From the Studio of Dr. Toni Harrison, MD: Quick Tips for Managing Daily Stress

Welcome to The Healthy and Strong podcast from Incredible Health. I’m Dr. Toni Harrison, a board certified anesthesiologist. Because of my personal health journey, I learned to bridge the gap between the American healthcare system and alternative medicine. Today I’m going to tell you a story about my dogs. We have five dogs currently. I did not agree to five dogs, I got out voted by the family. We will never have five dogs again, but I digress. Anyhow, when we had three dogs, they were Shih Tzus and they were all out in the backyard one morning and a coyote jumped our cinder block wall and went after one of the dogs for lunch. Luckily our little dogs fought off the coyote and then all three of them came running in the doggy door, hearts, breathing hard and were all revved up. They were “jacked up” on hormones for sure: norepinephrine, epinephrine, cortisol. They were amped up!! But after that stressful encounter was over, they laid around the house all day long. They were completely worthless all day – just dead sacks of potatoes. They didn’t do anything the whole rest of the day I don’t think!! To me this was a really interesting, real life demonstration of the stress response.

The way that our biochemistry and physiology is designed, we’re designed to deal with acute stress; running away from the lion. When you are being chased by a lion, your heart rate needs to go up, blood pressure needs to go up, blood sugar needs to go up, and then when that is over, the body is designed to relax and repair. There is a great classic book about the stress response that’s called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and it’s by Robert Sapolsky. The premise of the book is that the zebra runs from the lion and then spends the rest of the day relaxing under the tree.

Now in our current world, we are stressed all day long, every day. You wake up late, your kid won’t get ready for school, you can’t find that missing shoe or they don’t remember where their homework’s at. You’re late getting out the door, you’re late getting the kids to school, you’re late getting to work, and then your boss is on your case and then you’re not as prepared as you want for your business presentation, there’s just something all day long, every day. There’s the traffic jam, there’s a bill that needs to get paid, it’s just continual onslaught of stressful events. And that’s not what our body is designed to deal with. When you have stress that lingers like that, it forces the heart rate, the blood pressure, the blood sugar to be more elevated than it normally would be, which ends up leading to, as you can guess, high blood pressure, weight, diabetes, heart problems, all of the stress induced diseases.

What’s the solution? The solution is two fold, deep breathing. You need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and relax system. It’s also called the feed and breed system. The way to stimulate the parasympathetics is through your breathing, the alveoli in your lungs, the air pockets; the air cells have stretch receptors in the walls. And when you take those nice big full breaths of air, it really stretches your lungs open. It stretches the air cells and that triggers the parasympathetic system. You cannot take big, nice full breaths if you’re stressed- if you’re running from a lion. If you’re running from a lion, you’re taking short, shallow, rapid breaths. Your ability to take a deep breath is the signal to the brain that it’s time to relax and it changes the hormone profile of your body. It doesn’t seem like breathing can be that big a deal, but it actually is. That’s one way you can change the hormone profile of your body, naturally. I like to do deep breathing exercises while I’m driving. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but red lights and waiting for an elevator are triggers to me to do some deep breathing. Traffic jams are typically a stressful event for most people going to and from work or to and from picking up the kids. When I was in residency, we had a commute and I reinterpreted the event. For me, I turned that into my time. I was listening to a book on tape and I had my coffee and I had a biscotti, that’s what I was eating back then. When you’re stuck at the red light, you might as well make use of it! And when I was in the car, nobody could reach me. I couldn’t do anything for anybody. I couldn’t attend to any patients. I couldn’t attend to any mommy duties. It was just me. A lot of events in our life, it’s how we interpret them that determines whether it’s a stressful event or not. Two different people can both be sitting at the beginning of a roller coaster, for one person that’s terrifying, for another person it’s exciting. So it’s how you interpret the event.

The second part of this solution is ‘daytime rest’. When I see new clients, I ask them what they do for daytime rest and they often look at me like I’m crazy because I don’t think they’ve ever really thought about it before. It cannot involve any type of screen. You need to stop and smell the roses, just take time to sit for 15 minutes and enjoy the skyline. Enjoy the sunrise or the sunset. Enjoy the conversation that you’re having with your family and your friends. Read, knit, meditate, yoga. There’s so many different ways to recharge your batteries, but people just don’t take enough time to take care of themselves. Daytime rest is a crucial part of self care and ‘health’ care. I want you to be selfish and claim 15 minutes out of your day to recharge your battery, to do what YOU want to do. Whether that’s reading a book for pleasure or taking a bubble bath, whatever you need to do, I want you to be completely 100% selfish for those 15 minutes.

I’d like for you to give some thought to daytime rest and deep breathing and do something today that makes you healthier tomorrow. We’ll talk again soon! Have a great day!

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