Stress is rampant in our culture and throughout the world. It comes in many forms, manifests uniquely within each person and throughout an individual’s lifetime. Stressors have changed over thousands of years but our body’s physiology still interprets stress in the same way. Instead of running from an actual bear, the modern day bear is invisible – here’s why.
Our ancestors behaved much differently on a day-to-day basis; spending time searching for food, hunting, gathering, traveling and resting to do it all over again the following day. The main goal was to sustain life and pass on genetic material. Stressors in past civilizations included life and death scenarios, such as running from a wild animal for fear of life (let’s use a bear for the example). These types of stressors and scenarios had a clear start, middle and end. The bear sees you, you run, you escape, you live, the bear leaves, the end (or a different ending). This is where the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) kicks in. There are two sub-components to the ANS; the Sympathetic (SNS – fight or flight) and the Parasympathetic (PNS – rest and digest). Humans are either in one or the other. Ideally, we reside in the PNS. Our bodies shift to the SNS when dangerous and stressful situations arise. Physiologically when the body enters the SNS, cortisol, adrenaline and nor-adrenaline are released (often deemed stress hormones). Additionally, your body reacts to help you “fight or flight” the situation. Blood and energy are shunted to the musculoskeletal system, your eyes dilate, your airways dilate, etc.; all things to help you survive. While this is happening, your body is no longer in the PNS, as we can’t reside in both systems simultaneously. The PNS activates opposing actions – digest food, go to the bathroom, breathe slower, think clearly, relax. The intelligence that exists in the human knows that we need all the energy we can possibly produce if we are in the SNS, aka stop digesting food since it doesn’t matter if we get eaten by a bear.
Fast forward to the modern-day. Yes, it is possible you encounter a real bear. Generally speaking though, the day-to-day for most of us in this society is filled with “invisible bears”. Stress more often looks like: dislike of a job/career/boss/co-worker, marital struggles, challenges of child-rearing, financial concerns, support for friends or family members in need, jam-packed schedules and so much more. More often than not, these stressors do not have a clear-cut beginning, middle and end therefore constantly and indefinitely confusing your nervous system. Our ancestors were likely more adept at residing in the PNS and dipping circumstantially into the SNS; but our modern day bear is invisible and chronic leaving us to reside for years, often decades in the SNS.
Here’s the issue. Your body is not meant to reside in the SNS. It is not meant to constantly pump cortisol, adrenaline and nor-adrenaline throughout the system. By doing so, we end up depleting our adrenal system (among other linking systems) while feeling insidious aches and pains such as chronic fatigue, memory and concentration issues, anxiety, insomnia, etc. So how do you manage the bear? Find ways to manage your stress. While you may feel “good” at managing it, if your mind and body are still interpreting “danger”, physiologically it will respond that way.
There are many ways to train your mind and body to reside (or at least visit more regularly) the PNS. These things include but are not limited to: Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Yoga, Qigong, Tai chi, Meditation, Breathwork, Massage, Prayer, Spending time in nature, Talk therapy, Craniosacral Therapy, Reiki and so much more! Like anything else, it takes time and awareness to recognize your life stressors, how they trigger you and manifest in your mind and/or body, and re-regulating years of stress. Although you probably haven’t had a real bear chase you recently, the modern-day bear is invisible and follows many of us throughout our entire lives.
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