Well-Being//

To Reduce Stress, We Need to Tune Into What Our Bodies are Telling Us

Exhaustion is becoming a shared narrative of modern living, but it doesn't have to be our own.

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We have moved far beyond the age of stress management. That is a concept more relevant for a bygone era. We are now living in a time that demands new strategies in order to thrive. Energy management is not a quick-fix approach or something that can be achieved with the flick of a switch. It requires an inner enquiry, a thorough examination of our habits, choices, relationships and the influence of our environment on our energy. But before we get into that, let’s get underneath the science of how this incredible body mind system is designed and how we are able to become architects of an upgraded version that supports our life, our passion and purpose.

Every living creature is designed to survive. Whether it is moss on a rock or a mighty hump-backed whale, survival is an innate state, a primal response. Survival requires adaptation, evolution, stealth strategies, camouflage, intelligence and resilience. Built into the design of this survival system is an ingenious neurobiological mechanism that primes and fuels energy when we need it and that restores, heals and replenishes our energy reserves when we don’t. The efficiency and efficacy of this system is dependent on the interplay of these two ‘energy’ systems. The natural world is a pure expression of the ebb and flow of this rhythm.

Our evolution as humans is reflected most profoundly in the way the brain has adapted and evolved. It is both astonishing and perplexing what the human mind is capable of. By virtue of our intelligence, we have attempted to outsmart nature to the point that we have outsourced our brains to digital devices! We have come up with unfathomable inventions: we can grow organs, travel into deep space and digitally print practically anything.

However, while our brain has sprouted new neural connections and our grey matter has bulked up, the optimum functioning of our body is still very much dependent on the ancient rhythm of energy and recovery. The link between the two is something that is required for the next leap in our evolution. That link is awareness.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us systematically follow the neurological pathway of the stress experience. Through the Authentic energy supersensitive functioning of our sensory system, anything that is perceived as stressful, threatening or dangerous sparks up electrical activity in the parts of the brain that regulate stress. Electrical energy transforms into chemical energy as the signals ripple down through the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis in the brain in milliseconds. A chemical cascade ensues. Adrenaline floods the system, locking onto the cells in our vital organs. The pulse quickens, the breathing rate increases, the pupils dilate, our hairs stand on end. Blood gets shunted away from the digestive system to the vital organs of the heart and lungs. The entire body-mind system either gets primed for action or shuts down to become invisible to the threat. But it doesn’t end there; the next wave of the stress response follows. Cortisol is released from the outer layer of the adrenal glands to provide more sustained energy and to manage any possible injuries that could have occurred in the dangerous encounter. Cortisol activates glucose stores from the muscles and liver. It behaves as an anti-inflammatory in case of injury and an immune system suppressant to conserve resources. This entire process is a powerful energiser, providing us with almost superhuman power and energy to deal with the situation at hand. It seems that the level of activation of this response is directly proportional to the perception of the level of danger.

Once the energy is activated and channelled into the appropriate form of action, the wave subsides, and the rest and recovery/rest and digest mode kicks in. We heave a sigh of relief that we have survived. The blood and energy resources shift back to the digestive system. Digestive juices start to flow, cells regenerate, and the immune system gets supported. We slow down as we recover, recuperate and regenerate.

A perfect system for a perfect world.

Where this system fails us is that even a perceived threat is dealt with as a real one, activating the very same stress response as an actual event. The very nature of our modern mind is to think up potentially stressful situations all day. The fact that we carry our work in our minds and its device extension means that we are chronically in a low-grade fight–flight mode.

Excerpted from Breathe: Strategising Energy in the Age of Burnout by Dr. Ela Manga. Published by Jacana Media, 2019.

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