The #1 most important thing you can do for your health
by Heather Thatcher
This article takes 9 minutes to read
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Our lives are harder now than they’ve ever been.
We don’t just have to earn a living, we also need to save for retirement, plan for unexpected expenses, and be able to adapt to the changing global markets.
We can’t just wait until we get sick to see a doctor, we’re now expected to take our health into our own hands, follow the right diet – but which diet is the right one anyway.
We need to get our 10,000 steps in every day…no wait, that’s not it anymore. Turns out that was an arbitrary number. Now we need to get 150 minutes of “vigorous” activity every week – whatever that means.
Also, sitting is the new smoking and there are so many negative health effects of sitting for the whole day – but then we’re also expected to be highly productive, to work at least 40 hours per week, and be available 24/7 to family, friends, and colleagues via our smartphones.
Then there’s the comparison game of social media, where we see everyone’s highlight reel and compare that to our entire life, struggles and flaws as well as the beautiful moments and exciting adventures.
The truth is our bodies weren’t built for modern-day stress.
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Our body’s stress response was designed for a quick run-away-from-a-bear kind of situation that would be over quickly, one way of the other.
Well, that got dark.
But you know what I mean.
Our stressors about money, work, family dynamics, expectations we and others put on ourselves, those stressors don’t disappear and leave us in this constant stressed-out state I call default survival mode.
When we’re operating from default survival mode, our Inner Critic is in charge, making decisions based on our programming and thought habits in order to keep us safe.
This stressed-out version of our lives – this is known.
We know what this looks like, we know how we act, we know what we do, how we eat, who we talk with, how we respond to triggers.
That is what our Inner Critic has decided is “safe” only because it’s known to do well enough to support our survival.
True, default survival mode works.
But you’re here, listening to this because you know that it’s not enough.
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You know that there is more to life than this constant stressed-out state of being.
Here I’m going to share why this is one of the greatest decisions you’ll ever make.
And I’m not exaggerating!
Stress has been linked to so many different chronic diseases, and you’ll see why in a minute.
I’m going to put my Registered Nurse hat on for a second and we’re going to get a little sciencey here. Don’t worry, one of my favourite parts of being a nurse is translating the medical science into plain English, so I’ve got you covered here. I also have some pictures to go along with what I’m talking about and you can see those pictures by going to heatherthatcher.com/episode4
It’s all going to loop back to stress, I promise.
Your nervous system has to sides, the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The somatic side is what we can control, this is voluntary movement like walking around, moving the muscles in your face so you can speak, or the movement of your fingers as you type on the computer or scroll on your phone.
The autonomic side is our automatic nervous system. This side controls everything we don’t have to think about like our heart beating, every time we breathe, blinking our eyes, digesting our food, regulating our hormones, blood pressure, all the functions of our liver, kidneys, pancreas, spleen all our organs. We don’t have thing about these things, it all just happens.
That’s your autonomic nervous system at work.
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Now, this automatic side of our nervous system also has two sides, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These are the two sides of our stress response.
And our stress response is either on or off. There’s no real in-between state, but we’ll get into that in a second.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems before, but just under another name: rest and digest, and the fight, flight or freeze response.
Those sound familiar right?
Let’s talk about rest and digest first.
When we’re in the rest and digest state our body is focused on healing.
Our heart rate is slow and steady, our blood pressure is low, we’re breathing gently, lots of blood is travelling to our digestive system so we can absorb all the wonderful nutrients from our delicious food.
Plus, our blood flow to our brain is lovely and lots of blood and nutrients and oxygen are flowing around our higher-thinking brain, our problem-solving brain and where our Objective Observer is (our hero to the Inner Critic villain.)
Have you heard the term “free radical” before? What a free radical is is a slightly funky version of one of our normal cells. They happen naturally in your body, even when we’re relaxed, but they happen a heck of a lot more when we’re stressed out. The problem is that free radicals are pre-cancer cells and they need to be cleared out before they glob up together and start growing.
The great news is that your body is fully capable of being able to handle these funky free radical cells on its own, it just has to be in the healing rest and digest mode in order to clear them away.
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But if we’re going through our life in default survival mode, we’re not allowing our body this time to rest, heal and remove the free radicals from our body.
We are in the fight, flight or freeze side of our autonomic nervous system when we’re in default survival mode.
When we’re in the fight, flight or freeze response, our body systems are in the opposite state.
Our heart is beating fast, our blood pressure is higher, we breathe faster, our muscles are slightly contracted ready to spring into action at any time.
So our heart is working harder, and our blood pressure is higher which leads to all kinds of cardiovascular issues, and increases your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other aspects of heart disease.
Plus, our digestive system starts to get less blood flow. Which makes sense if you think about it, because if you’re running away from a bear, digesting that cheeseburger you had for lunch is not exactly a priority, right?
This is one of the reasons why ulcers and indigestion are commonly associated with stress.
On the same note, if you’re running away from a bear, contemplating the meaning of life isn’t exactly a priority either, is it?
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Have you ever noticed when you’re stressed the F out, how hard it is to find solutions to the problems you’re facing? Or how scattered your mind can be? Or how much more emotional and easily triggered you become?
This is why.
When we’re in the fight, flight or freeze mode, we’re not getting as much blood flow to our higher-level thinking brain. Instead, we’re relying on instincts and primal protective behaviour to get us by.
Which, by now, should sound exactly like default survival mode with your Inner Critic in the driver’s seat.
Stress has been linked to all kinds of diseases, illnesses and ailments, but there are two simple things that you can do to drastically decrease your risk for any of these things.
Ready for them?
The first is simple.
And that is to slow down your breathing by taking 5 deep breaths, for 5 seconds on the inhale, and 5 seconds on the exhale 5 times a day.
I know 5 times a day sounds like a lot, but how about this? Take your 5 breaths for 5 seconds on the inhale and 5 seconds on the exhale when you first get up in the morning, before each meal, and then at the end of the day before you go to bed.
That’s 5 times. Done and done, right?
Controlling your breath like this flicks the off switch on your stress response.
Remember that we talked about how in the fight, flight or freeze side you’re breathing fast – but on the rest and digest side your natural breathing is slower.
By slowing down your breathing 5 times a day, you’re continually turning off your stress response and helping keep it lower overall during the day. It’s an easy maintenance mode activity that will lower your risk of chronic stress-related diseases.
That’s easy, right?
The next thing you can do to drastically reduce your risk of the negative effects of stress is to change your perspective.
There were two main research studies that have led to many other experiments that have proven this to be true. By choosing to see your stress response as helpful, rather than harmful you are actually drastically lowering your chances of the negative health effects of stress.
One study done by the University of Wisconsin had 30,000 people rate their current stress level, as well as if they saw stress as harmful.
The bad news was that the people who rated their stress levels as high and who saw stress as harmful, had a 43% increased risk of dying in the next 8 years.
The good news is that the people who didn’t see stress as harmful, even if they reported having high levels of stress had no increased risk of dying at all!
In fact, this group even did BETTER than the people who rated their stress as low, but still saw stress as harmful.