As a culture, Americans have accepted that it is okay and even normal to feel stress on a regular basis. Think about it — when you are catching up with your friends or co-workers, how often do you start out by discussing things that are bringing you feelings of peace and calm? We encourage one another by commiserating about our busy schedules, challenges in our jobs, the economy, you name it. And while many of us recognize and even accept continuous levels of stress as part of our lives, we may not fully appreciate the fact that chronic stress has serious implications for the health of our bodies.
Stress is your body’s response to any real or imagined threat. It is a natural response and can be advantageous when it helps protect us from harm. If we are being chased by a dog our sympathetic nervous system kicks in with a “fight or flight” response. The cascade of hormonal changes and physiological responses help someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. A stressful incident can trigger physiological changes like increased heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, and sweating. Ideally, these responses cease once you have found safety.
Unfortunately, the body can overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as work stress, family difficulties, or health challenges. Over time, this stress becomes chronic. So when we feel continuously overwhelmed or overworked, we never escape the metaphorical dog and our body never gets a chance to regain its natural state of relaxation. This overexposure to stress can disrupt almost all our body’s processes. A key component of “whole health,” then, is to neutralize stress in order to protect our bodies.
Research is now showing that prolonged release of cortisol (the hormone we produce when we have a stress response) leads to glucocorticoid receptor resistance (GCR) — in essence, a cortisol resistance.¹ This is similar to insulin resistance, the precursor to diabetes, which is caused by excess sugar and high insulin demands. Cortisol resistance is caused by too much stress and high cortisol demands — resulting in decreased tissue sensitivity to cortisol.
In other words, when one is cortisol resistant, they are producing cortisol, but the glucocorticoid receptors are resistant to the effects of the cortisol. You can think of cortisol knocking on a door, but whoever’s inside isn’t listening. Remember, one of cortisol’s functions is to turn off inflammation. So, when cortisol is secreted but can’t activate the immune cell receptors, we get a runaway inflammatory response. In research, cortisol resistance has been found in spouses of brain cancer patients, parents of children with cancer, and people that are very lonely — populations known to be experiencing significant, prolonged stress.²
If we know that stress management aids in chronic inflammation prevention, it’s easy to understand why reducing stress must be a cornerstone practice for anyone — especially anyone managing autoimmune disease. So, how can we best take care of our stress to support the body’s natural anti-inflammatory response?
One stress reduction strategy that I love is called soul-centered self-care. Bear with me if you, like me, usually tune out at “self-care” lectures. When I hear someone mention “self-care” I typically think, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you want me to journal, run, do yoga, and garden. Got it… and probably not gonna do it.” The last thing I need is more things piled on my to-do list — especially when they’re not activities I particularly like!
Soul-centered self-care, however, is a practice that is guided by your unique desires and getting in tune with what activities help you find that state of relaxation and escape the fight or flight feeling. It is heart-centered rather than prescriptive.
The core of this type of self-care requires paying attention to what in our lives fills us and what drains us. When we know what fills us, self-care becomes a life-filling joy, not an obligation or a task to be completed. You may find that when you focus finding your ideal self-care strategies, the activities that have been draining are naturally replaced or become less draining.
The challenge with soul-centered self-care is giving ourselves permission to meet our own needs and fulfill our own desires in the midst of a world with constant external demands, expectations, and pressures; a world where doing for yourself can be perceived as selfish and lazy. It can also mean letting go of some of the things we allow ourselves to do that don’t fill us up. For example, if you find yourself getting irritated scrolling through social media, give yourself permission to log off or even delete your account.
My personal favorite soul-centered self-care practices at the moment are:
- Taking a hot bath. I try to do this 3-5 times a week. I LOVE BATHS!
- Daily meditation guided by Headspace‘s Andy Puddicomb. I highly recommend this app!
- Getting a massage once a month. I had to force this as a priority in my budget, but it pays dividends at home and at work with the clearheadedness I get from body work.
- Sitting in the sun reading a book and drinking iced tea — my definition of heaven on earth.
- Sitting back with a hot drink and watching my kids play.
- Going to bed early (a new love)!
Others might be:
- Making dinner prep a bit more exciting with a glass of kombucha and your favorite music.
- Indulging a new interest by signing up for a class, seminar, or even a retreat.
- Getting up to run when the little one wakes you up early.
- Getting your hands dirty in the garden or on a creative project.
- Reading a great book in bed or on a cozy couch.
- Lying down in bed and looking at the ceiling — this doesn’t have to be complicated.
Know what connects you — pets, nature, certain people, moving your body, being still — and PRIORITIZE it. Put it on the calendar if it helps. We need to consider stress relief on par with exercise and diet. Our whole health will improve as a result.
Look for ways to make life fun and enjoyable in all of your activities. Even the boring and annoying tasks can fulfill us if we think outside the box and bring our unique creative selves forward. As you engage with what fills you, you will likely notice how your breathing changes and you can feel your body relax. Keep track of what it feels like when you are in a restored state versus a tense and stressed space.
What’s your favorite unexpected method of soul-centered self-care?
1. Sheldon Cohen, Denise Janicki-Deverts, William J. Doyle, Gregory E. Miller, Ellen Frank, Bruce S. Rabin, and Ronald B. Turner, “Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2012(16); 5995-5999.