Journaling, painting, reading, and other activities may be great helpers to bring clarity of thought and restore calm focus in general. However, the power of exercise and movement benefit the mind, digestion, and lowers stress levels. Stress is one of those words that has loaded meaning behind it.
There are all kinds of sources of stress, but what does it feel like?
What does it mean physiologically?
What are some ways to lower stress & why do we need stress?
Here we'll visit how exercise aids digestion, lowers stress, and how it can help to calm restless thoughts.
Stress & Stomach Acid
One of the most important parts of digestion is having adequate amounts of stomach acid to break down foods, particularly protein sources. The parasympathetic nervous system is where rest and digestion operate. So to have optimal digestion, being in a state of rest - not stress - is best for the body.
This means having a seat, being in a calm environment, and being mindfully present with the eating process from sight to smell, to the first bite, chewing thoroughly and swallowing. If this is not possible, your system may experience stress and in turn block stomach acid production.
The question is, how do you know you're stressed? Sometimes it can be subtle. I find myself staring outside and daydreaming while I'm eating. Returning to the present moment and using my senses to "be with" my food helps to focus on proper chewing before swallowing instead of absently eating meals. I may not necessarily be in a high stress situation, but even getting lost in thought can interrupt the digestion process. Some people like to read books while eating or watch videos or television. These too distract from proper digestion as the mind is not fully engaged with the digestion process.
So by engaging fully with the meals and snacks of the day using your senses, you will help your body release the hormone gastrin that is responsible for producing stomach acid for digestion. With more focus at mealtimes it likely that you will chew more thoroughly and eat in a calmer state.
What Is Stress?
Stress is an important bodily response to danger and is needed for survival. However, our internal thoughts and perceived experiences can distort our felt sense of danger as we move in the world. This means that danger for one person looks different for another depending on their life experiences. It's all about getting to know your own unique stress responses in your life. Losing that felt sense of safety may cause chronic stress and disrupt many functions from digestion to proper sleep, etc.
So what does stress feel like? Could be tightening of the shoulders or neck muscles, a clenched jaw, heat throughout the body, or more. When this happens, your adrenal glands (located above your kidneys) release cortisol and adrenaline in your system to prepare for fight or flight for survival.
These hormones help the body to release more glucose for energy and to survive the perceived threat. So stress itself is not a problem as we need it to survive. However, it is when stress becomes chronically present that the body functions suffer. The nervous system becomes overtaxed and there are innumerable symptoms of chronic stress as a result. There is good news: you can retrain your brain to restore and expand a felt sense of safety every day.
Reclaim Your Felt Sense of Safety
This will look different for everyone. Reclaiming the felt sense of safety means reconnecting to parts of yourself that feel safe and expanding your experience of safety throughout the day.
It's about matching your external experience to your internal experience. Let's say I'm at home, warm, well fed, and there is no outside threat. Externally I am safe. Internally, let's imagine my thoughts are recalling unpleasant events: a car accident, emotional turmoil from difficult relationships, work situations, family problems, etc. Internal thoughts are giving rise to emotions, uncomfortable feelings, and stress. The outside doesn't match the inside.
So how do we encourage a match? By focusing on the present moment. Connecting the inner environment with the outer environment and fully embodying the experience. So to disrupt running thoughts that give rise to stress, I will focus on what I can observe in the room, smell, and see actively and in detail. Then I can say to myself:
"I am relatively safe in this moment."
Practicing embodying this felt sense of safety every day is a powerful tool to reconnect with calm within and lower stress in your life. The key is to be present.
Exercise is also a great support for the digestive system and lowers stress levels. Stress holds energy and exercise helps to release it through movement and boosts mood. Not only is the pent up energy released but troubling thoughts can clear as movement also helps with being present in the moment.
When I go for walks sometimes impatience and resistance rise; running thoughts often visit on my walks. One technique to be connected to yourself during walks or any exercise is to record how you feel/think before, during, and after the walk. Engaging in this type of exercise is an opportunity to discover more about yourself, hidden beliefs, recurring thoughts, and stressors that are present in your inner world.
Then you might be surprised how much you can learn about yourself as you notice your thoughts, release stress, and experience more moments of safety throughout your day!
Next Month - Mental Health!
Join me next time as we'll explore mental health in terms of beliefs, thoughts, and how they drive behaviours.
Your Holistic Nutrition Counsellor,