In nature, animals experience and deal with stress in a very different way than humans. The story of the lion hunting the antelope is a great example of this. When the lion attacks the antelope, both animals experience heightened senses and stress (sympathetic state). But, even if the antelope manages to get away, both animals return to a calm state shortly after (parasympathetic state). The main difference between animals and humans is that humans tend to hang on to stress and do not downregulate shortly after a stressful situation is over. This leaves them in a sympathetic state for longer than necessary.
Parasympathetic vs. Sympathetic State
The Parasympathetic Nervous System controls homeostasis and restores the body to a calm state. This nervous system activates the “rest and digest” response that decreases heart rate. During the parasympathetic state, the body is able to repair and relax.
The Sympathetic Nervous System controls the body’s response to a perceived threat or stressful situation. This nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response that increases heart rate and prepares the body to speed up and become more alert. Functions that are not immediately essential (ie. digestion and immune system) shut down. The sympathetic nervous system works to protect us from dangers by allowing us to be better able to respond to challenges. However, it’s best not to stay in this state for too long, as doing so takes a toll on the body.
3 Tips for Managing Stress
It’s hard to let stressors go as easily as animals do. Brian Mackenzie shares some tips for managing stress and downregulating at the end of the day. Stress can have a very negative impact on our bodies. It’s important to find ways to manage stress on a daily basis so we can live our healthiest lives.
#1. Focus on what you enjoy
One of the easiest things you can do is focus your thoughts on what you enjoy about each activity that is causing stress. Create a habit out of that. It might take 3 or 4 weeks but sticking to things that make you happy about what you’re doing while in a stressful situation will allow you to downregulate. This will help get you into that parasympathetic state very quickly.
#2. Be in the moment
Continuing to think about stressful situations after they are over keeps the body in a sympathetic state. As hard as it may be, we need to learn how to shut these thoughts off. If we learn to live in each moment and take it for what it is, managing stress is absolutely achievable. Most stress is experienced when we are not in the moment. We need to let things go and stop either living in the past or the future – the past is depression, the future is anxiety. Experiencing stress is fine as long as we learn how to let it go once the activity is over and move on. This will help teach the body how to regulate itself.
Brian’s favorite method for downregulating at the end of the day is to set aside the phone and do a simple breathing routine (ratio – 1 sec inhale: 4 sec breath hold: 2 sec exhale). Repeat this pattern for about 5 to 10 minutes and you will notice your heart rate and body start to down shift. This breathing routine is a useful technique that can be used in any situation to get your body back into a calm state. Your body can then do what it’s supposed to do, which is recover.