Ancestral Health Can Teach Us How To Deal With Stress, Part 1: Mental Stress

img_0599Stress is a constant presence in our lives today.  I know that my stress load is something that I have to constantly manage.  It can be an easy thing to try to ignore, and the hardest negative factor in our life to mitigate.  After all isn’t stress just a part of life? While that is true, the stress of modern life has introduced factors that our brain doesn’t know how to deal with.

How does this relate to ancestral health? Think about it.  When we were hunter gatherers, we had very immediate life or death factors that would present stress.  Things like hunting down our food, being attacked to become food, harsh climates, injuries from which we couldn’t recover from, eating certain plants with polyphenols that would cause a slight stress response in our body .  We didn’t have modern stressors in our life, like thinking about our social media accounts, worrying about the amount of money in the bank, being exposed to massive amounts of artificial light, eating highly inflammatory processed food, the list goes on.  The result is being in a constant state of fight or flight, our brain perceiving small threats and worries as life threatening events.  The stress of our ancestors had solutions, physically and mentally challenging solutions.   Since we can’t completely get rid of some of these modern stressors, lets look at a couple of techniques to help our body deal with them .

 Meditation

We are a society drenched in anxiety .   We have information and updates about the worst things happening in the world being thrown at us 24/7.  If you dare to brave the news all you will get is updates on terrible things that are happening.  We have grown to expect these constant updates, even crave them.  Social media has given us another way to seek a steady dopamine drip of pleasure by allowing us to seek instant social approval for whatever we happen to be doing.  All of this has caused our society at large to have anxiety over what they will hear next, and at the same time not be able to live without a constant stream of information.

The problem is we may not necessarily be able to just drop out of this new paradigm.  Reasons may be for work or business, or you just don’t want to lose contact with people.  A technique that’s proven to work? Mindfulness meditation.  I know in my own battle with stress and anxiety, practicing mindfulness has helped me stay in the present moment and actually absorb what is going on in the immediate environment, not worry about what will happen in the future.  This study agrees.  15 adults with no meditation experience underwent a 20 minute session for 4 days.  The subjects took a SAI ( a test that measures levels of anxiety), and anxiety was dramatically lowered.  MRI’s were taken, and it turns out mindfulness mediation increased activity in the ACC, anterior insula, and vmPFC.  These areas of the brain are underutilized when we are feeling stressed and anxious.  It also decreased activity in the “default” mode areas of the brain.  These areas increase mind wandering and decrease self-awareness.  The vmPFC is crucial to the process of down-regulating negative emotions.  The ACC and anterior insula are regions that integrate emotions and sensations to create a sense of self awareness.  The end result is the activation of regions of the brain that keep you in the present.

Try it out!  A good way to ease into mindfulness meditation is starting with maybe a ten minute session.  The technique is simple, focusing on you breath and the up and down sensation your body makes when breathing.  Letting yourself observe thoughts as they pass by and not judge yourself when you get distracted.  There is a reason people refer to it as practicing mediation!  We have to practice getting out of our thoughts and into the space around us.  A good app to try for some guidance is Headspace .

 Mindful Activities

Maybe meditation isn’t for you.  There are many other things you can do to get out of your own head and deal with the present.  Any activity that when you are fully in it, you aren’t somewhere deep in the default mode of your brain thinking about what will happen tomorrow when you go into work.  The more we work mindfulness into things we do everyday, the easier it gets to incorporate it into stressful situations  Here is a short list of examples.

1. Music

As a full-time musician, I can attest to the concentration and mindfulness required to be present and making good music.  Both the musicians you are playing with and the crowd listening knows whether you are really there or not.  You don’t need to be a professional to seriously play though! Getting into a flow state when playing for your own enjoyment or practicing is something that really locks you into the present.  Even listening to music helps our autonomic nervous system, endocrine, and physiological response to stress

2. Taking A Walk

For many people this is the first step in both physical and mental health.  In a small study men with “burnout” ( emotional fatigue), were instructed to do aerobic exercise (running, walking) 2-3 times a week for 12 weeks.  Even after one week they were reported significant reductions in depressions.  The easiest way to incorporate some low impact movement like walking? Take a walk after meals and just be present with the scenery and your movement.

3. Yoga

The whole point of yoga is to be the “observer” of our thoughts and emotions.  Instructors that I have worked with stress that it is less about contorting yourself into difficult positions and more about being mindful of how your body feels in a certain pose.  Doing a whole 50 minute class that involves you being conscious of your body and thoughts is a powerful thing.  It can increase stress-adaptation and autonomic nervous system function.

These are just a few examples of things we can do to improve how we deal with stress.  Other practices might include rock climbing, sex, swimming, cooking, you name it! Our brains crave satisfying, real experiences that many people are lacking in a modern lifestyle.  If you take efforts to mitigate stress related to work, social media, and the constant flow of information coming out of our phones, combine it with a mindful practice that helps you stay in the present, the results can be life changing.

Comment below with any mindful practices or hints you have.

Next week comes Ancestral Health And Stress, Part 2: Food Stressors.

Thanks Everybody!

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