The balancing act between stress and renewal
Stress and renewal are like the two ends of a see-saw. When we are stressed our body is prepared for immediate action for our survival. When we are in a renewal state our body is relaxed and can carry out maintenance functions like digestion and emotional processing that help us thrive.
We were designed to deal with major stressors, and we are typically very resilient in the face of a crisis. We were not designed to deal with constant low-level stressors like rushing about getting the kids ready for school, battling peak hour traffic on the way to work, constant deadlines and demands, a frustrating commute, homework and dinner time chaos and, finally, just when we think we can relax… “Mum, I can’t sleep, I have growing pains.”
All we want to do is flop down in front of a screen and vege out. But screen time is not ideal for renewal. In fact if you are feeling guilty about not tidying up, finishing a report or preparing the kids’ lunch for tomorrow then your relaxing screen time is adding to your stress.
To make things worse, stress carves deeper pathways in our brains than the renewal state. You don’t want to be a slow learner when it comes to being attacked by a lion so our brains are designed to take more notice of events that flood us with adrenaline.
There is a good chance that some of your earliest memories are from events that put you into a stress state, whether you were frightened or excited. My earliest memory is a vague recollection of going to the hospital to visit my brother (who got lemonade!) when I was less than three years old. That doesn’t sound stressful now but to me, then, it would have been a heady mix of fear (my parents were worried and the hospital was a big scary place) and excitement (ooh, new adventure!) My body prepped me to be ready for anything and the memory was carved much deeper into my mind than anything else happening around the same time.
So to keep the see-saw of stress and renewal in balance means we need more renewal times than stress. Until relatively recently human life consisted of fairly predictable routines so the spikes in stress were balanced out by long hours of connecting with other people while gathering, preparing and eating food, maintaining a safe environment for children and sleep and walking long distances. There certainly were no instances of staying up until 3am on facebook!
Interestingly a workbook on resilience and wellbeing by Dr Sherene Suchy called In Balance describes self-care as:
So simple, right? But in our modern lives we tend to forget that our human bodies and minds have certain requirements to run well or we keep putting our renewal time off, waiting until we have some spare time. Dr Suchy’s book is deceptive – packaged in an easy read is a lifetime of experience and research. It is so accessible it is easy to miss the fact that each paragraph is loaded with useful information. To do it justice would require several readings and my guess is you would notice the information you needed each time you went back to it. I recommend it as one of the most practical broad-strokes approaches to the topic of resilience and wellbeing I have come across.
All of our research keeps pointing us back to the basics. Sleep properly, eat well and be active in the outdoors. Take time for mindfulness, hope, compassion and playfulness, connect with other supportive beings and maintain a balance between stress and renewal.
I’ll cover specific renewal activities in my next post, then go on to talk about how we can use those renewal activities to learn more about ourselves and tame the driving forces in our lives.