Sometimes it can feel like those chemicals that course through us when we are overwhelmed by stress have actually replaced the blood in our veins!
Prolonged exposure to the hormone cortisol, the main player when it comes to stress, has so many negative effects on the body; the list seems endless. From raised blood pressure, to weight gain to being a contributory factor in the development of type 2 diabetes, there’s no doubt the consequences of prolonged elevated cortisol levels can mean we are unwittingly storing up health problems for the future.
Starved of shut-eye
And one of the most far-reaching effects is the ability of stress to interrupt our sleep patterns. Good quality sleep is incredibly beneficial when it comes to feeling healthy in mind and body. So when the body is starved of shut-eye, it really lets you know it’s not happy! If you’ve ever felt that deep gnawing stress, that feeling where your body is in a state of total tension; jaw clamped, shoulders hunched – permanent lockdown, it’s more than likely that you’ll become most aware of it at night. You know the feeling when you’re trying and failing miserably to fall asleep, or when you wake up and glance at the alarm clock and it’s only 2 a.m. but you’re wide awake. Even though you shut your eyes, pretending to yourself you are going straight back to sleep, they still feel like they’re open.
That feeling, so familiar to the stressed insomniac, of your own brain whirring away in your head, playing a video on a loop, with you willing it to turn off so you can drop off, but the more you will it the more it disobeys. This is stress and it’s trying to tell you something.
Poor sleep compounds the effects of stress on the body and is a signal that you need to take notice of. Life can seem like an endless to-do list and when every day is packed from dawn to dusk with ‘doing stuff’, actually relaxing feels very alien and can even make us feel guilty. But sometimes, doing absolutely nothing is exactly what we need to give ourselves permission to do. We’re just not very good at it!
‘Wasting time’ is definitely not a waste of time… In fact it’s an incredibly productive way to spend half an hour. Just stopping and doing nothing for a while decreases your heart rate, lowers your cortisol levels and helps to reset your sleep into normal patterns. Daydreaming, staring out of the window, sitting on a park bench… whichever way you choose to ‘waste time’ it affords your body and mind the opportunity to reboot and is akin to meditation, which is known to help in the prevention of anxiety and depression.
So when stress strikes, put away that smartphone, move away from those technological distractions that put your brain into a state of constant alert, flitting like a butterfly from one thing to another, and make time in your day to just stop for a while. Yes, we are all busy, but this is something that can start small. To begin with give yourself five minutes of ‘me’ time. Sit down in a quiet place, stare into space, listen to your breathing slowing down and let your mind wander. When you’ve firmly embedded this habit, build up the time and see the benefits flourish.
Just doing this once a day can have an immensely positive impact on your physical and mental well-being. Doing nothing for a while actually allows you to do more in the long run, because your body and mind are put on recharge. The knock-on effects ripple out too. When you sleep better, you make better choices for yourself. You have greater energy to embrace exercise and eat healthier as opposed to collapsing on the sofa each night, reaching for something convenient to eat.
Who knows, you might even work up to perfecting the power nap! Just ten to twenty minutes of this refreshing afternoon sleep can even help to improve performance across the board and you’d be in great company; Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Thomas Eddison were all advocates of this post noon snooze and just think what they managed to achieve!