Permission to Downshift?

beth-circle-headBy Beth Heller

Back to school, end of summer, Packers season.  All good things, but for many of us September signals an increase in stress.  This month, our blog takes on the topic of stress, which is possibly the biggest obstacle to the creation of a culture of well-being in any community.  The deleterious effects of stress cut across income, ethnicity and age, because even when immediate survival needs are met, psychological stress can be present.  Our body’s stress response, a series of hormonal signals that trigger physiological shifts designed to promote self-preservation, can’t tell the difference between a famine, a sabertooth tiger and an iPhone.  In all three cases, our bodies react the same – making our blood thicker so it will clot if we’re bitten or injured, shunting blood away from our digestive organs and toward our skeletal muscles so we can fight or run, and increasing heart rate to ensure optimal physical effort.  These changes also stimulate an inflammatory state, as our bodies stand at the ready to respond to injury.  Thus, when an email from a client or our boss assails us at 8 p.m. our body gears up for battle instead of bed.  Many of us live in a constant state of agitation, waiting for the next piece of information to arrive that will either please us or send us into a tizzy.  

So, what, are we just up a creek?  If we do nothing to address this situation, yes.  However, if we decide as individuals and as a community that we want to view stress as the serious challenge that it is,  concrete changes in our environment and our interactions have huge potential.  

In fact, one of the truisms about stress is that we while cannot rid life of all stress, we can change how we react to it.  What does that mean?  Well, if we look at one model of well-being, it means building stress-reduction rituals into our lives.  In fact, “downshifting,” is one of the 9 Power Principles outlined in the Blue Zones, a study of five regions in the world where inhabitants live verifiably longer lives.  In these areas, which individuals face hardship and challenges like the rest of us, rituals and practices are built into lifestyles that allow them to step away from stress for short periods of time.  Prayer, inter-generational interaction, napping, walking in nature and even happy hour present the opportunity to pull us out of the stresses of life long enough to counteract the most pernicious effects of stress.  And this isn’t just a Blue Zone thing, the finding is borne out on the individual level, too.  In a 2017 study out of Finland, researchers tested the hypothesis that the environment we surround ourselves with directly impacts our overall health and symptoms of cardiovascular stress.  The study, which sent women into three different urban environments –  an urban forest, and urban park and the city center – to walk for 30 minutes followed by 15 minutes of resting and observing,  The green environments (park, forest) were associated with lower blood pressure and heart rate during the resting period versus the city center.

Bottom line – we all know that stress isn’t good for us and that simple solutions (a deep breath, a walk by the river, stopping to read a paragraph of inspiring words) can make a measurable difference in they way we react to stress.  So why aren’t we downshifting at home, school and work?  One possible response is that downshifting isn’t part of our culture…yet.  Stay with us this September as well look at local efforts to combat stress and improve well-being in the Greater Green Bay community.  


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