At first glance, the hallmarks of stress seem instantly recognisable - work deadlines, financial woes or the death of a loved one. Poor diet, circadian rhythm disruption and environmental toxins (be they from make-up ingredients and household cleaning products or toxic fumes), are less obvious - and equally important - triggers and drivers. When viewed from this wider perspective, it is clear that everyone - from a newborn baby to a high-powered executive in the City - is susceptible.
I now consider behaviour - or the manner in which a person responds to a particular situation or stimulus - to be the underlying cause of chronic stress. It is, without a doubt, the greatest driver of disease in the 21st century.
These responses become the raw material that is then fed into the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (or HPA) axis. Perceived as threats akin to that posed by a sabre-toothed tiger, these responses to triggers set off a cascade of events. Elevated blood pressure and blood sugar, for example, flood your muscles with much-needed oxygen and energy and offer - what should be - short term protection from imminent danger.
Modern lifestyle choices (like late nights, fad diets and over-zealous workouts) have a habit of frequently triggering this primal mechanism. This creates the perfect internal environment in which chronic disorders - like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure - can thrive.
The good news is that we can each begin to take small steps to change our behaviour. Easier said than done, I know, but well worth it.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Observe ultradian rhythms. Simply put, this is making a conscious decision to oscillate between periods of intense activity or work to periods of relaxation or play. It is the very antithesis of relentless activity that dominates every facet and period of life - holidays included - today. You could experiment with taking 15 to 20-minute breaks every 90-120 minutes. I have found the breathing techniques in the Feldenkrais Method to be particularly beneficial. You can find a teacher in your area here.
- Entrain circadian rhythms. The observation of ultradian rhythms actually goes a long way towards regulating our circadian rhythms (or sleep-wakefulness cycles). We are designed to be active in the daytime (preferably outside in nature) and to wind down - in preparation for restorative, restful sleep - at night. This mechanism gets disrupted by exposure to melatonin-suppressing blue light, melatonin being the regulatory hormone of circadian rhythms. Blue light is emitted by artificial light and screens (including - but not limited to - computer screens, tablets, smartphones and television) so it is best to limit exposure to these at least two to three hours before bed.
- Change your thought patterns. We identify so much with the constant chatter in our heads that we frequently perceive it to be the unequivocal truth. It is possible to train oneself to not take everything so personally and to frame events more positively. For example, the man who just cut you up in traffic may be late for an important appointment and not at all focused on putting you in a bad mood. In the same vein, "failure" could be perceived as an opportunity to work out - without judgement of oneself - what one could have done differently to achieve a desired result. Meditation is a great way to train your mind to not get too attached to your thoughts.
- Limit exposure to environmental toxins. Granted, we all have to live in a world where toxicity is rife but we can choose to make our homes - and our own person - a sanctuary of sorts from it all. I have created a few guides to help you with tips, resources and recipes (should you wish to make your own products). I post new ones periodically and you can download them here.