Understanding stress and learning to be yourself
In her second blog on the topic, British adventurer, wilderness expedition leader and survival expert, Megan Hine, discusses the stress of modern living and how embracing the outdoors can help.
Over the past few years I have seen a rise in the number of young people and adults amongst my clients who are taking medication for stress, anxiety and depression. A significant number of my clients who are not on medication recognize that they are stressed, anxious or depressed.
I have been thinking a lot recently about why more people are stressed these days. Is it just that we are more open to discussing our mental health, or is there something we are doing now that is creating this issue?
To answer this question, I studied myself, my clients, and various tribes of people who still live simple, hunter-gatherer lifestyles. I stripped it back to what stress actually is. Stress is pretty cool. And when you understand what your body is doing, you are better able to refocus and find yourself within the chaos.
The stress response in a nutshell
Stress is a survival mechanism. That’s right: the emotion we’re told is negative and debilitating is actually a very clever, primal tool that we need to survive. Our mammoth hunting, cave-dwelling ancestors faced lots of threats from their environment and from predators, so they needed a way to kick-start their bodies in an emergency.
When a cavewoman came face-to-face with a predator, stress hormones, mainly cortisol and adrenalin, were released. These are biochemicals intended to ready us for a challenge, and to mobilise the physical, mental and emotional energy necessary to respond to a stressful event.
Cortisol helps the cavewoman stay focused and motivated. Adrenaline increases her heart rate, elevates her blood pressure (ever had that feeling of blood pumping in your ears when you’re afraid or stressed?), and boosts her energy supplies. Blood is diverted from digesting food in the cavewoman’s stomach, to her muscles so she can run or fight.
This heightened state is supposed to be a short-lived mechanism, and under optimum circumstances, humans should return to normal once the immediate danger has passed.
The stress response and modern living
A theory I’ve had for many years now is that, as clever as our bodies are, they have not evolved to deal with the stressors of modern life. Our primitive stress reaction is triggered not just by obvious physical threats, like a predator, but by other stressors - like work deadlines, relationship and family issues, and what we look like.
Every time we have a thought that threatens our well being, whether that is an emotional or physical threat, the stress response is activated. The problem is the body’s inability to differentiate between real and perceived threats. If you are suffering from chronic stress and feel huge pressure to perform, your body will be in a constant state of stress.
This puts a massive strain on your immune system. You’re likely to have stomach problems, brain fog, depression and anxiety. Extended activation of the stress response (and the resultant, exhaustion of the immune system), can lead to weight gain, autoimmune disease, ME, chronic fatigue and many other illnesses.
So, how can we take control of our stress response?
- Be playful and don’t take yourself too seriously! Although there are aspects to life that we should be serious about, I believe that most of life should be viewed with a curious playfulness. Learn to laugh at yourself and your mistakes, and claim your achievements.
- Write your own story and do what makes you happy. From a young age, pressure is put on us to choose subjects at school which form a path to career and success. Looking back, I believe this is too much pressure for many young people and I am not surprised many feel broken in the process. At a time in life when the body and mind are already going through a lot of changes hormonally, it is crucial that young people are supported in finding their own path rather than feeling pressured into the path society or others believe they should take.
- Spend time in the outdoors. Being outdoors relaxes both the body and mind. Many of my clients have chosen to venture out with me on an expedition because they feel the wilderness is what they need to escape their stress. Those that come on expeditions for other reasons, almost always report that they feel far less stressed and anxious afterwards.
Scouting can help children and young adults follow alternative paths in life. Finding what makes you happy will minimize the stress you experience in life. As you get older, you realise more and more, that it really doesn't matter what others think. If you are happy, you will attract like-minded people and create your own tribe.
Read more from Megan: Wilderness as a therapy for mental health issues.