[Totally just realized that title would make a great sex joke! :o) Alas, not today…]
One of the presentations I teach for my local health insurance company is called “Stress Management is Medicine.” Stress causes or exacerbates lots of health problems. We know it is a factor in heart disease (especially for women), Type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, musculoskeletal debilitation, and poor digestion. And, for women, these health issues can mess up our hormones- and our hormonal systems touch a lot of other systems and organs. Stress can, rather quickly, mess up a lot of things.
You can see, then, that managing stress is like medicine- it reduces symptoms and helps keep our body from heading towards disease.
Stress shows up differently for each person, though. We know that big stress- like almost getting in a car accident type stress- creates three types of responses. You’ve heard of them before, I bet: fight, flee, and freeze.
When we have a big stress, adrenaline and cortisol and other hormones kick in to help prepare our bodies to take on the problem and prep for the fight like a dog, or run (run!) away from it like a bunny, or try to be quiet and blend into the back ground like a frozen squirrel.
Do you know which you tend to do?
I’m a squirrel, for sure.
If I’m overwhelmed with stress or emotion, I freeze. I prefer to blend into the background, let the fight take place, and I will just sit here, utterly still and quiet until I can get away. I will leave a project, go to my room for an hour to chill, or go completely silent in a group.
Part of how we handle stress is based on our personality – I would bet introverts are more likely to freeze during stress- and also our life experiences. If we were yelled at or belittled in our childhood, we may be more likely to flee as we wish we could have done in the past (but maybe not- it’s all very unique).
The thing about stress is- it’s not the big ones that hurt our health so much. There are built in mechanisms for our body to rest and restore after we have a big stress. You may notice you want to rest, sleep, blow off steam by playing, or you simply feel drained. Those are all signs from your body that your stress is done and it’s time to build your system back up for future use. The dog has to stop fighting at some point. The bunny has to stop running and rest. The squirrel has to unfreeze and get to safety.
Only, it’s the little stresses that really do us in. When we have little stresses, all day long, our bodies have the same reaction: fight, flee, or freeze- but we may barely notice them. We may have gotten used to a certain level of stress, so the feelings don’t even register anymore. And because we don’t notice the stress, we don’t get the chance to restore and replenish our system, either.
Here’s the thing, though- even if we don’t notice stress, our body does. And it begins to gently malfunction over time as the stress hormones stick around in our body. That’s when you get the weird periods, the extra weight around your middle, the tired during the day/wired at night- and a whole host of other things. To reverse these things (and we can reverse them), we have to recognize and handle our stress better.
I think that the key to dealing with stress is to notice what our style is (fight, flee, or freeze) and start to notice the little signs of when stress is happening in our body. On a daily basis, ‘fight’ might look like having arguments in your head with the stupid person in the Sales department. On a daily basis, ‘flee’ might look like excusing yourself to the bathroom when two colleagues are talking politics in the lunchroom. On a daily basis, ‘freeze’ might look like hunkering down in your cube to just AVOID.
It’s by noticing these small clues about our stress style that we can begin to find ways to reduce stress and/or give our body what it needs to rest and restore afterwards. And it’s super important to re-balance from those little stressors as soon as we can. If you’ve had that argument in your head, or left the uncomfortable chat, or escaped in your cube, take a minute (literally, one minute) and breathe deeply. If you need to be active, do some mindful walking up the stairs. Or any other trick you have so your body can switch from stress mode to restore mode.
Stress management really can be medicine for your body. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but it can have a big impact on how your mind, body, and hormones work. A little stress management can go a long way to improving your health.