We all know that stress doesn’t feel good. But why does it really matter that we stress less?
Some people believe that stress is the golden key to improving their performance — that they would never get anything done without feeling stressed. It’s become a badge of honor to prove how productive you are. The more stressed you are, the more important your work is, the more you care, and the better you’re performing in life.
Right? Actually, no!
Chronic Stress: Big Picture
Stress is detrimental to our health, minds, and performance. In fact, you can do important work, care, and perform well without stress.
Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
(Side note: We’re talking about chronic stress here. Not acute stress in response to an emergency. Our stress response can be helpful in emergencies. The problem kicks in when the body responds to every little thing like an emergency… getting an email, driving in traffic, cooking dinner.)
Let’s take a brief look at the impact chronic stress has on your body and life.
- Negatively affects your ability to lose weight, even with good nutrition and exercise.
- Impacts mental health, making you more prone to brain fog, depression, and/or anxiety.
- Ruins your sleep quality making you less rested and disrupting vital biological processes.
- Sends SOS signals to your digestive system, contributing to leaky gut, poor nutrient absorption, and hormonal imbalances.
- Inhibits your fitness level, making it challenging to see improvements even with more intense workouts or programming.
As you can see, stress is not a badge of honor or proof of productivity, importance, or hard work. We can actually improve our overall health and how well we interact in the world by reducing stress.
The Stress Response
Let’s get into what the stress response actually is. It’s important to understand why our biology functions the way it does when we want to make changes (like being less stressed). Knowledge is power!
The stress response is neither good nor bad. It’s a tool your body uses for survival. It’s what kicks your body into high gear when an emergency strikes.
Stress is also the reason you get stronger after lifting weights, Vitamin D synthesis kicks in after sunlight radiation exposure, and your immune system gets more resilient from drinking certain bitter teas.
These are called hormetic stressors. Think “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Sure, you could exercise yourself to death, but in moderation, it actually makes you a stronger, more resilient human.
Good Stress, Bad Stress
So where is the line that makes the stress response detrimental to health? And what’s really happening in the body when it kicks on?
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates our visceral biological functions — the things that don’t require conscious thought but must happen regularly to keep us alive. Heart pumping, lungs breathing, pupils dilating, etc. The ANS has 2 branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
When we’re stressed and release cortisol, the sympathetic nervous system activates and revs up the biological functions that are required for emergencies: senses heighten, heart rate increases, digestive system (and other nonessential for survival processes) shuts down, adrenaline releases, and glycogen is converted into glucose for quick energy availability.
Again, in a state of emergency, this is beneficial. Resources for survival are prioritized because who cares if you can digest your breakfast if you’re dead by lunch. *insert 10 AM lion attack*
However, in today’s modern world, the idea of a stressful situation has changed a lot. From the alarm clock to morning news and social media to traffic to work to traffic again to the gym to an action movie… our brains are constantly being bombarded with “lion attack” signals. These signals that we need to be prepped for “fight or flight” at any given moment keep the body in a sympathetic state 24/7.
Eventually, your health starts to take a toll.
That’s why getting into a parasympathetic nervous system state is so important. The parasympathetic nervous system slows everything down for some “rest and digest”. The muscles relax, heart rate slows, digestive system flows, and nonessential to survival (but essential to health) functions do their thing.
Hacking the HPA
The name of the game here is stressing less. If keeping the sympathetic nervous system activated all the time can wreak havoc on health, how do we induce a parasympathetic state to relax, rest, and digest?
For that, we have to look at something called the HPA axis. The HPA axis is made up of the hypothalamus (H), pituitary gland (P), and adrenal glands (A). These organs are responsible for producing a wide range of chemicals and hormones that regulate many high profile bodily functions including stress response, digestion, immune system function, libido, mood, energy levels, and metabolism.
Each piece of the axis communicates with the others through feedback loops, where one organ sends positive or negative signals back to the other to indicate greater or lesser need for something.
Let’s play this out in action.
It’s time for your workout. Your body is ready for a “fight” against weights at the gym and releases cortisol to activate the sympathetic nervous system.
That cortisol sends a signal to your hypothalamus to inhibit CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) production. It also sends another signal to your pituitary gland to inhibit ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) production, which also decreases production of epinephrine and norepinephrine by the adrenal glands. As a result, cortisol has effectively pumped the brakes on your body’s stimulants to prevent you from burning all your energy lifting weights.
This is a negative feedback loop.
Works perfect for a workout. But… let’s say this happens all day every day from constant exposure to events your brain interprets as stressful. Your body is flooded with a steady stream of cortisol and norepinephrine. The HPA axis can get desensitized over time to the negative feedback loop that tells it to chill out.
As a result, your body doesn’t calm down and your HPA axis experiences chronic stress.
Shifting into a parasympathetic state requires reducing cortisol to stop the negative feedback loop in the HPA axis before it begins.
Breathwork, avoiding excessive exercise, decreasing inflammation, and getting good sleep all contribute to lowering cortisol and switching on the parasympathetic nervous system.
You can learn my own personal methods for efficiently and effectively getting into a parasympathetic state through scientifically-backed morning and evening practices inside my 14-Day Stress Less Challenge. In the challenge I share my daily rituals including movement, breathwork, and meditation that have been crafted to reduce stress in 30 minutes or less.