Bears in Traffic

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You can relate to this, right? You have a really important meeting at your office in 30 minutes. Door to door, the trip from home to your office takes ten minutes…except this time there’s an accident on the highway, and your car is in park rather than in drive. You sit there helpless as you watch the clock click down, and you miss your meeting.

Now imagine that you’re taking a hike, and suddenly you come upon a very hungry bear. The bear chases you, and you miraculously escape.

In both of these situations, there’s a stress response in the body that involves neurological and hormonal activity to create a physical change to help you to survive a threat. Your adrenals produce epinephrine to floor your muscles with blood so you can run; glucocorticoids fuel your escape; endorphins get you moving without your ruminating brain slowing you down. Your digestive, immune and reproductive systems dramatically slow down so that all of your body’s resources can be used for one goal – escape!

Of the two situations, which do you suspect is better for your mental health?

Being chased by a bear! Why? Because you get to run, and make good use of your body’s stress response. After a good run (and nearly escaping death) you have just completed the “stress cycle”.

Sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski coined the term “stress cycle” in their book Burnout and have done a fabulous job of explaining why modern society prevents the nervous system from returning to a neutral state after a stressful event.

“Remember, your body has no idea what ‘filing your taxes’ or ‘resolving an interpersonal conflict through ration problem-solving’ means. It knows, though, what jumping up and down means. Speak its language – and its language is body language…Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle.”

Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski

But! Physical activity is the only evidence-based strategy for completing the stress cycle. These practices can help your nervous system reset and heal from stress as well:

  • Meditation
  • Breathe. A simple practice is to breathe in for a slow count of five, hold the breath for a count of five, then exhale for a slow count of ten, and pause for another count of five. Repeat three times.
  • Create something you love like an art piece or a delicious dinner.
  • Positive Social Interaction. This can be harder to come by these days, but even a kind word on an email makes both you and the recipient happier and more at ease.
  • Belly laughter. (See picture below.)
  • Affection. Hug someone you love for twenty full seconds. The research shows that a twenty second hug can change your hormones, lower your blood pressure, heart rate and improve your mood.
  • 50% of dopamine is produced in your gut. Take care of your gut with healthy food and lots of water.

Now, here’s the best part – schedule it! Nothing ever gets done if it’s not scheduled.

Sometimes, lifestyle changes are the ultimate resolution for ensuring your body is happy and resilient.

And sometimes, it’s more complicated than that and more support is needed to find equilibrium. Read my blog post “Why Your Hormones Call the Shots” for more information on how to support your endocrine system and your stress response.

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About me

About Ishbel

For the last twenty years, I have helped people take charge of their health and feel better. I have been in your shoes - sick, tired, and overwhelmed by how to actionably care for myself. If you want to feel better, but don't know where to start, you've come to the right place. Learn More >

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