Just one year ago, I was a stressed out, anxious mess. Years of my young life were spent running around, blaming my neurotic nature on my “Type-A personality” and justifying it with “I work best under pressure”. And then one day I got hives and started panicking about finding a parking spot…and I knew it was time to get real with myself about this.
At the time, my version of “getting real” with myself meant starting Prozac to manage acute generalized anxiety. I was definitely not psyched about it, but it was the most attainable option. I stuck with it for almost a year until some seriously annoying side effects encouraged me to seek outside information.
I learned about the adrenals, and how the stress hormone, cortisol, effects our bodies physically and our lives mentally and emotionally. When our body perceives stress in any form, it reacts the same way – be it physical, mental, emotional, and everything in between. A stressor is introduced, and your body does an awesome thing to deal with it by releasing cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that helps maximize your response to stress so you can get rid of it effectively. It’s released by the two small but mighty powerhouses that sit on top of your kidneys called adrenal glands. Cortisol tells your body to increase your heart rate and blood pressure, expand your airways, stop digestion (so you can use that energy for other things until the stressor is gone), and convert stored energy in your liver into blood sugar. Those are all GREAT things for short-term stress, like running from a lion in our primal days. So it makes sense that our body evolved that way. The problem is that running from predators and the like is not America’s stress contributor. The things that cause us stress are no longer intermittent and short-term. Our stress is chronic.
What does that mean for cortisol? It gets pumped out by your adrenal glands for long periods of time and hangs around in your body while continuing to send your blood pressure, blood sugar, and bloating (from poor digestion) sky high. Chronic cortisol exposure can also land you with a sub-par immune system. It’s no coincidence that those effects are correlated with some of America’s serious issues: heart disease, diabetes, IBS/undiagnosed digestion havoc, autoimmune disease…sound familiar? Stress isn’t just an annoyance; it’s physically harming people.
Those are the kinds of symptoms I experienced for a long time, along with weight gain, hives, poor quality sleep, acne, and I was getting sick all the time. I can’t say I fixed the stress in my life immediately. But I started paying attention to it, and eventually breaking it up with periodic acts of stress-free reflection. I came across the “wellness cult” on Instagram flooded with images of women doing yoga, taking bubble baths, sitting down for delicious meals, treating themselves with lattes, talking a whole lot about stress, and hashtagging #selfcare EVERYWHERE. I was in college at the time, and still am. It’s pretty hard to push aside stress in school, and even more so if your stress comes from a full-time job or kids, for God’s sake.
To start, I began taking time-outs to do myself small acts of kindness that brought me some peace. That looks different for everyone. For me, it’s 10 minutes of yoga in the morning, my favorite coffee shop a couple times a week, and a little guided meditation here and there. To really heal from chronic stress requires more digging. You have to learn how to deal with life in a way that it doesn’t feel or look like stress to you anymore. I’m closer to that mindset every day, and have moved away from using the medication that got me by during the transition. Starting with small acts is a great way to remind yourself of why stress-free moments are important, and it feels so good, you really can only keep building on them. Over time, you can train your body to trust you again by ensuring it day-in and day-out that you are not surrounded by danger, but in fact, a life that’s beautiful even when it’s a little crazy. In the meantime, journal, run, dance, cook, play, meditate, laugh, cry, whatever brings you some peace. Oh, and #selfcare.