Understanding anxiety and stress

Richard Lister explains how chronic anxiety and stress can be soothed through radical rest

Right now, we’ve got the highest ever recorded levels of anxiety and stress. People are burning out left, right and centre; and being overwhelmed is starting to cause chronic health problems. Constant exposure to stress in any form is simply not good for our bodies. We are not designed to be constantly producing, doing and acting – we need time to integrate, to relax, to process, to rest.

Our unconscious minds control all the bits of our bodies that you don’t have to think about, such as heart rate, digestion, defecating or sweating. Technically, this is the Autonomic Nervous System, or ANS. Our bodies are controlled by our brains via the ANS. Our nervous system travels all over the body and controls movement, sensation and bodily functions.

If we control, consciously, something our bodies do, a response is activated in the unconscious mind.

Fight or flight vs rest and digest

For our purposes, the ANS is broken down into two subsystems, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The PNS is the ‘rest and digest’ system: it’s concerned with making sure you are calm and relaxed, that you’re able to heal from injuries and digest food, and that you get some good-quality sleep. The SNS is the battle-stations system. It’s there to get stuff done. It’s often known as the Fight, Flight or Freeze System. Here, I’m going to refer to the SNS as the Fight or Flight System, and the PNS as the Rest and Digest System.

The Fight or Flight System is all about action. Need to run for the bus? Fight or Flight System. Need to lift weights at the gym? You got it: Fight or Flight System.

It’s extremely useful – when we need to take action. The problems start when the switch for the Fight or Flight System is stuck in the ‘on’ position because we’ve been exposed to an excess of stimulation. This is what happens when we experience stress, burnout, PTSD or being overwhelmed.

The purpose of the Fight or Flight System is to keep us safe. When our mind tells us we are not safe, whether that’s because there’s a rampaging tiger outside or because someone on social media is talking trash about us, the Fight or Flight System switches to ‘on’. And when it’s on, we find it hard to get the rest we need. What’s important here, though, is that both scenarios create the same response in our bodies: the rampaging tiger is equal to the social media drama, and the same hormones and neurotransmissions are released.

Every system in the body is linked to the ANS, and therefore gets stimulated or deactivated according to what the ANS is doing. This is when we start to get long-term problems associated with not resting properly. When we get over stimulated by things we can’t or won’t action, be they real tigers or metaphorical ones, we can get overwhelmed, become anxious or depressed, experience burnout or develop medical conditions linked to stress.

When we get stressed, we release a hormone called cortisol, which makes our liver release energy from storage. This extra energy floods our muscles, getting us ready to run or fight. Great if there’s a real-life tiger coming to eat you; not so great if the problem is actually a social media drama. In order to rest, we must first work out how to manually switch off our Fight or Flight response so that we can Rest and Digest.

To reach our Rest and Digest Systems, we need to utilise our bodies’ secret pathways. One way of doing this is through our breathing. When we breathe in and out through the nose, our bodies naturally recalibrate to the Rest and Digest System.

Breathing exercise: square breathing

Special forces soldiers in war zones use this technique.

This is how you do it:

  • Begin by slowly exhaling, emptying all the air out of your lungs.
  • Now gently inhale, through your nose, for a slow count of four.
  • At the top of the breath, hold for a count of four.
  • Gently exhale, through your mouth, for a count of four.
  • At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for a count of four.

A word on antioxidants

When we are exposed to situations that stress us, our bodies respond with set chemical reactions, hormones and neurotransmitters. One of these responses is called oxidative stress, which means that the level of oxygen radicals in our bodies interferes with the workings of our cells. Oxygen radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that easily interact with other molecules and basically cause trouble. So, a bit like a mob of people carrying pitchforks and flaming torches, they wind up the other molecules and cause chaos. How do we stop this?

We send in a force to neutralise them: antioxidants.

Good sources of specific antioxidants include:

  • allium sulphur compounds – leeks, onions and garlic
  • anthocyanins – aubergines (eggplants), grapes and berries
  • beta-carotene – pumpkins, mangoes, apricots, carrots, spinach and parsley
  • catechins – red wine and tea
  • copper – seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts
  • cryptoxanthins – red capsicum, pumpkins and mangoes
  • flavonoids – tea, green tea, citrus fruits, red wine, onions and apples
  • indoles – cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower
  • isoflavonoids – soybeans, tofu, lentils, peas and milk
  • lignans –sesame seeds, bran, wholegrains and vegetables
  • lutein – corn and green, leafy vegetables, like spinach
  • lycopene – tomatoes, pink grapefruit and watermelon
  • manganese – seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts
  • polyphenols – thyme and oregano
  • selenium – seafood, offal, lean meat and wholegrains
  • vitamin A – liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk and egg yolks
  • vitamin C – oranges, blackcurrants, kiwi fruit, mangoes, broccoli, spinach, capsicum and strawberries
  • vitamin E – vegetable oils (such as wheatgerm oil), avocados, nuts, seeds and wholegrains
  • zinc – seafood, lean meat, milk and nuts

Small steps: reducing inflammation

Stress can lead to inflammation. Recent research by some clever folks in Berkeley, California, has shown a mechanism that works to reduce inflammation. It is found in fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids. The anti-inflammatory molecules are called specialised pro-resolving mediators (SPMs), and they have a powerful effect on white blood cells, as well as controlling blood vessel inflammation.

All of that is a super-complex way of saying this: ‘Take fish oil capsules daily. They will reduce your chronic inflammation and improve brain health.’ Remember to always check with your doctor before starting new supplements. Also, if you are allergic to fish, fish oil capsules are not your friend.

Extracted from: Radical Rest by Richard Lister (Hardie Grant, £12.99)

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