Even before the pandemic we were already facing an epidemic. It’s got a lot of different names: anxiety, uncertainty, overwhelm, burnout, stress response.
I’m sure you know the feeling – your heart races, your breathing gets shallow, you feel a lump in your throat, a hollow feeling in your chest, you feel like the world is crashing in, and you become hyperaware of everything that’s going on around you. When we’re in survival mode we’re stuck in fight or flight. I call it survival mode, because these are all symptoms that your survival brain has gotten activated. When you’re in it, chemicals coursing through your blood are telling you to run, hide, freeze, or fight. You feel activated, agitated, and irritable – maybe even angry, or confused, unable to make a clear decision, or stand up for yourself. While for a hot minute those reactions can serve us well, when we’re in that mode day in and day out, our body not only pays a price, but so do our relationships and happiness in life. We aren’t meant to spend most of our time in overdrive or irritated, anxious, fearful, vulnerable, or fighting, or in the aftermath of feeling exhausted, depleted, spent, and down.
That’s the stress response and these days, for most of us, it’s getting activated a lot. On an evolutionary scale, the stress response – which starts in our brains, makes it way to our adrenal glands, and leads to a big release of adrenaline and cortisol which activate these feelings – is meant to be a short-lived reaction that occurs, say, when you’re running away from a predator. What you might not know is that it’s the same response your brain and body kick into when you’re under chronic stress, worry, and overwhelm, going from one mini-crisis to the next, one never ending to-do list item to another, with too little time for rest and repair. We keep up, we push though with coffee, sugar, or that glass of wine (or three), and we try to adapt to the demands of our lives.
The problem is that over time, we pay the price with our health. Being stuck in survival mode can lead to serious chronic symptoms and even medical conditions including: fatigue, poor sleep, stubborn weight (especially muffin tops and belly fat), poor focus or worsened memory, hormonal imbalances, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and autoimmune conditions (for example, Hashimoto’s).
Chronic triggering of our stress response throws us into survival mode and takes a toll on our health.
But the good news is that the fight or flight mode is not the only one we can use to respond to stress. We also have built-in antidotes – neurotransmitters and hormones like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and DHEA that can keep our moods healthy and help us activate our innate resilience – which also improves our immunity, sleep, digestion, and hormone balance. The capacity to activate those responses is within our reach.
Too often we assume stress, anxiety, fear, and agitation are just how we’re “wired” or just “who we are.” And we assume that these symptoms and health problems are just our lot – bad genes, bad luck, or the result of bad habits. But this isn’t completely true. In fact, you can literally rewire your brain and with it not only your stress response, but your happiness, success, health, and longevity. In fact, resilience is something that we can learn to build.
Here are my personal go-to’s for building my own resilience – which really do make a huge difference in my life, and which I hope will make a difference in your life, too.
The antidote that allows us to get out of survival mode and back into feeling like we’re thriving is getting into what is called the parasympathetic nervous system response – more commonly called the “rest and digest mode” because it’s how our body gets restored and replenished. How do you know when you’re in it? It’s the feeling you experience when you let yourself take a nap, when you finally deeply relax in a massage, or the peace you have when you lie in savasana at the end of a yoga class. This restorative mode helps us recover from the wear and tear of daily life and times of stress, and reset our mind, mood, and body clock.
The problem is that most of us don’t take time to hit the pause button, because we think we can’t – or shouldn’t. But intentionally taking time to recuperate after an unexpected stressful event will lessen its effects. And building in regular time to hit pause can help us to build resilience – the ability to bounce back, stay centered in the storm, and recognize that “this too shall pass.”
Get enough sleep
Resilience is almost impossible to maintain if we're living with a sleep deficit, which half of American women are. We need a minimum of seven hours of sleep most nights for optimal health. Without it, cortisol can get really out of whack. When this happens, it can affect almost everything in your body. To improve sleeping, make it a priority to get to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each day. Turn off all electronics – ideally an hour before you try to go to sleep. The blue light disrupts melatonin production, the counterbalance to cortisol, which also helps us detox our brains and hormones while we sleep. Finally, skip the alcohol in the evening. Even a glass of red wine has been shown to cause sleep disruptions.
Decide how you really want to feel and get there as often as you can
Do you often feel like everything’s spinning out of control? Take 30 seconds to tune inward and connect with how you want to feel. Is it energized, rested, centered, and happy? Next, jot down the top five obstacles in your life that are getting between you and the way you want to feel. Focus especially on the inner obstacles, not what someone else is doing to you. Are you taking on too much? Do you need more sleep so your resilience is higher? Do you have trouble asking for help? Find at least one (ideally three) solutions that will allow you to bridge that gap, so you’re spending more time feeling how you want to feel. What do you need to shift, change, recreate, or get rid of? Do it. Starting now.
Make time to keep your blood sugar balanced
Too many women are skipping meals and living on quick fuel sources because we're too busy to hit pause for a proper meal. When your blood sugar is low as a result of running on empty, your brain thinks you’re in survival mode. Aside from carbohydrate and sugar cravings, this also causes you to lose energy, focus, and mental clarity. Keeping your blood sugar steady throughout the day is the secret to a focused mind, steady mood, and all-day energy.
Eating within an hour of waking up is the best way to keep blood sugar balanced. If you have coffee, be sure to have it with your breakfast – not before or instead of breakfast. Eat a snack or meal every three hours, and stick to the right foods: a high-quality protein combined with a high-quality fat (i.e. nuts, a hardboiled egg, avocado). Super low-carb and no-carb diets, interestingly enough, can zap energy in the long run and result in weight gain. But keep your carb choices healthy – one serving of a whole grain or energy vegetable (such as a sweet potato or winter squash) with your lunch and dinner will feed your brain, calm your cortisol, and also help you sleep better at night.
Learn to say no
Part of how we get into the constant overwhelm that keeps us from hitting pause is by saying yes to too many things and people, partly because we have a difficult time saying no. Next time you’re about to say “yes” to something, pay attention to see if your inner self is saying “no.” Take the time to listen to that voice. When you’re older, she’s the voice that will tell your younger self it’s okay to say “no” to taking on too much and instead, to say “yes” to yourself.
Use stopping as a spiritual practice
Think of stopping as a spiritual practice, and something to be done daily. Whether it’s in the form of five-minute breaks during work or extended time off on the weekends, it’s vital to create more “you” time. Your work won’t suffer for it, I promise you. You’ll be more creative, more energized, more inspired, more effective, and you’ll have the longevity you need to be at it for the long run.
Here are a few other ways to hit pause and shift into “rest and digest” that you can try anytime
- Breathe slowly and deeply for three minutes before you jump out of bed in the morning, and before sleep at night.
- Take a relaxing hot bath in the evening. Bonus: Add 5-7 drops of relaxing essential oil to get the benefits of bath + aromatherapy. Lavender is relaxing whereas deeper notes like amber and sandalwood are grounding.
- Attend a yoga class. Sweating it out can bust stress or a restorative class can deeply replenish.
- Spend some time outdoors, ideally in nature by taking a quiet walk at lunch or after work. But even if all you can do is sit by a sunny window, take it! Even having a few house plants can help you to un-stress.
- Write in your journal. A strong body of research now shows that writing just for your own self, can not only help us feel better in the short run, but 15 minutes a day of free-form journaling for just 4 days in a row has been shown to alleviate PTSD for up to 8 months at a time! All you need are a notebook and a pen.
Call a Lifeline: Get Nourished By TEND & BEFRIEND Mode
There’s a reason it feels so good to call a friend when we’re feeling anxious, down, or just freaking out! UCLA researcher Shelley Taylor, PhD, has identified this as the “tend and befriend” stress response which she and her research team believe is how women have sought to protect ourselves on an evolutionary basis. Put simply, it goes like this: Being pregnant or having small children around would have likely prevented women from running away from danger or being able to predictably fight and still protect the babies. Gathering together for protection may have saved us, so we instinctively want to gather when we feel threatened or vulnerable. I know there have been many times I felt saved by a best girlfriend being on the other end of the phone for me!
It’s thought that what’s happening is that along with the adrenal stress response chemicals adrenaline and cortisol that get pumped out in a stress response, the body produces a small amount of oxytocin in response to a threat. Sometimes called “the cuddle hormone,” oxytocin triggers us to bond with others, which helps us feel safer and calmer and interestingly, also boosts our confidence. By connecting with another person, we amplify the oxytocin release – not only for ourselves – but for whomever we’re reaching out to! So instead of feeling badly for calling a friend when we’re in need, we can remember they are getting a boost by connecting, too.
Though it might work better when we call another woman, this technique works with – and for – men, too.
Here’s how to shift from your stress response into tend and befriend mode:
- Connect with a friend on the phone or take a walk and talk it out. Studies show that verbalizing our concerns automatically turns off the sympathetic nervous system.
- Ask a neighbor or co-worker to join you for a walk. Even being together in quiet can help boost your tend and befriend response.
- Do something social – You don’t need to discuss problems to get the benefit of social bonding. You can go to a café and chat with someone, head to your local yoga class and make time to chat before and after, or if you belong to a group like AA or are a member of a church or synagogue, joining in a group event there can lighten your load.
Get Curious: Engage EXCITE & DELIGHT Mode
While we tend to want to shut down and retreat when we feel internal pressure (that’s the “flight” part of fight or flight mode talking) and sometimes we do need to hit pause and take some quiet time to ourselves, getting into something that engages your sense of curiosity or wonder can shift you from being in survival mode to a more relaxed inner state. Becoming more interested in what’s going on activates something called the “excite and delight” response. Because it gives you a gentle healthy boost of cortisol and adrenaline, you feel the same level of alertness and awareness as you do in fight or flight, but it feels good and can benefit you by boosting your cognitive function and your immunity!
Marilee Adams, PhD, calls this curious mind a “learner mindset” which allows a challenging situation to become an opportunity to learn or experience something new. Curiosity expands your options for how to solve problems – and often resolves them more quickly and easily. The next you find yourself triggered by a stressful situation, rather than retreating into fear, or getting activated into a reactive, agitated mode, take a deep breath and try asking yourself these 3 questions. They can help you shift into excite-and-delight mode:
- What’s really happening here?
- What else might be going on that I’m not seeing?
- What’s interesting about this situation?
Other ways to regularly engage and stimulate your excite and delight brain more often include:
- Listening to music
- Studying a language or something new
- Going to museums (or looking at art books)
- Reading and studying things of interest to you
Happier is Healthier: Let’s Do This Together!
As I’ve gotten a bit older, I’ve realized just how easy it is for so many of us to unwittingly stress our lives away. And there are plenty of opportunities for it these days. But I also realize that taking care of myself is a radical act of rebellion against a world that’s threatening to destroy our very basic well-being. Happier is healthier and that’s not a luxury – it’s meant to be our natural state. Staying chronically in a stress response really doesn’t help us much. In fact, it just makes us irritable, tired, and unhappy – and potentially sick as we pay for the consequences of adrenal imbalances with our health. I’ve also learned that I can choose how I respond in and to stress
Keeping your health intact, especially in undeniably demanding times, requires a commitment to prioritizing our well-being and intentionally doing things that build our resilience. This starts with realizing that you deserve to be happy and healthy. We all do. With some practice, you can use the new and more intentional “stress responses” above to consciously shift your body’s reaction from alarm to calm and build your resilience even in the face of the storms you’re facing in life. I invite you to join me in flipping the switch on how you think you’re supposed to respond to stress, and choosing something radically different – like phoning a friend – especially in these times when we all need each other so much.