All animals have a built in “fight or flight” response. This response is inherent to survival of the organism. The stress response was designed at a cellular level to increase our cortisol and adrenaline, direct blood from the organs to the muscles and lungs and to aid us in the fight or or flight from danger. However, in today’s society the self-imposed, “need to get…” mentality is activating that stress response more often than our ancestors who would only on occasion have to do battle or run from a lion.
It turns out that this repetitive turning on of the stress response is wearing down our telomeres. Telomeres, as studied by Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, are the caps on the ends of our DNA strands that protect our cells from illness and aging. It is not just physical stressors, but how we react mentally to these situations that affect the telomeres the most. Our cells are reacting to our thoughts.
So how do we develop a resiliency to stress and train ourselves to have a more positive response to the time constraints, money, bills and relationship issues that arise in our everyday lives?
The answer is twofold. Being resilient to stress is developed by prioritizing health, both mental and physical. We can focus on proactive wellness by ensuring we get enough nutrients, sleep, exercise and reducing our toxic load. All areas of Self Care that most of us, and our doctors, are keenly aware of. It is our mental health that doesn’t get as much attention until we get to a breaking point. Western society puts a lot of merit into independence and mental “toughness”. The adage that, “big kids don’t cry”. We are taught from a young age not to show weakness, to strive for perfection and that success is measured in the things we can attain. We are bombarded by images of the perfect life and the perfect family. Pressure is on to balance it all; time, family, money, career, home, health…the list goes on and on. The truth is our systems were not created, and have not evolved to handle this much constant stress. Not only that, but the issue is compounded by our reactions to the overload. We are not taught to reduce our load, but to feel guilt, shame, blame and anger when we can’t “handle” it. The results of the near breaking points have names like anxiety, depression and rage. Mental resiliency comes from being proactive with training our thoughts.
The first step is to become aware of our go-to thought responses to stress. Knowing that our bodies have a physiological response that will raise our blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, which in turn can trigger fear or anger responses. This is our body’s reaction to a perceived threat. It is trying to keep us safe. This is our body activating the sympathetic, (SNS), “fight or flight”, nervous system. We can start first, by acknowledging this response and using a breath practice to manually turn it off. We then can turn on our parasympathetic nervous system, (PNS) , the one that allows for the rest, digest and relax response. This system allows the body to repair and heal itself. If we can’t switch into our PNS our bodies will not be able to heal or get sufficient rest to repair themselves. This is when we open ourselves up to disease. So it turns out, that physical illness, for the most part, is a result of unresolved emotional stress in the body.
The combined practices of breathing and mindfulness are the key to building mental resiliency. The simple act of paying attention to the breath, breathing slow & low, diaphragmatically will activate the PNS. There are numerous breath practices you can learn to self-regulate the physiological responses to stress. The mental responses of fear, anxiety and depression can be retrained as well. Western society doesn’t have as much experience with this practice. What we know as meditation or mindfulness is seen as a more daunting task. It is often perceived as the impossible task of shutting off the mind. This is not so. To understand our mind is to look at the primitive brain. The seat of the ego.
The ego has got a bad rap, though it has an important job; to help the organism survive, but not thrive. The voice in your head reminding you that you are out of eggs, need to do laundry, want to ask for a promotion, need a bigger house, etc…These thoughts all contribute to the success and continuation of you as a physical being. The problem with the ego is when it thinks that you cannot exist without it. Your body will still function, heart still beat, lungs still breathe, all without you telling yourself to do so. It is when the ego thinks it is more important than its job of practical, analytical purpose. When it takes the stress responses of fear or anger and turns them into the racy mind of “what-ifs”, anxiety and worst case scenarios that rob your life of joy in the present. Turning the perceived “threat” instead into a “challenge” allows us to pause, breathe, and focus on the more positive aspects of the opportunity and awareness of our resources. We can train ourselves to become aware of the negative fear and anger responses and instead of stuffing them down or powering through them, allowing ourselves to be. To allow ourselves to feel hurt, overwhelmed, in pain, tired, stressed. To notice where we are pushing ourselves too hard. To admit we can’t do it all. To ask for help. To prioritize time for ourselves to recharge and rest. To take an honest look at what we need vs want. To unschedule the self imposed busyness and realize that self care and relaxation is not a luxury but a necessity to our health and longevity.
Having a Gratitude Practice can also help with building sustainable joy and peace. Spending a few moments at the start of everyday choosing to focus on the things that you are thankful for. Being grateful for what you do have in this moment. Choosing to focus on the positive when you notice fear or anger wanting to come in. Choosing instead thoughts of understanding, forgiveness, kindness, compassion and love. Having an attitude of gratitude. What we think about, we bring about. It is the law of attraction. What we think about is what we are attracting more of into our lives.
From a scientific perspective you can actually do a lot to help support your physical and mental resiliency to stress. Nature has provided us with a multitude of resources to protect and even regrow those telomeres. By ensuring your nutritional and digestive health is getting looked after directly affects your gut health. 90% of our Serotonin gets produced in the gut. Protecting your gut health allows better brain function. And better brain function allows for a healthier response to stress. Proactively supporting both your physical and mental immunity increases longevity and vitality.
Studies are being done with essential oils and their effects on telomere length and growth. Oils like frankincense and lemongrass are being studied for the effects on cellular health. Science and traditional medicine are merging. We are now discovering the science behind breath, meditation, yoga, essential oils and other traditional health practices. We are educating and empowering ourselves and our wellness. We are proactively supporting our overall wellness instead of waiting to feel pain and seeking out doctors and pharmaceuticals. The consciousness of humanity is rising. Collectively, we are becoming more aware of the mind and body connection and realizing through self responsibility that we and we alone are the creator of the reality we experience.
I encourage you to start asking questions and to take the control of what your life looks like into your own hands. We are the only ones able to shape our future. You are a limitless being full of potential. You only have to hold in your mind all the good you wish to create. Take time in nature, in silence, to find Connection & Freedom. You are everything you need already. Our bodies and minds are a tremendous resource and storehouse of our own potential. Start looking for ways to support your body and mind through Self Care.
Fill your cup.