Have you ever had a papercut on your finger or smashed your finger in a car door? SO PAINFUL!! But how do you know it's painful?
Under your skin you have tons of nerve endings that travel from all over your body to your spinal cord up to your brain. Think of it like PTA mom's phone tree inside your body. One phone call and before you know it your message has gone all the way to the top...in your mind that is. When you cut or smash your finger, a signal is sent through these nerves to your brain where the message is received that you are experiencing trauma. Your brain then sends a signal out that makes you aware that something actually hurts.
The mind thinks it's so smart...the reverse can actually be true! Your mind can fabricate the feeling of you being in pain without any physical trauma. After all, you didn't even know your finger hurt until your brain told you so. Regardless of the pain being real or fabricated, there is this very intimate connection between your mind and your body. This connection is so important when talking about how mental stress can impact our body.
When our body perceives that something is stressful, whether it be external or something we've fabricated in our mind, our physical body has a reaction to it. There's something called a hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is just a fancy way of saying there's a chain reaction between these parts of our body through the release of different hormones. The hypothalamus is an area of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system. When it receives a signal that the brain interprets as stress, it releases a hormone that travels to the pituitary gland, which regulates all other hormone production in your body. Think of the pituitary gland at the top of a pyramid that filters down everything your body should be doing from regulation of your metabolism to controlling how much your body grows. The pituitary gland is located at the base of the brain and when it receives a signal from the hypothalamus indicating there is stress going on, it releases another hormone that travels to your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands are located right around your kidneys and are the glands that release cortisol.
Now that we've gotten all the boring biology stuff out of the way...phew...let's talk about cortisol. Cortisol is the main hormone that tells your body there's something to start freaking out about. This is what triggers a physical response in your body. Think heart racing, cold sweats, can't stop moving, that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach...yeah you know the feeling! Cortisol puts us into that "fight or flight" type mindset, which is great if there is something you need to quickly react to in order to get out of danger. What happens when your body is constantly receiving that message of being stressed?
Your body isn't meant to always be in that state of "fight or flight". It's like a car. You can't always have the car running without giving it some down time...that bad boy is going to leave your ass on the side of the road one of these days...just sayin. Your body is no different! When you're always stressed and have high cortisol levels all the time, it can lead to things like inability to control your blood sugar levels, which leads to poor metabolism and you can't lose weight no matter how much you try. It can lead to inflammation and imbalanced blood pressure. The list of all the bad things just keeps on going, but don't start freaking out on me and adding another helping of cortisol to your already overflowing plate! There are so many things we can do to get ourselves out of this pickle!
Let's talk about stress management. Remember how we said your brain is where this whole horror story began? Guess what?! While it may be difficult to remove all your external stress, you can change the way your mind responds to stress. The best lesson I ever learned is that true change starts from within and the only thing you really have control over is yourself. So the first thing is to make it a point to start paying attention to your thoughts. Are you being kind to yourself? Do you talk to yourself how you would your kids or best friend? If not, just start being aware when you're having that negative thought and find a way to flip it to be positive. For example, a negative thought can be "I really suck at yoga.", which you can flip to "Even though yoga is difficult for me, I can get better at it the more I practice." It's subtle changes like that that will make a big impact long term.
You can also exercise to release that stress. I know I always feel so much better after a good sweat session! Make sure it's something you actually enjoy doing though. Stressing out about working out kind of defeats the purpose! Another one of my absolute favorite things to do is so simple and absolutely free to do...use your breath to regulate your body. Now before you press that little x at the top right hand corner and run away screaming, let's think about this. Remember earlier, I went on and on about this mind body connection? Remember when you're stressed, your breathing increases as a response? If you intentionally slow down your breath, that sends the signal to your brain to relax. Think of this as payback...if your brain can trick you into thinking you're stressed over something that hasn't even happened yet, wouldn't it be fun to trick your brain into thinking there's nothing to be stressed about?
Want to learn how to breath? Check out our breath work meditation based on the Fibonacci sequence.
Learn more on our Break Free podcast!