A while ago, at a school fair, I experienced a stressful situation which illustrated personally to me, that no one is beyond the effects of stress. My son had chosen a beautiful lamb burger from one of the stalls only to be horrified that it contained coleslaw. Wailing at the top of his lungs he dramatically threw the plate and it’s contents on the ground. Offended stall holders and parents of perfect children looked on as I tried to contain, and comfort him at the same time. I was as upset as him but also embarrassed and struggling with bags, school fair bric a brac and my own precarious plate of food. It was not the fun day at a school fair I had envisaged. I knew we would probably have to leave after I calmed him down. The outcome of that acute stress (tiny in the scheme of things I know, but dramatic in the scheme of my day) was that I ate half of the behemoth banana passionfruit cake my husband had picked up at the cake stall. Roughly equivalent to a weeks worth of calories thereabouts. Unconsciously, little by little I ate that cake to try and calm my nerves. To make me feel better. Or more precisely, to distract me from the feelings I was feeling. It reminded me of the power of stress and it’s ability to sabotage our health in small and big, unconscious and conscious ways. I talk with clients about this most days, but at times it gets me too. In this case there was no harm done, in fact it was funny. But for a lot of people they turn to unhealthy behaviour (drugs, alcohol, caffeine and sugar) in the face of stress everyday, and it sabotages their goals and dreams. For those people it’s a daily battle with themselves and it’s exhausting.
Have you noticed how you respond to stressors? Even the little every day ones? Maybe you become a bit insular and avoid social situations throughout your day? Maybe you reward yourself on bad or busy days with extra ‘treats’ like chocolate, coffee and alcohol. Or maybe, when you’ve had a stressful day you undermine close relationships with impatience or meanness? We all seem to have our own version of my cake massacre. Figuring yours out is all about awareness. Ask yourself, ‘what am I really feeling in this moment?’. Probably not hungry. Rather, impatient, embarrassed, let down, unloved, frustrated etc. etc. Let yourself identify and feel that feeling rather than blocking it or pushing it down with your choice of unhelpful vice.
Being resilient in the face of stress is something I’m constantly working on myself, and with my clients. If public toddler ‘tantrums’ or aggressive car park confrontations can be water off a ducks back, then we can usually avoid the negative consequence. Be it mindless cake eating or, in a lot of peoples cases, that bottle of wine, cigarette, or whole packet of biscuits. As usual, prevention is always the best cure.
Building a resilient nervous system
The first step in building a resilient nervous system involves nourishing your precious adrenal glands. These wee glands sit just atop your kidneys and punch way above their weight when it comes to stress. They chemically respond to stress for you by producing adrenaline and cortisol. That’s wonderful, but sometimes, if they have been overused due to ongoing stress, they start to miss-fire. You may be producing too much adrenaline or cortisol which makes you feel on edge. Keeping them well nourished helps to balance their reactiveness so we can call on them when we really need to, rather than when the washing gets rained on, or we miss the bus.
My top adrenal rescues include some herbal medicine, supplementation and lifestyle habits too.
I love the Ayurvedic herb Withania somnifera. Used for thousands of years as an adrenal tonic, it has been shown to benefit those with anxiety and depression, and also has a normalising effect on the thyroid gland (often out of whack during periods of stress). It can be a real life saver for those who feel on the edge of a breakdown at the thought of another frantically busy day.
Hypericum perforatum, or St Johns Wort is another herb with a long history of use as a nervous system tonic. My clients describe its effect as helping them feel a little sunnier about life and giving them the feeling that a burden has been lifted. As it boosts serotonin levels and up-regulates one type of liver detoxification there are cautions with some medications, so check if it’s right for you first.
The herbal medicine Piper methysticum is also an amazing natural solution to anxiety, anger, irritability and insomnia. This and Hypericum are best used in consultation with an experienced herbalist.
No pill or powder will take the place of a nutrient dense diet. Good food must be the starting point, then if needed, add some extra support.
The classics are B complex vitamins, magnesium and vitamin C. Be sure to get enough of each:
Vitamin C – 2000mg daily
Magnesium – 200mg morning and night (avoid magnesium oxide)
B complex – each one of the 8 types of B vitamin are needed in their own unique amount.
Lifestyle support – Me myself and I
All the medicine in the world wont be enough if you don’t prioritise this point. That is, learning to say no to the endless demands on your time, and realising that you don’t have to be everything to everyone. Having time to yourself everyday if possible, or at least every week gives your parasympathetic nervous system time to become dominant (over the sympathetic nervous system which is dominant in times of stress, or caffeine stimulation). This alone time, and switching to parasympathetic dominance allows time for the rest, recuperation and repair the body relies on. Whether it’s meditation, a café date with yourself, a walk for pleasure, or a don’t disturb bath….make sure you do something. Regularly. Don’t skip this step!