Cracking the Pressure Cooker

Stress kept early humans alive, uneaten.
Stress can be a motivator, pushing us past our mental hurdles.
Stress is like alcohol- makes you happy in moderation, Destroys your body in overdoses.
Stress is insidious.( cue movie trailer ;- 0)

When we think of stress, we often think of outside pressures- paying the bills, getting a job, raising our kids.
For some of us stress is also internal- push to succeed, self- expectations.
What we forget is that stress is also a natural body process, triggered and set off by things we may not be monitoring at all.

Our Brain, which both controls and is impacted by stress hormones ( cortisol,Growth Hormone and norepinephrine).  And our Brain is still convinced that we are wandering tribes of nomads, hunted by tooth and claw predators.

Sleep Deprivation? Must be getting chased or on the move for too long, or… something horrible. STRESS.
Too Few Calories? Must be entering a famine period- STRESS
Chronic Pain?  Broken. bad. will be eaten.  STRESS
Too long in one position? movement levels too low? Must be broken, must have an infection- Inflammation and STRESS.
 Afraid? Worried? Must be something  or someone after us. STRESS

If we were really in those positions, cortisol does exactly what you want it to do, and has kept us live for millions of years. But when modern “realities of life” are misinterpreted as threats, the actions of cortisol produce more damage.  Cortisol, either directly or by triggering other chemicals,  blocks insulin, creating a sort of insulin resistance, stimulates the process that increase blood sugar levels, tells your body to store every bit of extra calorie it can as belly fat,destroys collagen, and inhibits bone formation or even breaks down bone. It increases gastric acid formation, inhibits the immune system and the inflammatory response and touches nearly every other metabolic pathway we have.

Norepinephrine is involved in mental processes. It assists with focus and memory- in short doses. Too much and the regulatory pathways of the brain get messed up. At first, too much norepinephrine causes mania, increased heart rate and high blood pressure. Since it is also linked to dopamine, after prolonged raised levels it can also feedback and reduce the amount of dopamine in your brain, which can cause depression. It can also impact Glutamate levels, which impacts the pre-frontal cortex and cognitive function. Although Norepinephrine initially increases focus, over time it decreases focus.  End result? You end up either Hyperactive and unable to focus, or depressed, fog brained and unable to think clearly, or some mixed combination of these. Brain soup.

Here is the real heat in this pressure cooker- Once you have what your body recognizes as a “stress event” ( pulling an all nighter, a weekend of fasting, etc..) the threshold needed to trigger the next stress event is lower. And the next is lower, And the next is lower.  So if you are in a situation of “chronic stress”, soon every little wiggle, every little variation is a STRESS.  Worse? It takes a long time for this to level back off.

So- even if you solve all of your financial, marriage, friend and parenting stresses and you live on easy street, if you live in the modern world that moves fast, is over stimulated, sleeps too little and eats badly? STRESS.

What a treadmill. Seems almost helpless. Add in any kind of chronic illness that also impacts these things and it seems like an impossible battle. Too much effort. Bend up and go home.

For me, what it is taking to beat this is to step completely off the mental merry-go-round and scream “enough!!”.  

Don’t get me wrong- this is not magical. There is no silver bullet and I am not “all better”. I still have days when every little thing makes me want to cry.  I have days when the pain hurts so much i just want to curl into a little ball and give up.  But I can start to see the difference.  In December, I could not remember a list of 3 things. My memory was GONE.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I had some cognitive testing done by a psychiatrist and my memory and cognitive functions came out as superior. It still seemed like more work than it should have been ( my memory used to be effortless), but the doctor told me I scored higher than he did.
Back in December, it was hard to hold a conversation. From sentence to sentence, I could not hold on to my train of thought.  People could tell me things and four sentences later, I had forgotten.  Now I am back to writing and working. I have started podcasting and am actively job hunting. Socializing energizes me, rather than exhausting me and I can get up in the morning and remember what I discussed the day before.

So what have I changed?

  • I am trying to get more sleep. From 4 hours a night to a target of 8. I do not regularly hit my 8 yet, but i also sometimes nap.  Almost every night, I get at least 6 hours of sleep. I will get there eventually. 
  • Vitamin B mix vitamin supplement. Not just the 100% of vitamin B in the regular multi-vitamins, but an overdose of Bs, especially B12 and niacin. ( you pee out extra, it is safe). 
  • Increase omega3s in my diet. Omega3s block the release of cortisol, lowering it and buffer the stress level that will trigger the next release. 
  • Distraction. Getting busy and thinking about something other than how much my body hurts and how miserable this all is. This seems like a mental trick, but remember part of the cycle is in the brain. The things you think impact your neurotransmitters. 
  • Making sure I eat well. whole foods, enough calories, a variety. Nothing my body could distort into a mistaken stress signal- especially since it is so “trigger happy” at this point of my life. 
  • Meditation and physical activity- both of which change neurotransmitters in the brain- even in little doses. 

What is the stress in your life? How can you crack the pressure cooker?

Most importantly, I know this will be a slow process of small changes- sometimes so small i can not even notice them, so i get feedback from the people around me and my goals are long term. This time next year, I hope to be out of the Stress Pressure Cooker and just merely grilling.

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