Let’s Talk About Stress, Baby
CW: discussion of bodies/body processes, discussion of physical and mental illness, brief mention of periods
Stress is basically a way of life in our society. If you aren’t stressed you are probably one of those awful white people with a trust fund who wear hemp and go around spouting appropriated platitudes at everyone. But stress is also the actual worst for your body. Sometimes stress causes illness all by itself, sometimes it just makes existing illness worse. Either way, it takes a giant toll on your body. Let’s talk about that toll a little, then talk about some things you can do to help. (I am not going to say yoga. You say it if you want to, but that’s on you, not me.)
Here are some things stress can cause:
-Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth
Here are some things stress can exacerbate:
-Literally every kind of health issue you could have.
How does it do it? Stress is like an evil magician! It can accomplish so much so easily!
It does it by taking advantage of the fact that we haven’t evolved to be stressed all the time. Our stress response is still the same as it was when our major stressors were environmental risks, or as I like to say, we still respond like we are being chased by a monster. Our adrenals kick into gear and start producing cortisol, which makes us wired, depressed, unable to sleep, and lowers our immune function, along with a host of other issues.
Additionally, the more often we are stressed, the more our adrenals become taxed, and the more “tired” they get. This usually results in them inappropriately responding to stressful situations by ramping way up and then dropping off. They basically go into hyperdrive. There’s a lot of contention about the legitimacy of adrenal fatigue, but people get better when they address their bodies as if they have it, so I’m sticking to my guns on this one.
So the basic and completely unsurprising summary of this is: stress sucks, and it makes you sick.
This all sounds pretty hopeless right now, doesn’t it? So what do we do?
*Important note: none of these things will make you not stressed anymore. They will just help your body counteract the side effects a bit. I’m not making any claims that this will cure you of anything!
“Prioritize self care!” is an easy thing to throw around and not an easy thing to implement, especially for folks who are living with things like illness, disability, and poverty. I get really up in arms about all the self care talk that’s seemingly everywhere these days. I have been in a place where my vet telling me that I had to give my dog a pill twice every day caused me to weep in their office because I knew I absolutely did not have the energy to do it. At that point, someone telling me to “prioritize self care,” would absolutely have been an act of violence. Fuck that person. I was prioritizing staying alive.
So, if you have the ability to prioritize self care, that will definitely help. If you don’t, just try to give yourself permission to spend your limited energy that is leftover after doing your have-tos on something you enjoy. Anything you enjoy. And if you’re up for it, try to do some the following little bitty helpful things:
Stimulate your vagus nerve. Stimulate your what now? Is that a sex thing? (I mean, it’s not not a sex thing. Your vagus nerve is stimulated during orgasm. But there’s more ways to do it, and ones that are easier to achieve several times each day.)
"The vagus (Latin for wandering) nerve is far reaching, extending from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, enervating your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles." The implications of its function are recently coming to light, and there are some seriously rad studies coming out about what it can do to heal you when it’s working properly. They are implanting vagus-nerve-stimulators in folks with autoimmune disorders and many have gone into complete remission! There are also really cool studies being done about the vagus nerve and depression and trauma. I have been following the evolution of this field of study for a couple years now and I am still just as geeked about it as I was on day one.
ANYWAY. Stimulating your vagus nerve is good for your health. It helps you feel better. So besides orgasm, you can stimulate it by:
-taking several deep belly-breaths
-splashing cold water on your face
-this thing called the “Valsalva maneuver” where you close your mouth, plug your nose and try to breathe out. Not so that your ears pop, but so that your chest swells.
These things take less than a minute and most of them can be done while doing other things. Neat-o!
Sleep more. Lark, just shut up. You know that’s not even a logical request, right? Yeah, I know. Stress makes it hard to sleep. Not sleeping makes you more stressed, more likely to get sick, more grumpy… It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of ugh. BUT I have some help to offer:
There are teas to help you sleep: valerian, passionflower, hops, and lemon balm are all really calming. Valerian is a root so you have to boil it to get the medicinal properties. The rest are leaves so they just need to steep. Use about three tablespoons of valerian to a quart of water, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn the heat off, add a small handful of each of the rest of the herbs, and let steep, covered, for another 15 minutes.
Epsom salt baths are awesome for winding down. You can either take a full bath or just soak your feet while you watch Netflix (that’s my personal preference). Epsom salt is magnesium, and magnesium makes you calmer, and relaxes your muscles. It’s helpful for restless legs, and it makes folks’ periods less painful. Epsom salts are absorbed through the skin, meaning they don’t have the downside of acting as a laxative (which taking magnesium orally can). Also, soaking yourself in hot water is relaxing, as I’m sure you know.
Lavender essential oil is pretty nice for calming down, and you can just throw a few drops in that bath we just talked about.
The most potent non-pharmaceutical help you can get is melatonin. Anyone who has tried melatonin is probably rolling their eyes right now because dude, that stuff does not work. Here’s the thing: you are using the wrong melatonin. As far as I have found, there is only one melatonin in this world that actually works, and it’s this one. I suspect that they infuse it with some sort of sleep magic or something before they bottle it. The good people at NOW should really pay me for all the recommending of this melatonin I do (they don’t pay me. I am in no way financially benefiting from sharing this with you.)
Here are some specifics about how to make the melatonin work for you:
Take it around the same time every night (which means go to bed around the same time every night.) If you stay out late on weekends, don’t take it that night. This is because melatonin controls our circadian rhythm , so you want to set yours to when you want to go to sleep. Eventually your body will start to fall asleep on its own most of the time. (Eventually can sometimes mean years for chronic insomniacs).
You may need up to 9mg, or 3 droppers full. Experiment to find out how much you need. The amount you need will go down with time as your body ramps up its own production. You’ll know you need to reduce it when you wake up a little while after falling asleep feeling completely ready to get out of bed.
Take it when you are in bed and ready for sleep. It kicks in in about 15-30 minutes, and you then have a narrow window of time to fall asleep. If you stay awake through the window it won’t work. Luckily it’s hard to stay awake through the window. Like, fighting anesthesia hard (almost).
I find it useful to distract the mind in some way to allow yourself to drift off when it starts working. I personally read Harry Potter on my kindle and then just fall asleep with my kindle on my chest every night. (You should see the state of my paper books from before I got them on my kindle…) But you could use music, an audiobook, or a guided meditation. Don’t use TV.
The nice thing about all of the above suggestions is that even if they don’t make you sleep, they still help with stress!
Take adaptogens*. Adaptogens are herbs that help your body adapt to stress (bet you didn’t see that coming). They support your adrenal glands and make things a bit easier. You can make teas or tinctures, or buy pre made tinctures, or buy capsules. It’s your call. Homemade teas and tinctures are cheapest, capsules are probably easiest.
*ALWAYS check for contraindications between herbs and any prescriptions you are taking!
These are my favorite adaptogens for adrenal health:
1 part ashwagandha
1 part astragalus
1 part rhodiola
2 1/2 parts holy basil
2 1/2 parts schisandra berry
Use a small handful of each dried herb per quart of water (a much smaller handful of the roots than the leaves). Boil the roots (rhodiola, ashwagandha, and astragalus), covered, for 45 minutes, then remove from heat, add the leaves and steep for another half hour. Strain and refrigerate for up to three days.
Here's how to make tinctures. You probably want to make each one separately then mix them together.
I suspect that you already know how to shop for a supplement. Just keep in mind that price usually equals quality in the supplement world. (womp womp)
Human connection and touch are really helpful and important. Hang out with your friends. Cuddle your dogs (I know that you all have cats, I’m still saying dogs. I’m a dog person). Talk on the phone with people you like. If you’re too overwhelmed to leave the house, give yourself permission to ask someone to come over and watch a movie with you, or co-work with you. Get more hugs from people you trust.
Lastly, Here are two techniques I have found effective for when I have to do something anxiety-provoking and involve other people. I like them as ways of setting up a sort of emotional scaffolding for myself:
Smile your biggest smile for one full minute. This is so weird, but smiling even when you aren't happy makes you happier? Being happier makes you calmer, which reduces stress. I do this when I have to go impress people, and they literally give me feedback like, “I like your energy!” I like to do it in the mirror because seeing how absurd I look makes me laugh, which then makes the smile real. This isn’t something that is going to make you happy all day, it just shifts your mental state a bit for awhile, hopefully long enough to get you over the hurdle of entering the stressful situation.
I know this is going to sound like terrible new-age advice, but say affirmations out loud. Depending on the situation, I particularly like “I am a badass,” “I am good at my job,” or “I am going to have fun.” It is important that you only say things that you believe to some extent, as it can backfire if you don't. My dear friend Bear Herbert, who is a radical Life Coach, put it perfectly in this really great article on this subject, “Typical positive affirmations don’t take into account the systemic and structural realities of most people…Why not affirm our current efforts towards self-betterment rather than trying to manifest some fantasy future that may never be accessible to most people because of the racist, capitalist patriarchy we live in?”
So, that’s what I have for you, and I hope it helps! I will leave you with this pick up line that you are all welcome to use on science babes:
“Hey gorgeous, you’re looking stressed. What do you say we go back to my place for a little vagus nerve stimulation?”