The human body is designed to handle short-term threats – the stress response makes us energized and alert, and helps us to manage physical injury – but we are not well designed to remain in a hyper-vigilant state for extended periods of time. It simply wears us out.
Our bodies were designed to handle stress but not to stay in survival mode for extended time. Getting stuck in survival mode leads to two conditions: adrenal overdrive ( no turning off the stress response) and adrenal overdrive with exhaustion ( when you cannot turn it on).
The former you feel wired and tired and in the latter you cannot move because you are so exhausted. These 2 types of adrenal malfunction demonstrate how a protective system can become a liability. For example, a big surge of blood sugar helps you when you need to fight or flee, but when blood sugar stays elevated for too long it leads to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Similarity, adrenaline is great for elevating your heart rate and constricting blood vessels. But if this continues for too long it can set off hypertension.
The real key to moving beyond survival mode is first being able to identify that you are in it. You feel anxious, hyper-alert and tense and feel wired and tired at night. If you are in adrenal overdrive with exhaustion you will feel wiped out and upon waking in the am you cannot get going or feel tired all day and then are wide awake at night and cannot get to sleep or wake periodically with disturbed sleep.
Our achievement- oriented culture puts pressure on us to take on and handle excessive amount of pressure and when overloaded we keep it to ourselves. In some ways, this stress makes some of us feel alive but the reality this unrelenting drive and need to please others is detrimental. Most of us who experience this never get or take a break until it’s too late.
Checking smartphones and devices is often the first and last task of our day. We are responding to emails, texts and headlines right up until bedtime. This completely messes with our biological clocks and throws off our circadian rhythms. Day in and day out this process over activates our sympathetic nervous system ( flight or flight) and down regulates our parasympathetic system ( calming our brains and body).
Hidden Triggers of the Sympathetic Stress Response:
If the sympathetic nervous system is over activated over an extended period of time adrenal overdrive without or with exhaustion will occur.
1. In-Utero and Early Childhood Experiences – you can inherit or acquire a lower stress set point in utero or during early childhood ( a mother stressed during pregnancy, an abusive caregiver or a death in the immediate family) all lowering tiur resistance and resilience.
2. Perfectionism – this triggers a primal fear that if we don’t do everything and do it right we will be failures. We must embrace our mistakes and vulnerabilities and learn from them.
3. Low Blood Sugar – When your blood sugar stays too low for an extended time the body switches to conservation mode. Your body then raises cortisol ( stress hormone) and sets the stress response in motion. Healthy nutrition ( good quality protein and healthy fats and avoiding refined sugars and carbs ) helps keep insulin and your nervous system in balance.
3. Food Intoletances- This could include gluten and dairy. If you are intolerant and you consume these your immune system will release and inflammatory cascade to handle the invader. The body treats inflammation as a crises and jacks up the stress response. So if you keep eating a food your body cannot tolerate, it will continually stimulate the stress response.
4. MTHFR and COMT Genes – these control the body’s ability to eliminate toxins. If you carry alterations on either of these 2 genes and are exposed to toxins your body will not be able to eliminate them. Additionally, people with an alteration to the COMT gene have a difficult time breaking down stress hormones ( cortisol and adrenaline ) so they stay elevated in your body.
5. Viral Infections – similar to food sensitivities untreated viral infections can result in chronic inflammation triggering a state of alarm.
Signs You Are Stuck In Overdrive:
1. Experiencing food cravings – often lead to cravings for sweet and salty foods because they provide energy and replenish our systems.
2. Feeling judgemental – when in survival mode we are always looking around for danger and threats. When stuck in overdrive we tend see only what’s wrong with everyone and everything making us miserable and unpleasant to be around.
3. Waking up tired – if you wake up tired it indicates low cortisol which should be higher in the morning, which happens when you are experiencing adrenal fatigue and are not producing enough hormone.
4. Gaining belly fat – weight gain around the midsection ( visceral fat ) is usually a indication of cortisol overload.
Healhty Stress Responses:
Our bodies are capable of responding in a healthy way to stress and move us out of a state of alarm ( sympathetic ) and into a calm and relaxed state ( parasympathetic) that enables us to replenish our energy and function optimally. Become conscious of our states is key. We can consciously shift into healthy modes whenever we become aware of the heart-pumping signs of adrenal overdrive.
1. Get rest and digest your food – our bodies are not designed to stay in overdrive for long periods of time. It’s essential that we replenish ourselves by activating the parasympathetic response by sleeping well, getting rest when needed, getting a massage, deep and slow breathing, meditate, attending a yoga class, taking days off from hard training and workouts, spending more time in nature, slowing down your eating and get in touch with some gratitude practice.
Most of us don’t ever hit the “pause” button because we either don’t know how or are afraid of doing so! If needed, build this into your schedule.
Create a night routine that allows you to downshift which will facilitate your ability to move out of the fight-or-flight mode.
– Eat dinner at least 3 hours before bedtime.
– Turn off all devices at least 1 hour before bedtime to avoid upsetting or negative messages or news and the light from the screen that in fact signals the pineal gland that it’s time to wake up!
– You sleep better in colder and darker environments.
– Make sure your bed, pillows and linens are non toxic and preferably certified organic.
2. Keep an active and strong social life – research shows that social bonding has significant health and immune system benefits – sharing and verbalising your concerns has been shown to turn off the sympathetic nervous system.
3. Develop a “learner mindset ” – when faced with a situation that we cannot handle we start to ask questions. It’s opposite is ” judger mindset” where we don’t ask questions and quickly jump to conclusions and make judgements when confronted with something threatening or unfamiliar. A learner mindset helps us handle challenging situations and creates an opportunity to learn or experience something new! It also lends itself to curiousity which really helps us expand our abilities to handle stress and solve problems.
Bottom Line: Our bodies possess natural intelligence and are designed to handle stress. However, not recognising it and remaining in a fight-or-flight state can have serious consequences. Give your body a chance to support and protect you and it will !