STRESS, the good the bad and the ugly

After weeks of deliberating on the many topics that fascinate me, that I would like to share my thoughts on, today I was inspired to write about the many facets of stress.

I feel like this word is used a lot. Usually in a negative context, and often linked to the demise of our physical or mental health.

TRUE- stress is not always great for the body, and certainly not the mind: but stress is also part of an adaptive response that can make you stronger and MORE resilient. To understand this concept I like to use the analogy of a ‘glass of water being half full’. Where water is likened to the amount of ‘stress’ or perceived stress in the mind or body, and the air is our capacity to deal with a stressor.

If our glass is already full, a seemingly small problem, or physical load can just tip us over the edge and cause a complete breakdown of the nervous system (our control center for the mind and body). That same problem or load when applied to a glass half full, ie someone who is not already working at the end of their capacity to cope, can pass us by (ie add water to the glass) seemingly unaffected.

SO why is it that my glass can be FULL when your glass is half empty?

The reality is what is stressful to one person may not be stressful to another. Why is it that when I do certain things with my body that load my lower back for instance my back can be in a world of pain for weeks, completely dis-proportionally to the actual injury- or lack of injury that has occurred.

This same analogy can be used in the context of mental stress where the perception of a seemingly non-stressful event can trigger a cascade of mental health struggles. Whilst mental health has far more complex layers to it psychologically and neurologically (within the brain and nervous system) it can often be the culmination of a number of events and experiences that can be the tipping point for many people rather than one specific event itself.

SO WHAT ARE THE POSITIVE EFFECTS OF STRESS? And how do we get to enjoy these benefits?

When the body is in a state of ‘ease’ ie the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are in balance, activities such a strength training, endurance training, and training the mind can create positive stress on the nervous system causing it to adapt and improve, further increasing the size of the cup- the amount of stress your body can handle.

Having spent 5 years studying full time with two small children and attempting to continue running a small business I can tell you now that there was not many points during that time where my nervous system was balanced! Whilst I wouldn’t change a thing I do recognize the almost irreparable damage that period had on my physical and mental health and consequently I lived with my glass on the brink of overflow.

If this sounds like you…. These are some of the effects that I experienced that were clear signals to me that I was not in a place where I could take on any positive stressors.

- Waking up after 8 hours sleep feeling more exhausted

- Being unable to ‘wind down’

- Feeling sore after all forms of exercise and not feeling like it got any easier the more I did

- Craving sugary foods

- Feeling really foggy mentally and forgetting things often

- Feeling like I was constantly ‘coming down with something’ and not recovering quickly if I did eventually get sick.

So why do we put ourselves through this mental and physical overload? Some of you may be laughing right now and thinking: I would NEVER take on that much. I can safely say that I would not do it again that’s for sure.

However in reality you may be still feeling all of these effects and have a much smaller work load.


If I had all the answers to this I would probably write a book about it, however for now these are some of the things that I have learnt that have helped me to have a better nervous system balance:

* DON’T compare yourself to others. You have no idea how full their cup is and the struggles they are dealing with. Most physical and mental health challenges are not visible to others. Expectations that you put on yourself WILL magnify any stress that you are dealing with.

* PAIN doesn’t always equal injury. It is actually scientifically proven that pain is a poor predictor of disability. Stress AMPLIFIES pain. Try to look at the causes of the stressors rather than the cause of the pain. If I have had a bad night’s sleep or have eaten poorly all week (yes this does occasionally happen to us all!) then guess what I am 100x more likely to have a lower back injury from something trivial.

* Say NO more! If you know that you have overloaded your week then don’t be afraid to cancel or re arrange plans or simply just say NO. We are all guilty of over committing but as a society we need to accept and support each other in these times and be OK with saying no.

* Practice GRATITUDE. Positive affirmations and gratitude actually change your brain. Your physiology changes if you are having positive thoughts as opposed to negative thoughts, and this can be enough to change your stress levels. If that doesn’t blow your mind I don’t know what will. Say it out LOUD. Even just one thing per day that you are grateful for. If you have kids try it at dinner with them, it is a skill that they will benefit from forever.

* Get a better TEAM. I don’t mean a football team – get a HEALTH team. This doesn’t mean you are weak, or becoming reliant on others, it means that you are being PROACTIVE in maintaining your health. If you were a professional sports person you would have a health team. Think of yourself as an athlete, even if you don’t play any sports. This will look different for everyone however it’s essential that your team have a HOLISTIC view on health and can work with others with the unified goal of helping YOU.

  • For me my team has changed over the years but I have consistently used yoga, strength trainers, acupuncture, kinesiology, breath work, naturopaths and of course CHIROPRACTIC. This has been so instrumental to my journey that I re trained to be one!

* Start SLOW and build up. Build your strength and endurance slowly. If you feel completely burnt out from one training session or if your calves and forearm muscles feel like a rock you have pushed your nervous system too far. Don’t get me wrong we need to push ourselves to build strength and endurance but heavy training is for the systems that are robust enough to deal with it. And here RECOVERY is key.

* Go back to BASICS. We all know the things that don’t support a healthy mind and body. You need to FUEL your mind and body if you want it to support you.

NUTRITION, SLEEP, MOVEMENT, MINDSET. These are the four pillars that you need to support a healthy system.

  • Write a diary for the week so that you can see it on paper – it will likely surprise you.

  • Ditch the sugar and caffeine that you will crave if it’s propping you up. Fruit and vegetables help to reduce inflammation along with good fats to fuel your brain and protein to support your cell growth and repair.

  • Sleep is VITAL. It affects not only your body’s ability to heal and repair but also your hormone systems that can wreak havoc with your nervous system.

  • SUPPLEMENT where you need to. Even the best of diets don’t provide everything you need.

  • MOVEMENT- start slow, be consistent and move your body in all planes as many times a day as you can. One hour of fitness is nowhere near as good as constantly moving your body in the right way.

* Don’t be afraid to ask for HELP. We all need it. Find your tribe that you can share your health goals with. Seek professional help if you are struggling. We are designed to live in tribes and communities for exactly that reason- SUPPORT.

When the stars align and the body and mind are in flow, every stress you CHOOSE to add to your life, will energize and inspire you to move forward.

IL leave you with one of my favorite quotes by the Dalai Lama- this really drives the message home for me and is my constant reminder to slow down.

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, he said:

“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Yours in health

Dr Hayley

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