Ep 7 Identify and Remove Stressors

Step 5 in my “Get Your Shit Together” system is about identifying and removing stress.

  1. Are you getting regular coaching, therapy, or support as needed to help manage your stress and relationship to stressors?
  2. Do you have practices or habits in place to support your central nervous system and get parasympathetic?
  3. Are you working to reduce sources of inflammation and infection?

Yeah, it’s a lot.  But, if this piece isn’t in place, it makes everything else very difficult.

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Music credit: “New Way Forward” by Young Presidents

A Podcast Launch Bestie production

Welcome to Science and Shit, the podcast where I show you how a healthy gut leads to a happier life. I’m your host, Michelle Casey. I’m a functional health coach who specializes in all things digestion, from heartburn to IBS to auto immune inflammatory bowel disease. I’ve seen it all. I’ve spent the last eight years in private practice helping people with chronic illness, reverse their symptoms and live their best lives. In this podcast, you will get empowered about what you can do to impact your health naturally. I’ll help you sort through the information overwhelm to figure out what’s relevant to you. If you want a holistic scientific approach, you’ve come to the right place! 

All right, first things first, if we’re going to talk about holistic health, we need to first acknowledge that white supremacy and colonization has wiped out much indigenous wisdom all over the world. And has led to gross disparities in equity and health care access. The ʻāina (land) on which I live and work is located in the ahupuaʻa (subdivision) of Kaloko, in the moku (district) of Kona, on the mokopuni (island) of Hawai’i, in the paeʻāina (nation) of Hawai’i. I recognize that Her Majesty Queen Liliʻuokalani yielded the Hawaiian Kingdom and these territories under duress and protest to the United States to avoid the bloodshed of her people. I also want to acknowledge that the Hawai’i that we enjoy today was very much shaped in a holistic and sustainable way by many generations of indigenous Hawaiians, Polynesian people. For these people, and for this work, I express my deep reverence and gratitude. Mahalo nui loa. 

It’s important to recognize and acknowledge the history of the land that we live on. Even though you or I may not be directly responsible for the harms done to native peoples. All of us non natives who live in the United States directly benefit from this harm. If you want to learn more about the land you’re on, you can start by entering your ZIP code at the native land website at Native-land.ca. 

Now let’s jump into today’s episode. Let’s get this party started.

Hello, and welcome back. In this episode, I’m going to be talking about stress in my Get Your Shit Together system, which of course is what this season is all about. Step five, is Identify and Remove Stressors. So for those of you that went through the workshop in episode two, you may recall that there’re three different areas to rate yourself in. Number one, are you getting regular coaching, therapy, or support, as needed, to help manage your stress and your relationship to stressors? Number two, do you have practices or habits in place to support your central nervous system and get parasympathetic? And number three, are you working to reduce sources of inflammation and infection?

Okay, so that’s kind of a lot. And honestly, in all of the work that I do with people, this piece of stress management, if this piece isn’t in place, and we’re not supporting our parasympathetic nervous system, it makes all of the rest of the physical changes that you’re trying to make very, very difficult. So like I said, when we were talking about eating mindfully, in episode four, when you’re relaxed, when you’re in a parasympathetic state, when you’re not having the neurological experience that you’re running from a bear, when you’re trying to eat food, you’re going to be absorbing a lot more of those nutrients that are actually going to nourish you. Versus if you are eating fast food that you got in the drive thru driving your car in rush hour. Because our nervous system is very primal. It has not evolved at the same rate as other parts of our brain. And it’s very much a reaction machine. So in order for us to get into a mode where we can actually respond rather than react, we need to have some kind of practice in place and/or be getting some kind of support around our stress level. 

So let’s talk about these three aspects in a little more depth because again, this is huge. This is really, really foundational. So number one, getting regular coaching, therapy, or support, as needed, to help manage your stress, but specifically your relationship to the stressors in your life. Because if the last couple of years have taught the world anything, it’s that stressors don’t just go away because we want them to. There’s always going to be different types of events or situations or tasks that we find more stressful than others. And when we’re thinking about different types of stress and our relationship to it, or our perception, it would be pretty privileged of me to say, well, you know, most of our experience of stress is our perception of the situation. I mean, listen, if you have food insecurity, you’re dealing with systemic racism, if you are someone who doesn’t fit the gender binary, you’re walking through the world with inherently more stressors than people who have less of those intersections of being marginalized, or historically underrepresented, right? 

So my point is not that you should be able to ‘mind over matter’ your way out of some of these things. But that there are things that you can do something about, and there’s things we can’t do anything about. And when we dwell on the things we can’t do anything about, it can lead to feelings of powerlessness, it can lead to feeling like you don’t have any options, like things are kind of closing in on you. And that’s not a fun place to live. When we focus on things that we can take action on, the things that we do have control over, even if it’s one little thing, even if it’s choosing what you’re going to wear today. Or even if it’s picking out a lipstick that feels super empowering, even if no one’s going to see it under a mask. I don’t know, things that give you more of a sense of empowerment and choice in different situations. Maybe it’s choosing how you’re going to respond to a person who is intent on pushing your buttons. And a lot of times for people their relationship with eating becomes the source of control in situations or times in their life where they don’t necessarily feel like they have control over what’s happening. They might decide I’ve heard this from people who have chronic pain or chronic gut dysfunction, or who feel like they can’t figure out their food allergies, they just feel like they’re reacting to everything. They might say, Well, I feel like shit anyway, at least I’m gonna enjoy this food, even though I know it’s going to make me feel worse later, at least I can control that, at least I’m making this conscious choice. Or other people have hurt me, so I’m just going to hurt myself. Or if people are being very restrictive with food, that can often feel like they have a sense of control over what they’re putting in their bodies, maybe even how their body looks in a world that feels out of control, or in a situation that feels out of control. So there definitely can be a lot to unpack in our relationship with food and how stress affects it. And that’s something that I do definitely recommend getting into, if not with me, with someone that you trust, whether that’s a therapist or coach or something like that. 

But again, when we think about our perceived stress, you know, there are definitely circumstances that are real, there are definitely things that are challenging in life. And then there’s the story that we tell ourselves about what happened, or what’s going on. There’s reality, and there’s our perception of it. And I think we’ve all been around people who talk about every event in their day as if something is happening to them personally, right? And then we’ve all been around people who look at everything as an opportunity, or like a challenge, or, like they can handle it. And sometimes, maybe that’s you all throughout one day, right? I know, for me, that is sometimes. But you know, those people that are like, they’re in the middle of a natural disaster or something, and they’re just calm, cool and collected, and they have this really empowering context about everything. Those people probably have a practice in place, and some kind of skill and facility and maybe even mastery in separating out what’s happening from what they’re making it mean from the story that they are telling about it. Because for the most part, there’s a lot of stressors that we can’t really do anything about. But we can shift the way that we relate to those stressors. 

One of the things that is problematic from a health perspective, about chronic perceived stress. And there’s all kinds of scales and things you can Google about perception of stress and there’s different ways that therapists will rate people’s relationship distress this way. But from a physical standpoint, according to some of the experts in adrenal health and the hypothalamus-pituitary axis and chronic disease management, perceived stress can be more damaging over time than the actual stressor because it lasts longer. It’s kind of like the idea of resentment. We get angry once and then we keep reheating it in the mental microwave over and over again. 

All of these things are important to delve into but they’re also much easier to think about and talk about, it’s much easier to make these kinds of mental mindset shifts, when you’re well fed. When you’re well rested. When you’re not in chronic pain. When you’re absorbing the nutrients from your food. If we just think about from the standpoint of protein absorption. Protein gets broken down into polypeptide chains and then amino acids in our digestive system. Amino acids get turned into neurotransmitters, those are our happy brain chemicals. And about 80 ish percent of our serotonin and dopamine is manufactured in the small intestine. So we need to be able to eat enough protein, absorb and break down that protein, and then our gut needs to be healthy enough to make those happy brain chemicals. All of that makes it a lot easier to have an empowering context, to make up a story about what’s happening, that doesn’t make you feel like shit. Okay, so you kind of have to really have this holistic view of stress management, in my opinion. 

Physical resources are a prerequisite for emotional resilience, you could say, right? Now, can we do these things, can we work on these things at the same time? Absolutely, of course. So when my clients are in therapy, they’re doing so much better in their mental health work, because they’re actually getting the nutrients that they need. And they’re also doing the mindset, mental health work that they need, right? That combination is really important. But whether that’s therapy, coaching, whether that’s just support that you have a squad of friends that will actually lift you up and not just agree with every negative thing that you say. And that doesn’t mean that everyone is happy all the time. But I feel like in a healthy relationship, we can all take turns of being the person that’s falling apart a little bit. And being the person with the pep talks.

In the second piece here, having practices or habits in place to support your central nervous system and get parasympathetic. We talked about in the mindful eating episode, the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system and this is so, so important for digestion. It’s also so, so important for having a healthy stress response. 

If you’ve been around the functional medicine world for any amount of time, you may have heard the terms adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion. And we now know that it’s not just the adrenals working in a vacuum. Our adrenal glands control our stress hormones, or I should say they manufacture our stress hormones. They are controlled by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. So the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis is more what we want to look at now, when we’re thinking about the physical ramifications of stress, the physical ramifications of chronic stress and where the breakdown in the hormone feedback loops are going wrong. Where those breakdowns are happening.

Basically, the stress response or acute fight or flight response is very, very important if we are running from a bear or some kind of predator, but our body doesn’t necessarily know the difference, right? Because the nervous system is part of our very primal brain. It doesn’t necessarily discern between running from a predator, or doing hand to hand combat and getting stuck in rush hour traffic, or having a fight with your boss or just trying to get your kids out the door for school. Those types of stressors occur the same for our nervous system, often. Often. Sometimes people have a really great outlook on that stuff and they’re just happy, happy going through life. Great, good for them. Probably not talking to them right now. If you are one of those people, good on you. 

But for most of us, these stressors compound over the day, over the week, over time. And that can lead to chronic stress. And the acute stress response is meant to be acute. It’s not meant to be chronic. When we don’t ever feel safe, or when we don’t ever feel like we can relax, maybe we’re caring for a family member, a child or a parent or a loved one and we’re trying to keep them safe. That can lead us to having that chronic stress response ongoingly. But basically, that fight or flight part of our nervous system just kind of gets switched on and stuck on and doesn’t know how to switch off now And that really impairs not only our ability to digest food, but it impacts our hormonal health. It impacts our sleep, our ability to repair damaged tissues. It can lead to chronic inflammation. It can spike our blood sugar and lead to insulin resistance. It can suppress our immune system and make us more susceptible to getting sick. 

Science and Shit with Michelle Casey is brought to you by The Good Poopers Club. If you want to find out how you can use a research backed gut healing diet to reverse your symptoms and reset your relationship with food. Head on over to goodpoopersclub.com to get the scoop.

So then, how do we avoid all that? How do we switch on that parasympathetic side? How do we tell our nervous system that it’s safe? That it’s okay, that we’re okay in this moment. Mindfulness and meditation have become these kind of buzzwords, but they are really, really an important aspect of having a healthy parasympathetic nervous system. And sometimes we can do this for each other. There’s a thing called mirror neurons. And hopefully I’ll be able to get into this and do some interviews in season two or three about this, because it’s such a cool thing. There’s a term called co-regulation. I think about my dogs, I have two very reactive dogs and one just super happy go lucky dog. One of the reactive dogs, I was taking him out to go potty the other day. And dogs do this thing when they are greeting each other, when they’re grooming each other, where they lick each other’s ears and it’s kind of a calming. Mama dogs do it to the babies, it’s kind of a calming, relaxing thing that they do for each other. And so my dog Blue got super spooked by some movement in a bush that he was intending to poop in, I think, and so he just about freaked out and just about took my arm off. And normally, he would have just pulled me up the hill. This little 57 pound dog would have pulled my powerlifting ass all the way up the driveway. But I just decided to stop. I had been reading a little bit about co-regulation. And I was thinking about my stress response and his stress response. And I just called him over to me and I smooshed his ears back to his head. And just kind of talked to him and let him calm down. And you know what, he just kind of turned around and finally went potty and went back up the driveway without pulling me, which was huge, right? And it turns out I didn’t actually get injured by him yanking my arm, which was great, because it was a moment where I was very concerned. This is why we lift weights, right? But my point is that I could feel his nervous system shifting gears. And it didn’t take 10 minutes. It wasn’t like we had a meditation session in the bottom of the driveway there. But you’ll be able to start to feel that in yourself and you’ll be able to start to feel that in other people. 

Some of the ways that I like to suggest that my clients start trying to create this parasympathetic state. We talked about the vagal nerve, and the attachment of the vagal nerve is in the brainstem. So basically comes out of the brainstem with the cranial nerves. It’s very, very long. It goes all the way down our back and branches out into our digestive system. There’s another branch that goes into our heart and lungs. But for our purposes, the attachment site is really the most important thing to think about. It’s under your ear lobes, a little bit behind that big tendon there. And you can kind of just tap or do some circular light massages there. These nerves are just coming out through your vertebrae, and they’re just giant nerves. You don’t want to push too hard. But you can kind of tap there and massage there and manually stimulate that vagus nerve root and that can really help. Some people like to put essential oils right there. I’ve seen lots of different YouTube videos with different types of self massage techniques. There’s lots of different ways to get at it. You can check that out on YouTube, if you want. But basically anything that stimulates that area of the neck, anything internally or externally. So pranayama breathing, if you’re into yoga, any of those yogic breathing exercises. Singing, humming, or chanting. 

When I had really bad mold illness, about a year after we moved into our house, we realized we had a lot of mold, and it was a lot and I got really sick. I couldn’t work out like I used to. I just didn’t even have the lung capacity to walk up my hill by my house without getting out of breath. And so when we finally got the remediation going, and I felt like I was ready to do something, I ended up joining our local choir. Obviously, this was before the pandemic hit the US. But I ended up joining this local choir, my husband did too, which was super cute and fun. And I swear choral singing specifically does something even stronger than just singing or chanting on your own. There’s something about the sound waves and they’ve mapped on the brainwaves. And I don’t know all the science behind it, but it’s pretty powerful. So anyway, that really helps me to start to get my lungs back. And then I was able to, obviously, start working out again. But anything like that cold water splash on your face. There’s a lot of different practices that you can put in place to stimulate the vagus nerve. So that’s one way of switching into that parasympathetic state. And then things like, obviously, a meditation class, a meditation practice. A mealtime ritual, where you sit down and do some deep breathing, focus on gratitude. Things like that can be really helpful. 

So when we look at number three, here, I’m talking about internal stressors, so reducing sources of inflammation and infection. Obviously, identifying some of those stressors might look like functional testing, which we talked about in the previous episode. It might look like avoiding things that trigger, maybe you have chronic viruses like Epstein Barr. Maybe you have chronic inflammation and you know some trigger foods, that might look like avoiding those types of things, or movements that make you feel very inflamed. Let’s see, other types of infections, whether that’s like Lyme disease or something like H. Pylori. If you are going through some kind of a treatment protocol, we not only want to think about killing off the bad bugs. We want to think about how do we make our body a less hospitable host for some of these infections, right? How do we make our body more resilient, physically, so that if we are exposed to something it doesn’t necessarily knock us out? And this is what a lot of my colleagues have been talking about throughout the pandemic. 

Unfortunately, there seems to be a very interesting divide. And I say interesting, because it’s quite frightening to me sometimes actually, between holistic practitioners who are for getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and holistic practitioners who think that the vaccine is somehow evil. So if you are physically capable of getting vaccinated, that’s one obvious, very important way that you can reduce the source of infection and also the spread of infections since we are in a global pandemic. Now, does that mean that you shouldn’t also think about your vitamin D status? That you shouldn’t also eat lots of leafy green vegetables? Eat the rainbow? Of course not. Of course not. It means we do both. It means we do whatever works for our body to make our body a less hospitable host for bugs, period.

Remember that your digestive system is a large part of your immune system. And if that tissue is inflamed, if we’re eating a bunch of inflammatory foods, if we’re exposed to a lot of chemicals in our garden, if we’re exposed to a lot of toxic fumes or toxic substances at work, that’s going to add a burden to our body, to our immune system, to our liver, maybe, that makes it harder for our body to fight off any other kind of like cold or virus or bug that might come our way. Because it’s already doing so much. It could look like reducing sources of inflammation and infection could look like getting some blood work and balancing out your micronutrients. The immune system is a huge nutrient hog. So we want to make sure that we’re giving it all of the raw materials, all the resources that it needs. It might look like quitting smoking. One of my clients just quit smoking. It was one of her goals working with me, it’s very, very exciting! 

So, again, the three aspects of identifying and removing stressors. Number one, get regular coaching, therapy, or support, as needed, to help manage your stress and your relationship with stressors. Number two, create practices and habits to support your central nervous system and get parasympathetic. Number three, reduce sources of inflammation and sources of infection.

So you may now have some homework and some things to work on. Let us know any insights that you have, any aha moments, on social, look us up, and we will be excited to hear how that goes for you. And I’ll talk to you in the next episode. 

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Science and Shit with Michelle Casey. If you want to stay in touch, head on over to michellecaseynutrition.com/podcast to get in on all goodness. I know you have a lot of things you could be doing with your time and I really appreciate you choosing to spend it with me. If this episode was valuable for you. Please subscribe, follow, and share it with your friends and family and or leave a review as an offering to the algorithm gods. Until next time, be excellent to each other!