The 3am Hamster Wheel

In the last few weeks I have found myself and my body in a high stress mode, falling into sympathetic overdrive – in part fueled by the launch of my website and newsletter blog, and in part fueled by what has been going on in our beloved country, South Africa, and the rise of civil action in response to this. Both of which have left me alternating between excitement and fear on an almost hourly basis. This was made completely evident to me as I found myself wide awake at 3am and going over the same thoughts again and again. Just by looking at these recent experiences, both the “upsides” and “downsides” of stress are clearly evident. The “upsides” are that it has mobilised me to action, I have bursts of energy and inspiration that fuel me, I feel excited and alive. And these are all important and wonderful attributes of stress. The “downsides” are that I can feel that I’m pushing myself through my usual energy levels, I’m starting to crave caffeine and sugar more, I’m finding it hard to sleep, to settle into my mindfulness practice, and to create the moments of calm that my mind and body so desperately need.

In my talks, I explain the autonomic nervous system that governs the working of our bodies. It is comprised of two unconscious nervous systems which respond to our emotions and environment and aren’t governed by conscious thought. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is also termed our ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ system and our parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is our ‘Rest and Recover’ or ‘Rest and Digest’ system. The two systems should work in harmony and balance each other; we need both every day. The SNS gets us going, it gives us energy. When we’re engaged in this system, blood is diverted away from our gut and reproductive organs and is sent instead to our muscles and our heart. Our blood pressure increases, our heart rate goes up, our breathing becomes faster and shallower. Cortisol and adrenaline are released and they give us the energy we need to be ready for action – to put up a fight or to run for our lives! We need this when we’re doing any physical activity, when we’re having to present something at work or are chasing a deadline, and when we’re in “action mode” and going about our daily activity. But we also kick into this mode immediately if we sense any danger, feel threatened or overwhelmed, skip meals because we’re too busy to eat or even if we’re running late and are stuck in traffic.

Our renewal and recovery happens in the parasympathetic nervous system. Physically we need to sleep well for at least 7 hours a night and there must also be times of calm in our day where our body can slow down. When we’re engaged in the PSNS our breathing slows and deepens, our blood vessels expand causing our blood pressure to decrease and our heart rate slows down. Our adrenalin and cortisol also decrease. Blood is diverted back to our gut and reproductive organs so this is when we are far better at digesting and absorbing our food properly and “normalising” our hormonal cycles, falling pregnant and recovering from injuries, illnesses and chronic pain.

So what did I do when I found myself on the hamster wheel at 3am, not getting anywhere with my thoughts but not getting back to sleep either? First off I tried taking some long, slow breaths as breathing is the only way we can physically tell our bodies that we’re safe and that we’re not “under attack” so that our bodies can relax and switch to the PSNS. But I was too wound up for deep breathing and found myself constantly distracted by my thoughts. Then I put on a deep sleep body scan from one of my favourite apps – Calm. It guides the listener through relaxing each part of the body and by the time I was half way though this I was fast asleep. I’ve also introduced more deep breathing in my day. Slowing down to take 5 slow deep breaths at least 5 times a day – at my desk, in the car, waiting for the kettle to boil, in the shower. Sometimes it’s agonising as I’d like to keep rushing on to the next thing but that’s the point – consciously slowing my body down to give both my body and my mind more space. And I’m even more vigilant at saying out loud at least 5 things that I’m grateful for each day to reinforce the sense of abundance and joy in my life. We’ll talk more about gratitude in another blog soon but feeling gratitude for all that we have, and for life’s simple pleasures, helps us to get over that sense of fear and foreboding and replaces it with a greater awareness, more happiness and a deep sense of hope.

If you’d like to try Calm it’s free, but to unlock and try the whole programme and app you can go to I’m in no way affiliated to the app nor do I gain anything from referrals, I just love sharing what has worked for me and tools that I find accessible and easy to use. I hope that you’ll enjoy them too.

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