The Antidote to Stress


What effects is stress having on your life?

Back shoulder or neck tension?
Inability to think?
Short temper?
Jaw locking?

All these, and more, come from stress in our lives. Stress is an experience of the “fight-or-flight” part of our nervous system. It gets activated quickly, but it doesn't know how to turn itself off. The next stressor just leads us up a bigger mountain of stress, and we mount higher and higher.

Biologically speaking, the only antidote to stress is the parasympathetic nervous system. This system was designed to counter our “fight-or- flight” system and to help us “rest and refresh.” It is in charge of all our vital systems:  cardiac, immune, digestive, respiratory, reproductive, etc. When we let stress mount, and don't take time to activate our parasympathetic nervous system adequately, we not only get the symptoms above, but we can also develop more long-term illness:

  • digestive problems

  • trouble sleeping

  • sexual difficulties

  • heart trouble

  • cancer

In 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, which I was told, likely began a few years earlier, during a year of extreme stress for me.

Figuring out how to “rest and refresh” is vitally critical, not just for getting through this week or this month, but for our health in the years to come. So how do we activate this "rest and refresh" system?

  • Breathe. Has anyone ever told you, “Take a breath!" Well, actually that's a good idea. Take several slow, full breaths from the belly. Inhale for a count of 6, and then exhale for the same count. Intentionally activating a slow, thoughtful respiration turns off the stress reaction and helps our body to enter its "rest and refresh" mode. You can find more good breathing exercises through an online search.

  • Stretch. Lengthening our tight muscles sends a message to our brain that we are safe and, thus, activates our parasympathetic system, which needs to be adequately stimulated to keep our vital systems functioning well.

  • Take notice. Take some moments to notice the sights, sounds, smells, details of the place you are in. Or, take time to become mindful of what is happening in your body, scanning and just noticing from you head to your toes what you are experiencing at the moment.

  • Prayer and meditation. Research has shown that those who pray to a loving God activate their parasympathetic nervous system and decrease their stress. Meditation is a practice of stilling oneself. For me, this means stilling myself to be able to hear and experience the love of God.

  • Yawning. Try it right now! Force a yawn. You might see that it activates your "rest and refresh" system, to the point that a natural yawn will follow shortly after.

None of these practices need to take long. They can be sprinkled throughout your day. Rather than mounting one peak of stress after another, you can intentionally lower your stress level. That way, your peak of stress starts lower, rather than higher, next time.