Is running late for an important meeting really a matter of life or death? Does the prospect of speaking at a friend’s wedding seem like the end of the world? Even though we cognitively know that these things are not risks to our very survival, our bodies can’t tell the difference.
In the modern world, the things we perceive as threats on a daily basis are rarely likely to actually kill us. The problem is our bodies still respond to our thoughts of “threats” as if our very lives were at stake.
An overused survival mechanism
Stress is a natural response that helps us both get things done, and in extreme situations, survive potentially deadly situations. It heightens your alertness and mobilizes your body’s resources to maximize your chance of survival. However, in the absence of regular encounters with large predators intent on eating us, we have taken to projecting that response onto any scenario we perceive as threatening.
It was found in a 2015 survey that Americans perceived their average stress levels in a typical month as hovering around 5 on a scale of zero meaning no stress at all, and 10 being a great deal of stress. This pattern of being constantly under stress can wreak havoc with our ability to fall asleep easily, and enjoy a restful night’s sleep. And the problem is compounded by the fact that because many of us have become used to living under constant pressure, we don’t even realize how stressed we actually are.
How stressed are you, really?
There’s a saying among health professionals that the body never lies. Check in with what your body is doing for clues about whether you are stressed, even if you may not be consciously aware of it.
- Is your heart racing? An increase in heart rate and blood pressure is one of the first physiological signs of stress. This is easy to detect when your heart is pounding.
- How are you breathing? If you are taking fast, shallow breaths that feel like they’re only going into your upper chest, this is another sign of stress. So is holding your breath. When we are relaxed, we tend to take longer, deeper, more filling breaths that feel like the air is going right down towards your abdomen.
- Are you tensing your muscles? Grinding your teeth, clenching your fists, even frowning and tensing your neck or shoulders are all indicators of stress. Your muscles are quick to contract when you are under stress, not unlike making sure all your springs are wound up and ready to be released in case you need to bolt or lash out.
- Is your posture stooped or hunched over? Notice how the traditional boxing stance is hunched forward in a protective pose to shield vulnerable areas of the body. This is similar to the “fight or flight posture,” an evolutionary mechanism by which we instinctively try to protect our vital organs. Conversely, when you feel safe and relaxed, you will notice your body is physically “laid back” with your spine straight, shoulders back, and arms freely extended. Notice what your posture typically does.
We’re tuned to notice differences
Things that are normal, or situations that we expect, don’t tend to strike us as conspicuous. That’s because we are tuned to pay attention to things that are different from the norm. For this reason, if we are experiencing significant stress as a matter of course, it could be affecting our sleep and our health in general—even if we do not feel any “more stressed” than we usually are.
Since our baseline stress levels are often so high to begin with, the difference we tend to notice is not the one between feeling calm and feeling threatened, but between feeling “already stressed” and “extremely stressed.” This state of being constantly in fight-or-flight mode causes a build-up of stress hormones in the body. It also creates an imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of your autonomic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the action response that helps you rescue yourself from danger. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), on the other hand, governs resting, digestion, and reproduction. Sleep is also the domain of the PNS, because we need to feel safe from the risk of harm if we are to be unconscious for an extended length of time.
Four ways to let go of stress
The good news is that once we become aware of the problem, we can start taking simple steps to remedy it. Check in regularly with your body throughout the day, and when you notice the signs of stress, try these easy exercises to shift into a calmer state.
- Steer away from thoughts that are causing you stress, and make a conscious choice to focus on ones that are serving you, instead. Your state of mind has a powerful effect on regulating your stress levels.
- Focus on your breathing and deliberately start taking slower, deeper breaths. This is one of the oldest and most practical methods for reducing stress.
- Loosen up your muscles, starting from your feet and legs, moving through your torso, and then your hands and arms. Finish with your shoulders, neck, and facial muscles. Tense each muscle group tightly in turn, then allow yourself to soften and relax those contracted muscle fibers.
- Stretch out your spine, open up your posture, roll back your shoulders. The link between your posture and your nervous system works both ways. When you signal to your brain that you feel safe by adjusting the positioning of your body, your levels of stress hormones will begin to dissipate in response.
Once you get into the habit of loosening up during the day, you will notice a major improvement in your ability to unwind when it’s time for bed. This in turn will let you drift blissfully away to dreamland!