One of the biggest misconceptions about anxiety is that it’s “just worrying” or “it’s all in your head”.
Unfortunately stress and anxiety affect your whole body and not just your mind. The fight or flight response associated with anxiety is a physiological process that takes place throughout your body in response to anxiety triggers. And it actually happens so quickly that you don’t become conscious of being in fight or flight mode until it’s already happening. The fight or flight response developed in humans to warn us of danger and alert us to take precautions to keep safe. It’s normal and not harmful to experience small doses of fight or flight mode every now and then.
But those of us with severe anxiety can be in fight or flight way too often, regardless of whether we are in real danger, and it’s not good for our health. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, people with anxiety disorders are at greater risk for many chronic medical problems, such as gastrointestinal disorders, respiratory disorders, and heart disease. And to top it all off, anxiety sufferers are at greater risk of dying when they get sick.
This kinda sucks, doesn’t it? I almost wish I didn’t know all these facts, because it just gives me more reason to be anxious about being anxious. 😉
That being said, I have seen a little flicker of light at the end of the dark tunnel that is anxiety and that is what I want to focus on in today’s post.
I used to be one of those people who would “do things anyway” and “not let anxiety stop me”. And while many people would say “oh, that’s great – good for you,” I will tell you that it wasn’t great. At all. All it got me was total exhaustion. And yes, additional worry from knowing that I was asking more from my body than it was capable of delivering.
Until I finally hit rock bottom a couple of years ago. I was feeling so unwell and burned out that I decided to switch course and do everything in my power to reduce the amount of anxiety and stress I was subjecting my body to. While I still wasn’t willing to let anxiety stop me, I decided to let it slow me down. I decided to let it make me live more intentionally and be much more selective about what was worth getting stressed over.
The results of this switch have been SOOO encouraging that I’m never ever EVER going back to my old way of being. Here are just a few things that happened:
- Within six months of starting my stress reduction efforts, my hemoglobin A1C went from borderline diabetic/pre-diabetic down to a normal range for the first time in seven years.
- My headache frequency went from several per week down to a couple per month.
- Overall, I have felt MUCH better both mentally and physically. Like I’ve actually kinda been enjoying life rather than just tolerating it. 🙂
I want YOU to experience these kinds of awesome benefits as well, so in this post, I want to share with you the seven things I’ve learned to do to protect my body from the physical effects of stress and anxiety. In order to get there, I had to drastically change my mindset as well as change many things about my lifestyle.
1. Pay more attention to your own voice than society’s
Slowing your life down and taking action to reduce your anxiety and stress levels requires a certain degree of self confidence and blind faith that you know what’s best for you over the messages you receive from other people.
Our society rewards those who take on a lot of stress. We give bigger paychecks to those who take on jobs with more responsibility and those who work longer hours. We give praise and applause to those who serve others at their own expense.
When you tell people you want to take on less stress, you’ll hear crickets at best and complaints at worst. Society is not going to reward you with a “good for you” medal. People who are used to getting something out of you – whether it’s your time or concrete acts of service – are not going to celebrate and pat you on the back when you start saying no.
Until things settle down and you arrive at your new normal, you need to keep your blinders on and just focus on doing what’s best for you for a while. People will get used to the new you eventually. And those who don’t didn’t need to be in your life in the first place.
2. Own your unique stress tolerance level
Different things trigger stress and anxiety for different people. Different levels of stress trigger physical symptoms in different people. Simply put, some of us have a higher stress tolerance level than others.
I’m super introverted and most social interaction drains me really quickly. I need a minimum of eight hours of sleep every night and three healthy meals on the clock or my body will announce a general strike. I can only take small doses of being present and paying attention to concrete details before I get a headache. It only takes the smallest, itty-bitty, invisible-to-most sign of potential disagreement or conflict for my body to go into fight or flight. Sometimes my body goes into fight or flight and I don’t even know why.
Is this normal? Is this how it is for most people? No, it’s not. And sometimes it feels unfair that I’m so sensitive. But this is just how my particular brain and body work. There’s not a whole lot I can do about it. I can either try to keep up with the mainstream way of life and stress my body out in the process OR I can accept my unique stress triggers and my unique tolerance level and lead a more slow-paced, quieter life that my body can tolerate without going haywire.
Having tried both, I can tell you that the latter feels a whole hell of a lot better. So instead of comparing yourself to others or focusing on someone else’s definition of normal, I urge you to pay attention to what triggers stress for you and what causes you to reach your breaking point. And then plan your life with those facts in mind.
3. View life as a marathon – not a sprint
When you think about slowing down and doing less, you might be struck with some FOMO. It certainly hits me sometimes. My bucket list is more like a barrel list. There are a gazillion and one things I want to do in life. What if I run out of time?
This is when I remind myself that life is a marathon and not a sprint. When you go on a long distance run, you don’t start shooting out of the gate as fast as you possibly can. No, you pace yourself in the beginning and preserve your strength, so that you can keep going the entire distance. Sometimes runners even do what’s called “negative splits.” This is when you intentionally run at a slower pace in the first half, so that you can race at a faster pace in the second half.
Do you want to burn your body out in the first half of life? Or do you want to preserve your strength, so that you can keep going the entire distance?
4. Scale back on relationships and activities that cause stress
Changing your mindset and convincing yourself that stress reduction is the right thing to do is a start. But how do you actually go about doing it?
Well, you take a close look at how you are spending your time – all your activities and relationships – and you scale back. And scale back! And then scale back some more!!
Keep only those activities and relationships that honest-to-goodness, cross-your-heart, give you as much as they take. If removing a stressor isn’t practical in the short term (e.g. your job), start making plans to change it in the longer term.
- Does this activity move me closer to reaching my long-term life goals?
- Am I doing this activity because I genuinely want to or because I feel like it’s the expected or “normal” thing to do?
- Does spending time on this relationship/activity mean that I have to sacrifice time I would otherwise spend relaxing and taking care of myself?
- Is this stressful activity/relationship worth sacrificing my health for?
5. Scale back even further when something really stressful happens
We obviously can’t control all stress in our lives. Shit happens. People get sick. Jobs get lost. Cars get broken into. Kids get into trouble.
And when shit happens, the new you that is mindful of her stress levels will scale back even more. This is the time to feed the kids take-out and slide in a DVD, so you can get a breather. This is the time to cancel plans with a friend, so you can take a nap. This is the time to ask for and accept help.
6. Find a way to relax your body
Left to their own devices, our anxiety-prone bodies will hang out in fight or flight all. the. time. So we gotta do some work to keep our bodies in a relaxed state as much as possible. Here are three things you can do:
- In my experience, the fastest and by far the most effective way to relax your body is by working out. And I mean really WORKING out. Sometimes I see those “even a 15-minute walk will help” pieces of advice, but to be honest, I just don’t find walking or other lighter exercise helpful at all. I need a minimum of 30 minutes of running for it to have a noticeable effect. Most mornings, I run for an hour, followed by stretching. This lets me start each day with a clean slate, fully relaxed, free of all the tension from the previous day. (I hope I’m an anomaly and you can get away with less. 🙂 )
- A lot of people also benefit from relaxation exercises or yoga. I don’t find it as easy to relax this way and it doesn’t do what cardio does in terms of getting rid of the extra nervous energy, but I think it’s worth a try if you are not able to do cardio.
- In addition to dedicating a significant chunk of time each day solely to relaxing via exercise or other means, I find it hugely helpful to try to pay attention to the state of your body at regular intervals throughout the day. Are you breathing? (Seriously, I find myself holding my breath all the time.) Are your muscles tense? Set reminders on your phone or find some other way to remember to take good deep belly breaths and relax your neck, shoulders, and torso several times throughout the day.
7. Give your body good nutrition and good rest to make it stronger
Our bodies are unfairly ravaged by anxiety and that sucks. But how about overcompensating a little and making our bodies stronger in other ways to give them an edge? I know that this isn’t always the easiest thing to accomplish, but I find that the quantity of sleep I’m getting and the quality of food I’m eating have a huge impact on how I’m feeling.
So it’s worth it to make an effort to set aside time to get a good night’s sleep. I also find daytime naps to be awesome sauce whenever anxiety is interfering with my sleep at night.
As for food, you already know that junk food, sugar, and caffeine aren’t going to help with anxiety. So treat yourself with some yummy, nutritious comfort food instead. 🙂
What do you think about all this? Has your health been negatively impacted by anxiety or stress? I would love to hear from you in the comments below. 🙂
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