I would have to say the two most common elements underlying disease and poor health are excessive stress and inflammation. Here’s the thing, both stress and inflammation are not bad things on their own, in fact if we had no stress or inflammation our bodies would be in just as much trouble. We need certain amounts of stress in order to develop and grow.
For instance, if we are learning how to speak in public, every time we do it we will experience stress but the more we do it, expose ourselves to it, the less effect stress has on us, but the exposure to a small amount of stress will help us evolve into a better public speaker. We are essentially increasing our threshold levels to stress with graded exposure. Stress becomes a problem when our bodies which are ‘master compensators’ lose the ability to compensate for the stressful stimuli coming in. This is when we develop physical and psychological symptoms.
In this article we are going to use a couple of models to understand how the body responds to stress we would use the 3 stages of stress model made famous by Dr Hans Selye and the Polyvagal Theory by Dr Steven Porges.
3 Stages of Stress
In the 3 stages of stress model we can break down the body’s response to stress into the 3 stages. Stage 1: is the Alarm phase and is the initial response to the threat or stimuli that your body is reacting to
Stage 2: is the Resistance/Compensation phase where the shock of the ‘alarm’ has now subsided and the body will move into a false homeostasis and compensate its functions around what impact the initial shock had.
Stage 3: is the Decompensation or Exhaustion phase. The body has lost the ability to compensate, and starts to display physical, mental or emotional symptoms.
Many people can accumulate countless micro-traumas over their lifetime forcing them to stay in stage 2 for a large portion of their adult life. At some point their body will move into Stage 3 resulting in exhaustion and their symptoms will get worse.
How you react to stress will determine which phase of stress your body stays in, and this is determined by whether you Freeze, Run away or fight or just react without being hyper-aroused.
How your body responds in this context is really determined by your subconscious nervous system, deep down in the brainstem, the area that holds the cranial nerves that control muscles of the face, eyes, hearing and internal organs including the heart and lungs.
In response to stress, you will either Freeze, Run away, Fight or just react normally and calm down yourself down so you can think your way out of a situation.
Your default response hinges on how our subconscious nervous system perceives the stimuli.
Is it a threat? If it is a threat, what strategy does your brain use?
Common modern day threats are not being chased by a tiger (unless you live in Africa), but rather more mundane things such as running late for an appointment, being yelled at by your boss, speaking in public, watching the news, relationship stress and even studying.
To the body, it can not distinguish between the type of stress, rather it only reacts to the level of stress a certain situation provides you.
As an example, if speaking in public is a major trigger for you, your body could either Freeze you, like you would in a life threat or put you in a 'sympathetic' state and make you talk too fast resulting in a poor performance. However if your social engagement system is functional then you will be able to remain composed and perform well.
Below we will explore the 3 ways our subconscious nervous system responds to stress using the Polyvagal Theory made famous by the work of Dr Steven Porges.
3 Tiers of Response to Stress - Polyvagal Theory
1. Freeze: Reptilian ‘FREEZE’ response, essentially a very quick move from Stage 1 - Stage 3 shutdown. Think Deer in headlights. This is a primitive (Dorsal) Vagal response. Your body is experiencing a Life Threat situation. 2. Fight/flight: Sympathetic Nervous System active and often stays active (stage 1 and 2 stress). Many people are constantly in this state which hampers their ability to utilise their Social Engagement System. Your body is in Danger. 3. Social Engagement System: you react to the stress but are not overstimulated so much that you can engage your higher brain (the frontal cortex) to work through the problem or return to a normal restful state. This is called a healthy (Ventral) Vagal response. Your body feels safe.
At the end of the day we live in a very stressful world and we always will, so what we need to do is to improve our body’s ability to withstand the stress and rigours of the modern world. Not by trying to control our external environment but rather our internal environment. Developing a robust nervous system is the key in this and there are so many ways to help it. There is also a need to see a qualified practitioner when you find that you are someone who is stuck in the freeze response or can’t get out of the stress response by yourself. If you are one of those people, or you have had to experience extreme trauma in your lifetime, then you will need the help of a practitioner in addition to implementing some stress management strategies. If you are unsure who that may be let us know and we may be able to advise you in finding a suitable practitioner.
Strategies to Improve your Stress Threshold
The good news is that there are many, many ways to improve the body’s ability to handle stress. Some are so so simple as often the best things are. 1. Getting adequate sleep This may seem obvious, but getting a good solid 8 hours a night in a really dark room with minimal disruptions goes a long way to manage stress. If this is not happening then some work needs to be done to remedy this. 2. Daily breathing exercises So simple, yet so profound. Performing simple breathing exercise such as breathing in for 4 seconds, holding for 6 seconds and breathing out for 8 seconds. Doing this 10-20 mins a day can have a huge benefit on your stress levels. Try it out for one week and see what happens. 3. Daily 20 min walks Just walking for 20 mins a day with no distractions can have massive benefits and it will help you process whatever stress you have going on. 4. Regular massage or energy healing Getting relaxation massages such as Shiatsu are a nice way to unwind the stress in the body to ease the burdens on the mind. Also regular sessions with an energy practitioner such as a Kinesiologist can help rebalance the body’s energy systems and keep you aligned. 5. Stimulating the Vagus Nerve This Nerve controls our stress response and holds the anti-inflammatory switch in the brain. There are many ways we can stimulate it including: humming, gargling, singing and immersing our face in cold water. Some other ways are to see a qualified practitioner who can electrically stimulate the Auricular portion of the Vagus Nerve. 6. Earthing and Spending time in nature Whether it’s by the beach or in the forest, spending time in nature down regulates the stress response and brings you back into harmony with the body. When we place our bare feet on the earth our body naturally move out of the sympathetic stress response into a healthy parasympathetic state. Earthing also has an anti-inflammatory and immune boosting effect on the body 7. Having Fun and allowing time for Play This one is a huge one, and is one that can become a state of mind if you allow it to be. They say we should grow more childlike as we evolve and therefore we should allow for more times of just playing. Climbing, playing in the park, attending dance classes, playing with your kids if you have them. Essentially seeking out opportunities that get you out of the ‘I need to do this or that’ mindset. This behaviour stimulates the other non-logical side of the brain and returns us to balance. Play also up regulates the Social Engagement (Healthy Vagal) response crating a healthier stress response system.
Essentially you are way more productive and easy to be around if you manage your stress levels. It can literally be the factor holding you back from reaching your Vitality. On our retreats you will learn about all these areas and also how to ‘hack the brain’ so it can work for you, including daily Vagus Nerve Stimulation and 1:1 sessions with our brain based practitioners. You will also have access to practitioners who can interact with your nervous system and determine where it's out of balance and correct it. If you have any questions or feedback, please do not hesitate to contact us at Integrated Vitality Retreats.