I don’t know about you, but this pandemic is stressing me out!!
I’ve noticed my chest tightening up at times for no reason, my brain hyper-focusing on worst-case scenarios and destructive outcomes, a lack of patience with my family when patience is needed most. These are typical symptoms of a prolonged fight-or-flight response. Just like with every other health condition we approach with functional medicine, we need to understand the cause and take action as close to that cause as possible so that systemic consequences do not arise. If these stress-related symptoms are occurring in your body and mind, they are signs of an underlying dysfunction that should be addressed.
What do I mean by dysfunction?
During times of significant uncertainty and hardship, we often become victims of fear-overload which is just as (if not more) damaging than the crisis itself. The hardship is the physical loss of a job, source of income, childcare, or something concrete to which you must now adapt. But the fear-overload is distinct from it. When a hardship occurs or is threatening to occur, the fear center of your brain lights up and begins to send hormonal and autonomic signals to your adrenal glands causing a dump of stress hormones into the body. Stress hormones then cause various systemic changes like alterations in breathing pattern, heart rate, perspiration, mental shifts including thinking irrationally and catastrophically. When the hardship or threat is sustained, the constant dumping of stress hormones can cause physical and mental health consequences because we weren’t designed to experience prolonged stress that doesn’t let up. Our bodies were designed for relatively quick bursts of stress, followed by recovery. Without recovery time, the communication system between the brain and adrenal glands becomes taxed and maladaptive. In addition, your other body tissues and systems suffer the consequences of sustained stress.
During these challenging times, it is especially important to make room in your day to step out of it, even for a few minutes at a time. For some of you, including more time in meditation or yoga will be ideal for producing a sense of mental calm and keeping you grounded. For others, particularly for those less experienced with these techniques, great benefits can be derived from practicing gratitude or visualization techniques. Your children will also benefit from these simple, effective stress-reducing techniques. Check out these simple techniques published by Harvard in response to reports of high-stress during this COVID-19 outbreak.
I also urge you to play. Take time out of your day (again, even if just a few minutes) to play a card game, solve a puzzle, dance around the living room, or otherwise engage in a fun activity with a friend, partner or child. Play-time interrupts the stress-response pathway and provides mental and physical respite from ongoing stressful stimuli.
If you are experiencing heightened stress and anxiety and need greater assistance learning to activate the parasympathetic response and employing stress reduction techniques, let us know. We are here to help you manage this situation to the best of your ability. Remember that there are other tools in our functional medicine toolkit as well. Consider the following helpful agents when dealing with stress and anxiety:
- Herbal Nervines: herbs have been used for thousands of years to reduce symptoms of anxiety, long before addictive benzodiazepenes were invented. Herbs like passionflower, California poppy, lavender, skullcap and others are considered “nervines” – herbs that soften the stress response, promote the secretion of relaxing neurochemicals within the body and/or create balance within the autonomic nervous system.
- Herbal Adaptogens: many of us experienced chronic stress even before this crisis took place. For chronic stress, we employ herbal “adaptogens” because they help us to adapt by modifying the way the brain and the adrenals communicate as well as improve the health and function of the adrenal glands where stress hormones are made. These herbs can be incredibly effective at modulating the experience of stress as well, but they are not typically effective acutely. Rather, these should be taken consistently each day for greateset benefit. Some popular adaptogenic herbs include ginseng, Rhodiola, Eleutherococcus, holy basil and licorice.
- Nutrients: “Super-dosing” certain nutrients have a positive impact on mood, particularly when it comes to anxiety. These are compounds your body requires or produces on its own.
- Magnesium is an important mineral that is often deficient or insufficient from our diets. Magnesium, when dosed in higher amounts, promotes a sense of mental calm, and also helps to reduce muscle tension. *Note that too much magnesium at one time can cause loose stools.
- Inositol is another compound made in the body that has been studied to reduce the severity of panic attacks.
- L-theanine is one of our favorite amino acids which helps reduce the intensity of anxious symptoms by supporting the metabolism of stress hormones. It also can help with stress-induced hot flashes.
While we navigate this crisis within our communities and as a nation by practicing social distancing and sanitation, providing our hospitals and staff the time they need to gather the equipment and protocols to deal effectively with this new disease, we need to remember to take care of our psychological selves each day.
- Take 5-10 minutes, twice each day to either play, meditate, or practice gratitude. Check out this mindfulness exercise from Heartmath.
- Exercise your body each day. Practice yoga, go for a brisk walk outdoors, jump on a stationary bike or go for a light jog.
- Spend quality time with your loved ones each day.
- Spend quality time with yourself each day.
- Take your supportive nutrients, adrenal adaptogen formula or nervine formula faithfully.
- Let us know if you need more support or guidance. Your mental, physical and spiritual health is important.
Dr. Otto & all of us at Whole Health Concord