Is being unwell a natural hazard of being alive?
Is sickness a natural event that we should all expect?
Is tiredness par for the course?
Well - yes...!!
But the point is, to what degree?
And when is too much, too much?
Cycles of Stress & Rest
It is natural for our bodies to undergo times of work, times of rest, times of action and times of reflection.
It is natural that our bodies engage different hormones and that our organs function differently, depending upon what it is we are doing, or experiencing.
However, it is also natural that our bodies should undergo change as a part of everyday rhythms - the ups and downs of daily life are meant to allow us to move unhindered from activities which cause us light to moderate 'stress', to activities that allow us (our mind and body) to 'rest and repair'.
This is the natural order of things right? - we see it in the progression of day to night, from winter to summer and back again. The Autumn is always a good reminder that all things move in cycles: both as we collect the fallen autumn leaves, and as we harvest conkers, we are simultaneously harvesting the symbols of things which are coming to an end and things which are seeds of potential new future growth...
All things move in cycles! In the cycle of seasonal time, we can compare the changes of the spring to those of the autumn. In individual organisms, we can harvest both falling leaves (coming to the end of their life-cycle) and conkers (at the beginning of their life cycle) from the same tree during the same season. Similarly, we can observe the changing patterns of cells and hormones within our bodies over the period of a day, a week, a month, a year or a decade - and observe patterns that repeat seemingly quickly - and others which repeat on a longer, slower cyclic process.
We can chose to look at opposing ends of these cycles, and see them as 'opposites' (day/night, old/young, black/white, healthy/unhealthy) - but the natural order of things is that there is a cycle of different experiences, and they are all interconnected - the progression is gradual and flows from one to the other.
Also, in the natural cycle of things (evidenced in nature), we do not put any judgement on those things - for example, we do not judge conkers as bad and leaves as good - or vice versa! We observe and notice that each is a sign of a certain time or place - and both contain within them the potential to become something else...
Nature reminds us of the deeper laws of change and cycles!
We are meant to move from one to another, but to do so in a seamless and ongoing cyclic loop.
This is the lesson we can observe and learn from nature...our best teacher!
The Roles of Stress & Rest in the Biological Cycles of Change
When we look at the functions of our cellular activity, within our biology, we can begin to see patterns that let us know that our bodies are consistently placed under 'stress'. Anything that requires us to move, to act, to think is initiated by our need to do something. Muscles move because their fibres contract, due to stress, which in turn calls out to our bodies to provide extra 'energy', provided by glucose or fat metabolism and the conversion of different hormones that signal a state of 'stress' to the whole biology of the body.
Action itself, is a reaction to stress: it is either a move away from something, or a move towards something - either way, the movement is a response to an original stress.
And when we talk about 'stress', it does not necessarily mean that each stress is "bad". Indeed, stress is an 'activator' - it animates us! It moves us to do things beyond our current capability!
Stress is a catalyst of life!!
In comparison, we can see what 'rest', or 'relaxation' looks like when the period of 'stress' in the moving cycle comes to an end: we can see this in our biology when our muscle fibres relax, the requirement for energy reserves and activating hormones diminishes and our body creates different signals that will allow the muscle fibres to be replenished and repaired.
This replenishing, repairing mechanism only occurs AFTER the stress subsides.
So both stress and rest, action and relaxation are needed to maintain a balanced 'flow' of life; the balance must be observed!
Dr Cannon referred to this state of biological balance as homeostasis, and recognised its importance in the maintenance of human health. Biologically we can see this idea in action, as too much muscle fibre stress may cause the build up of excessive muscle fibre, whereas too little may cause muscle 'wastage'. So we require a balance of 'just enough stress' to build healthy levels of muscle fibres, followed by 'just enough rest'.
Examples of natural stresses in our everyday lives are many and varied, but cover a wide spectrum of 'degrees of stress' and may include things like waking up normally in the morning (initiated by a rise in the stress hormone cortisol) in line with the circadian body rhythms. A little more stress might be initiated when we are forced to start running for a bus when we are late. Longer and more intense period of prolonged stresses may include situations where we are preparing for a presentation in the office, or persistently having to face an obsessive and overbearing boss. The degree of stress we are facing are turned up by our fears or worries, such as pondering on whether our 16 year old will be safe whilst staying out late at night, or whether we can meet a work project deadline, or pay the mortgage this month! Always facing the same fears or worries in an ongoing cycle of stress, with little time for rest or repair can be a slippery lope for us and our health!
The Spectrum of Rest & Relaxation
As already mentioned, rest is the state we enter more commonly in our night time resting period. Getting good sleep is essential for our body to be able to rest and therefore to simultaneously enter a biological state of repair. There are different levels of sleep, each doing specific and important processes which help to keep us mentally, emotionally and physically in good order. These processes are all about keeping us in a state of balance I will discuss this further in my blog "Sick & Tired of Being Sick & Tired - Part 3". But other ways to enter into a state of rest and relaxation include meditation, yoga, dancing, music or engaging in an activity that will allow us to let off steam (such as a sport or martial arts).
Finding ways to explore creativity is another good example of how we can engage in activities that allow our body to rest and repair.
All of these 'stress' and 'rest' activities exist on a spectrum - allowing us to find exactly the right outlet in order to keep our mind, body and spirit in balance!
And that is the important aspect for each of us - it is to find the BALANCE that allows us to move easily between states of both stress and rest.
Imbalance & the loss of Self-Regulation
Unfortunately in todays fast paced and erratic World, where we are all made to feel that we should be available 24/7 and where it is made increasingly difficult for us to disconnect from work, social media or artificial time constructs - our bodies are losing their natural rhythms and we are slowly 'forgetting' how to take time and move in time with the natural rhythm of life. With TV and other entertainment available 24/7, with electric street lights that emit artificial lights throughout periods when we would naturally have been in darkness and with other electrical gadgets keeping us up and actively engaged in 'busy-ness' well beyond the time constraints that the natural world revolves around - it is not surprising that or biology may sometimes struggle to appoint the right 'down time' by literally 'turning the lights off' in our mind and sending out the appropriate messages for sleep!