Our society has a rampant problem. It is destroying our physical bodies, our ability to produce great work, our mental health, our relationships, and our sleep. The problem is chronic, uncontrolled stress. Especially now, when jobs are insecure, our children are home from school, food supplies are limited, and our health is at risk— stress is unavoidable. This is a stressful time, however, while the external environment may not change any time soon, what is in our control, is how we react to it.
After seeing continuous glucose data from hundreds of people, one of the biggest issues is how truly impactful stress is on our bodies. Chronic stress can have just as much of an impact on our glucose levels as a triple cheeseburger and fries.
Whether we are being chased by a lion or under extra pressure at work, all stressors cause the similar reactions in the body. When a threat is detected, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline to cope. These hormones, while important for fueling our “fight or flight” response, also trigger glucose production in the liver to prepare the body to face the stressor at hand. This, coupled with a simultaneous reduction in insulin sensitivity, often results in chronically elevated glucose.
On a fundamental level, it is important to recognize that having this stress response is a completely normal and vital survival trait in all humans. Nothing is more important in our evolution than being able to quickly assess our environment, identify if it is stressful or not, and respond quickly.
In today’s modern society, when daily stressors can easily become chronic and uncontrollable, this type of response can become problematic. This is often coupled with subjective changes such as drops in energy, food cravings, and unstable mood levels. It can turn into a vicious cycle that is hard to break.
We can either follow our standard, built-in stress response or we can biohack it to work in our favor. Like most things, the act of rewiring a biological response takes training and patience. Our stress response involves two major systems: the nervous system and the respiratory system. Think about training these systems daily, just like you train your legs at the gym. We are constantly bombarded by micro-stressors that weaken them, from processed foods and sedentary behaviors to constant texts and emails. If we do not train these systems, they will atrophy and become weak.
Whether you are aware of it or not, our body is constantly assessing our environment for risks. Unfortunately, our reptilian can sometimes overreact. Risks in our current environment are quite different than those we faced during ancestral times. They might come in the form of a crying child, a dirty sink, a full email inbox, or an overdue bill. If we let our reptilian brain dictate how we respond, we can get anxious and lose the ability to prioritize decisions, ruining any chance of productive or creative work.
This system is a feedback loop that we can rewire. We must be able to tell ourselves that the risk is not threatening and respond appropriately in order to calm that feedback loop and avoid the derailing consequences.
Three Steps to Biohack the Stress Response
Strengthen your diaphragm muscle with diaphragmatic, or belly breathing. You can practice with these simple steps:
Once you’ve mastered this, you might consider incorporating breathing techniques like the 4–7–8 or rolling breathing methods. Long, deep exhales stimulate the parasympathetic system which signals to the body that we are calm. The more you practice, the stronger your diaphragm will become and the better your stress response will be.
It doesn’t take a silent retreat or a 30-minute meditation session every single day to biohack your stress response, but it does take practice. We can calm our feedback loop and train our body to respond appropriately to stressors in the moment, and we can see nearly every aspect of our lives improve. Without energy spent responding to the excessive risks in our environment, we’re able to work more productively, engage better in social situations, and tap into our creative mind. And of course, stress management helps us support our health through better glucose control.
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