Too little stress can stop you from reaching your potential; too much stress can harm your health. So where’s the sweet spot, and why should you work to find it?
Stress triggers the hormone cortisol - the body’s built-in alarm system, aka ‘fight, flight or freeze’ instinct. When Cortisol production is running normal, it manages how we use carbohydrates, fats and proteins; it keeps inflammation down; it regulates blood pressure; it helps maintain blood sugar levels; it controls the sleep/wake cycles and boosts energy. Have you ever noticed how a few days spent doing absolutely nothing can almost decrease our energy and disrupt sleep? Great news; a healthy amount of stress keeps us from apathy and boredom and keeps things working well.
In a crisis or in situations where we may feel danger or unsafe, cortisol production is ramped up, affecting the normal running of functions mentioned above. After the pressure or danger has passed, your cortisol level should calm down. Your heart, blood pressure, and other body systems will get back to normal. But what if you’re under constant stress and the alarm button stays on?
Over the past 18 months, every time we turned on the tv or spoke to friends, we heard about Covid and the danger it poses to us and the potential impact on the economy. Balanced on top of that was overseeing homeschooling, continuing the same productivity output for work, being confined to our homes and the removal of our normal social outlets. That made for quite a high-stress baseline, and that's without considering any additional life events that may have happened.
This fight or flight response may be why some people are feeling heightened anxiety and may be struggling to keep a routine or an interest in something.
The longer the body stays on high alert and cortisol production is high, it can alter or shut down functions that get in the way; this can include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system or even your growth processes. As a result, it can derail your body’s most important functions. It can also lead to several health problems, including anxiety and depression; headaches; heart disease; memory and concentration problems; problems with digestion; fertility; lower back pain; trouble sleeping; weight gain.
Now, after 18 months at this heightened state, things are opening back up, and we're starting to return to pre-covid normality. This means the heightened baseline is now lowering, and all those out of balance functions are slowly returning. This readjustment can make us feel lethargic, low, or off centre as they contrast so much from how we existed for the past year and a half.
Don't be too hard on yourself if you feel different from 'normal' at the moment. Mental, adrenal and physical adjustments, whether up or down, always take a lot out of us. Just as we could not keep the same momentum in life going into lockdowns, we cannot keep the same momentum coming out. Take things slowly, relax and give yourself time to adjust. Exercise positively impacts the brain's dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels—all of which affect focus and attention and reduce stress; meditation increases focus, concentration and reduces stress and anxiety. Finally, you must take time in your day to unwind, relax, destress and breathe!