If these signs feel familiar, here's what you can do about it.
Not all stress is bad. We need stress to learn, grow, and evolve as people. In an ideal world, our nervous systems would get regular exercise—short spikes of stress when rushing to work, finishing a project, or having a difficult conversation with a loved one. Our heartbeats go up, the blood rushes out of our organs and into our limbs, and our bodies flood with the adrenaline and cortisol. Then, deadline reached, conversation resolved, bus caught, we’d calm down and our heartbeat would slow, the blood would return to our organs, and our bodies would get on with the work they need to do to keep us healthy and well; the stress cycle would be completed.
The problem is our stress is often chronic, rather than acute, and it becomes toxic. It acts like a poison, causing all kinds of problems. When there’s always another deadline, always something to rush to, we never complete the stress cycle and we make ourselves sick.
As long as you’ve ruled out underlying conditions or side-effects from medication, here are five signs your stress may have become toxic (and what to do about it):
You’re sick all the time. When we’re constantly busy, our internal labs are closed. The immune system doesn’t have the resources to study the germs and viruses trying to invade and figure out how to fight them, so we’re vulnerable to every person who sneezes on the handrail on the bus.
Solution: Make more time every day to be genuinely relaxed, to give your immune system the message that it’s safe to open your internal labs. Take baths, read fiction, take short naps, or go to a regular restorative yoga class to boost your immune system.
You’re constipated, gassy, or have diarrhea, even though you’re eating pretty well. Eating the right foods is super important, but stress shuts down proper digestion. Trying to eat while we’re working, in a rush, or trying to have a challenging conversation can make the healthiest salad sit in the stomach like a stone.
Solution: Follow my three food rules: 1. Always sit down when you are eating, 2. Chew, putting your utensils down between bites, and 3. Relax your belly while you are eating. In addition, try to ensure your environment is comfortable and relaxing—don’t watch the news, don’t work—just kick back and enjoy the food. Let eating itself be a stress-relieving ritual.
Your sex drive and sexual responsiveness are DOA. Stress can shut down our sexual organs. The healing parasympathetic Rest and Digest state is sometimes called Feed and F*ck. We need to feel safe in order to enter the vulnerable realm of sexual contact.
Solution: Set the mood for sex. Shut off phones, TV, and work, and focus on each other with relaxing snuggles or by giving each other massages. There should be no pressure or expectation of sex, which can create its own stress.
You can’t sleep. Your body subconsciously thinks it’s unsafe to let go and surrender to sleep, so insomnia sets in.
Solution: Exercising regularly to complete the stress cycle helps us move adrenaline through our bodies safely. Cardio is best; even five minutes of dancing helps. Incorporate journaling into your daily routine will also give you a place to put the ruminating thoughts. Try a guided meditation to distract your mind and help you calm down when you go to bed as well.
You’re vaguely unhappy and don’t know why. Being super-busy and stressed all the time can be a distraction from something we’re not facing. Panic mode can seem easier than slowing down and feeling our feelings. We’re addicted to our own stress.
Solution: You’re doing too much, so let something go. Insist on wqregular blank spaces on your calendar where nothing is planned. Incorporate more daily moments for quiet reflection. It might be boring, uncomfortable, or even scary, but you may find some useful insights.
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