such as going to the gym or yoga, or interpersonal supports in your network of key friends and colleagues and family members, or professional supports, or spiritual affiliations. The next step is to identify the responses that you are experiencing. Physically, do you feel more tense or more fatigued, do you notice a change in your body weight or sleep patterns? Have you changed in terms of the quality of your relationships, and your reactions to communications with others? Do you feel lack luster with respect to your purpose in life? Have you lost a sense of meaning?
Once you have noticed and accepted the shift that occurs in you due to a big change, then you can appropriately identify where to seek support.
The first place is obviously, the most accessible. You! If you have learned techniques to help you adapt to a big change, use them! You may have a good memory of tools, a written list, a key book, or an online source. If you are feeling overwhelmed, some techniques might include long deep breaths to activate the vagus nerve and turn on the parasympathetic response, or lie still and simply observe the breath in the body. If breathing or body awareness are challenging, you may count numbers, count clouds, observe the different colors around you, or color which has been shown to be similar in its effects on the brain, to meditation.
Next, you may want to ask trusted individuals for help. This may be friends or family, key professional supports in your life, accessing online services, or accessing acute medical care at a hospital or outpatient center. In Vancouver, for acute or urgent or emergency concerns, you can contact the Access and Assessment Centre at Vancouver General Hospital at 604-875-8289.
- Dr. Maia Love
The above information is not meant to replace the advice of a medical professional, but rather ideas to support your awareness.