Stress Management

How to Channel Your Inner Caveman to Fight Stress

How to Channel Your Inner Caveman to Fight Stress
Image credit: George | Flickr

We all know the costs of stress – to our health, our personal relationships, happiness and productivity. Despite our best efforts to avoid stress, it seems an inevitable part of our workday and our lives. Jenny Evans, stress and performance expert and CEO of PowerHouse Performance, says while we may not be able to avoid stress completely, we can train ourselves to become immune to stress’ negative effects.

Evans is the author of The Resiliency Revolution: Your Stress Solution for Life – 60 Seconds at a Time. She argues the key to building our resistance to stress is to harken back to our caveman days and use our body’s stress-response system the way it was built.

“Our stress-response systems were really designed to solve problems for seconds, not for years,” says Evans. When our caveman ancestors were exposed to a stressful event – such as a predator – they either fought or fled the situation and it was over relatively quickly. That intense physical activity of fighting or fleeing burned off the stress hormones that were released into the body during that stressful period when we were deciding what to do about this predator. Even more important, this burst of energy released bliss molecules – endorphins and dopamine – that restored balance to the body and neutralized all the negative side effects of stress. 

Although our genetic makeup has changed very little since our caveman days, our physical environments have been altered dramatically. Unfortunately our stress response system has not evolved along with the demands of the modern world. Unlike our caveman ancestors, we can’t resolve a stressful boardroom negotiation by tackling our opponent to the ground. “We’re stuck completely sedentary, and we’re just stewing in our own stress hormones,” says Evans.

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What’s worse, says Evans, is that the ways we’re trying to cope with stress are often compounding stress’ negative effects. “We’ll stay up late or wake up early, skip meals and end up reaching for a candy bar or a cup of coffee or a cigarette to give us energy, and then we’re so wound up during the day, we need alcohol at night to relax. All those things increase our stress,” says Evans, who argues tapping into what we know about our primitive hardwiring can help us to reduce our stress and function best in our current environment. 

She offers two ways to build physical resilience to stress:

Short bursts of physical activity.

Relax, you don’t have to hit the gym for an hour in order to build your stress resistance. Evans says small bursts of 30 to 60 seconds of intense physical activity can release bliss molecules – endorphins and dopamine – that get us back to a neutral state.

“If we can do them periodically throughout the day, that really adds up to make a significant difference in our resilience, our performance and our health,” says Evans. Walking around your office for 60 seconds won’t cut it, though. These 30- to 60-second bursts of activity should engage your major muscle groups and elevate your heart rate. Try doing jumping jacks for 60 seconds, or tackle a couple flights of stairs in between meetings. These short activity boosts will be enough to elevate your heart rate and give your body enough intensity to release its bliss muscles and hit the re-set button on stress.

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“Historically, that fight or flight response didn’t go on for hours, days or years. The situation played itself out very quickly. The more we can recreate that several times during the day, that’s really going to alter our chemistry and physiology,” says Evans.

Eat your way to resilience.

Meals may be the first thing to disappear from your calendar when you’re facing a stressful day. After all, who has time for lunch when they’re flying between multiple meetings? But skipping meals, Evans says, is one of the most damaging things we can do when it comes to managing our stress. “Every time you go four hours without eating, that stimulates the stress response and now you’ve got these stress hormones pouring through your system,” she says.

Keeping blood glucose levels balanced is an important component to building your body’s resilience to stress. A drop in glucose levels -- caused by skipping meals, for example – causes the release of the stress hormone cortisol. One of the negative effects of cortisol is that it makes us crave foods that are high in fat and sugar, so we become ravenously hungry for junk food.

To improve your stress resilience, Evans advises eating every three hours, alternating between low-glycemic snacks and meals, creating a slow blood-glucose response to avoid the big spike and crash that only adds stress to the body.  

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