By Karen Bromberg
In a previous blog post entitled Caregiver Stress, I mentioned the body’s “fight or flight” response. Today, I want to look a little more deeply into this because from my perspective, it becomes easier to navigate something once we can understand it.
The physiology of stress
So, the physiology of stress. It’s complicated but I will do my best to simplify it as much possible. In the body, we have the Autonomic Nervous System and, as Dr. Phillip Low, MD, Professor of Neurology; Consultant, Department of Neurology, College of Medicine, Mayo Clinic; Mayo Clinic says in an article entitled Overview of the Autonomic Nervous System, “The autonomic nervous system regulates certain body processes, such as blood pressure and the rate of breathing. This system works automatically (autonomously), without a person’s conscious effort.
Within the Autonomic Nervous System, we have the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the “flight or fight response” and the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for “rest and recovery.”
So when we get stressed, our bodies immediately kick into action. Hormones get secreted and the body readies itself for action. In an article entitled The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis, author Michael Randal states that “The human stress response involves a complex signaling pathway among neurons and somatic cells” with cortisol being “the primary hormone responsible for the stress response.” According to him, “The effects of cortisol are felt over virtually the entire body and impact several homeostatic mechanisms. While cortisol’s primary targets are metabolic, it also affects ion transport, the immune response, and even memory.”
Now, remember not all stress is bad. Some of it is, depending on the situation, can even be beneficial. It can help us when we have that mountain of work to do, or if have to go to that board meeting that we just don’t want to. Stress can be just the motivator we need to get us over the hump.
The problem is when we have too much of it over time and it becomes chronic. As Jane Collingwood states in an article titled, The Physical Effects of Long-Term Stress on psychcentral.com, “Chronic stress can have a serious impact on our physical as well as psychological health due to sustained high levels of the chemicals released in the ‘fight or flight’ response.”
But there is good news, too. It comes in the form of the parasympathetic nervous system because this system allows the body to throttle back, relax and recover but we have to give it time so do that.
“How much? An hour? Two hours?” I hear you asking. “Come-on, I’m busy. I can’t afford to sit around, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for my parasympathetic nervous system. I have responsibilities. A spouse. Kids. A job. Not to mention everything I have to do for Mom (or Dad, or whomever).”
Yeah, I get that. Not all that long ago I would’ve said the exact same thing, only I probably wouldn’t have said it quite so nicely.
So, really, how long will does it take?
The other piece of good news is that it doesn’t have to take that long at all. Really, it depends on how much time YOU have. A few minutes? Totally fine. But if you have longer than that, it’s even better.
So, for the sake of this discussion, let’s say you have a weekend all to yourself. Yes, a whole weekend. Two days. Forty-eight hours. With nothing to do for anyone but yourself. Your sister finally decided to step up to the plate. She’s going to come over and stay with Mom so that you can take the weekend off and get some much-needed R & R. Yipee. You’re thrilled. You don’t ask why she’s suddenly making herself so available. You don’t ask why she’s making the offer, you just accept it and start planning what you’re going to do – maybe go to the mountains or go to the beach – and what you are going to take with you.
You imagine packing and all of a sudden you become even more tired. The thought of actually getting in a car and hauling yourself anywhere feels just too much. You are that pooped. The solution, go to a nearby hotel, maybe even one with a spa. You can rent a room, get a massage and room service, really pamper yourself and if you happen to be a worrier (like me) being close by if your sister calls in a panic about something having to do with Mom, you can still check in at the house (if that makes you feel better) then “disappear” again.
But what if you only have a couple of hours? Mom is at respite care and you know better than anyone that her limit for being out of the house is two hours, no more. After that she gets cranky. So what then? How about an exercise class? Maybe a yoga class? Being a yoga practitioner for over twenty years and a yoga teacher, I can tell you, first-hand, how powerful yoga is when it comes to relaxing the body and clearing the mind.
But if exercise classes and yoga aren’t your thing, how about going to the mall? Or take a gentle walk in nature? You can call a friend and the two of you can go for a mani/pedi together then maybe for lunch afterward.
If you have only twenty minutes? Meditation or do a deep relaxation. If you don’t know how, you can always Google meditation or deep relaxation or, if you prefer, you can always go onto helpyouthru.com. There, you will find instructional video clips. Simply scroll down for the video you want.
And if you have only a couple of minutes . . . deep breathing exercises. Again, feel free to do a Google for instructions but for convenience, again feel free to onto helpyouthru.com and scroll down.
Have you found the information in this blog useful? Please let us know by commenting below.
Karen Bromberg is the founder of Helpyouthru.com as well as a certified caregiving consultant. You can check her out on Facebook. Feel free to join of FREE Facebook group then simply click the green “Join” button on the top of the page. If you’d like to email her, feel free at firstname.lastname@example.org