Dealing with December pickles (and not the variety that goes nicely with cheese...)

I hope preparations for the festive season are going well for you.

It’s easy to get tangled up in a frenzy of buying, wrapping and visiting and sometimes it's too easy to find ourselves in a bit of pickle but being in a state of stress can actually be damaging for our bodies. It's really important to look after yourself. There are some really simple things that you can do to be a bit kinder to yourself if you should happen to feel a bit frazzled. Self-care is not self-ish and having a little bit of science behind that understanding may help alleviate any feelings of guilt about sitting down for that cup of tea with your favourite book.

Confession: I am an anatomy geek. Did I mention that? Proof of that is coming. The human body has an amazing ability to heal and to rid itself of toxins (are you accumulating any lately..?) Every single one of the millions of cells in your body has one aim which is to maintain the correct balance of temperature, nutrients, gasses and chemicals for your life to continue in a state of ease (the term is homeostasis, if you're interested). Any imbalance in this chemical make up of the body will result in a state of dis-ease and cause you to feel under the weather or poorly. Allow me a very ‘Dot Cotton from Eastenders’ voice “ooh, me nerves!”

Yes, it has an awful lot to do with the nerves. ‘Nervous System Ltd’ is divided into two main departments. The guys who do things under our instruction, let’s call them the somatic department, are responsible for taking messages from your brain to your arm, instructing the muscle movement required to lift your tea cup to your mouth. The somatic department work very hard in our every day lives. Then we have the guys in the autonomic department; the unsung heroes who work tirelessly without instruction. These guys keep your heart beating, your digestive system functioning, literally everything. Amazing, right??

This autonomic department is further split into two teams, let’s be crazy and call them Team Sympathetic and Team Para-Sympathetic. Still with me? OK, now here’s where we get to the good stuff…

Team Sympathetic have Got. Your. Back. Really, they have. They are the Rambo characters of Nervous System Ltd. When you feel stressed, these guys are there straight away, jumping out of helicopters getting your body ready for whatever bad guy is around. Whilst we’re in my crazy anatomy-inspired imagination, for arguments sake, let’s say a dinosaur has come around the corner and is hungry. Oh my days!! Team Sympathetic are on the case and they make sure energy is directed away from any body system that isn’t directly required to keep us safe from danger. The pupils of the eyes dilate to keep us alert to the threat. The heart rate increases so we can send extra oxygen and nutrients to the muscles so we can either physically defend ourselves or run away, fight or flight, this causes our breath to become shallow and fast. The skin becomes clammy, the mouth becomes dry and we may feel sick or feel the need to go to the bathroom. Like I say, these tough guys want all the energy directed to parts of the body for defence purposes only; there’s no time for finishing digesting a meal, just get rid of it, we gotta GO, GO, GO!

Do you feel tense reading this? I feel tense writing it!! These physiological changes are triggered by stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.

So, let’s take a trip to the other side of the office to check in with Team Para-Sympathetic, ready for you with a cup of tea and comfy pair of slippers. These guys are Mother Theresa-style folk; they want you to rest, recuperate and recover. They want you to be prepared and nourished in case that darned dinosaur pokes his head around the corner again. This is what’s known as the rest & digest response. Energy is directed back to the digestive system to ensure the body is properly nourished (don’t forget, stress hormones can sometimes prevent the absorption of nutrients), the muscles have time to recover and repair, the eyes and the mind can come off of their high-alert status, the reproductive system can begin to function again, with the respective male and female hormone glands functioning normally again. I’m not professing to be any kind of expert on digestion or the fertility system, but it makes sense to me. Couples who seek medical advice in this regard are often told one thing they can do is to relax (which must be easier said than done. If you’ve been in this position, I’m sure you might agree). As soon as Team Parasympathetic are on the case, the stress hormones can be broken down by the body and normal service can resume

Of course, we can’t spend all of our time in the parasympathetic nervous response. We need an element stress in our life (yes, really); it keeps us alert to danger and keeps us safe. We need a good balance of both of these nervous responses.

SO, do you ever notice those dinosaurs coming around the corner? No? Sabre tooth tigers? No? Clearly, nature has evolved, so have we and so have our causes of stress. In modern times, the aggressor is less likely to be something with sharp teeth and more likely to be money worries, a crying child, an unhappy relationship, something that doesn’t go away quite so easily to allow the body to break down the stress hormones. As great as they are at doing their job, if left in our systems too long, these hormones become damaging. They can cause us to feel unwell and even lead to serious medical conditions.

Interestingly, some people feel the need to cry during times of stress; the body expels some of these damaging hormones in the tears without the need to break them down (did I mention the body is amazing?!!). If you feel the need to weep don’t bottle it up, cupcake. Biology says!

Modern science has proven something that the ancient yogis of India understood perfectly; that bringing the attention to the breath or slowing down can have amazing restorative benefits for the body. Of course, we know that we don’t have to think about breathing; we just do it when the brain recognises that the oxygen levels need replenishing but we ARE able to consciously take a deep breath. Try it sometime; inhale deeply, notice the pause at the top of the breath and exhale deeply. How do you feel? The action of a deep steady breath can kick-start our rest and digest response. It can trigger feelings of relaxation in just the same way as taking some time yourself. By that, I mean taking the time to do something that you really love doing; yoga, cycling, walking the dog, baking or reading; whatever works for you.

In a stressful situation, if you are able, try to remove yourself for a short time to give yourself some space. If you can’t remove yourself, close your eyes, take a pause and take a breath. (Clearly, it’s not always appropriate to close your eyes – please don’t take this action if you’re stressed in the middle of a busy road!)

If you are still awake at the end of this epic tale of Nervous System Ltd, thanks for reading! Your body works tremendously hard every single minute to keep you being amazing. Remember that the season of goodwill extends to yourself as well as ‘all mankind’. Give every single teeny weeny cell of your being the love that it deserves.