Posted by Dr. Ian Bier on Dec 16, 2019 10:51:16 AM
The body’s stress response has evolved to outwit predators and avoid starvation, not to fight with rush hour traffic and overbearing bosses.
Modern living swells with sources of stress unrelated to life-or-death situations, such as sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, toxic relationships, financial concerns, and more. The human body requires periods of stress and relaxation to be healthy, and our fast-paced society often makes this feel next to impossible.
Anxiety is a very common and natural response to stress, and its physiological mechanisms are normal and necessary. What’s not normal is when the body’s stress response becomes over-stimulated—either by the environment, long hours on electronic devices, or other factors that put us into a state of chronic over-stimulation.
Hyperstimulation anxiety happens when your stress response is kicked into high gear without being given a chance to come back down. Along with feeling an increased heart rate and other signs commonly associated with stress and anxiety, many people will also feel the effects in their muscles.
The human stress response works well to run from a tiger or hunt for food, but since these are typically not stressors we face today, those same stress hormones end up being produced on a constant basis. When this happens, our mental, physical, and emotional health pays the price.
One of the most important communication loops in your body is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, commonly referred to as the HPA axis. This axis communicates in a top-down fashion. As a response to stress, your brain talks to your hypothalamus, which sends a chemical signal to your pituitary gland, which releases the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which turns on output from your adrenals so that your adrenals release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline .
When cortisol reaches high enough levels, it suppresses the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to help regulate your fight-or-flight response. Many people are familiar with the term “adrenal fatigue” as a state of burnout. In reality, it’s not that the adrenal glands stop working; rather, after a chronic stimulation of stress hormones, the communication between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands breaks down.
The physiological chain of events that results from high stress is a process that usually happens over a long period of time. At first, you might experience blood sugar dysregulation and cravings for caffeine and sugar, followed by fatigue or a “tired and wired” feeling. You may also experience trouble staying asleep.
Hyperstimulation anxiety resulting from chronic stress can be experienced differently from person to person. However, some common signs include trouble sleeping, impaired cognitive function (such as memory and concentration), a short fuse, muscle tension, and headaches.
Many times, these feelings lead people to make diet and lifestyle choices that seem like they help short term, but exacerbate the problem long term. These common habits include reaching for stimulating foods (like coffee, sugar, and refined carbohydrates), not exercising due to lack of motivation, and not drinking enough water. It becomes a cascade of phenomena that can become a vicious cycle if not stopped.
The good news is that there are many steps you can take to manage stress and support hyperstimulation anxiety. Consider the following strategies:
Know Your Triggers
First and foremost, know yourself and understand your personal triggers. For example, if talking in front of groups is extremely stress-inducing for you, try to minimize your time speaking in front of groups. Find the things in your life that insight a stress response and figure out ways to reduce these events.
Get Adequate Rest
The average American over the age of 25 sleeps less than six hours each night. Finding strategies to get an adequate amount of restful sleep is critical for curbing hyperstimulation anxiety. Try to create a pre-bed rutine that is conducive to getting to sleep and staying asleep. It might seem overly simple, but make sure that you have a nice quite, dark environment where you will not be disturbed. Mindfulness and breathing techniques are also a great way to prepare the body for restful sleep.
Daily Deep Relaxation
Taking just 10-20 minutes each day to practice relaxation techniques can make a world of difference. Whether it’s with meditation or meditative movement techniques like Qigong, yoga, or other techniques that relax you, give yourself a break during the day to simply be. Research shows that activities that promote syncing movement with breath can be incredibly helpful in reducing low mood and anxiousness.1
The right kind of exercise can help you maintain good mental health, but it may even be used as a means to reduce the risk of low mood, anxiousness, and other cognitive challenges. 2
Physical activity affects the brain by improving the delivery of nutrients and oxygen as well as increasing neurotrophic factors and hormones that support neuron connections and signaling, especially in the hippocampus. One theory refers to mental illness as “cognitive inflexibility.” So, similarly to how both nutritional and lifestyle changes can make us more metabolically flexible, exercise might also increase cognitive flexibility, leading to better overall mental health and less hyperstimulation anxiety.
Try to disconnect and shut off your devices as often as you can. If possible, set aside one full 24-hour period per week where you don’t pick up your phone, computer, or any other device. At the very least, commit to powering down 1-2 hours before bed every day. Studies show that moderate to severe depression are associated with higher amounts of screen time, so by making time to practice mindfulness and stay present without distractions, you’ll be feeling happier and healthier in no time.3
Anxiety is a normal pathway of life, but it can quickly develop into hyperstimulation anxiety when repetitious behavior becomes a negative feedback loop. You might feel drained, a bit depressed, irritable, sleep-deprived, and constantly craving unhealthy foods. But with patience, commitment, and time, you can correct the patterns that lead to stress and get back to feeling like yourself again.
1 Peter Payne, Mardi A. Crane-Godreau. 2013. Meditative Movement for Depression and Anxiety. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3721087/. Accessed November 26, 2019.
2 Ashish Sharma, Vishal Madaan, Frederick D. Petty. 2006. Exercise for Mental Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/. Accessed November 26, 2019.
3 K.C. Madhav, Shardulendra Prasad Sherchand, Samendra Sherchan. 2017. Association between screen time and depression among US adults. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335517301316. Accessed November 26, 2019.
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