Stress and Survival: The Hidden Impact of Stress on Your Body

Ever find yourself so stressed out that you can't focus on anything? Maybe you're losing sleep, your mind racing at night. You're not alone, folks. This is your body in stress mode, where it's all about survival, not thriving. And it's high time we talked about how to flip the script.

Chronic Stress strains the whole body by over-activating our sympathetic nervous system, our fight-or-flight response, that is supposed to kick in when we are facing imminent threats to our survival.

The Sympathetic What?

That's right. We're talking about your sympathetic nervous system—the one in charge of your fight-or-flight response. It’s a critical part of our biology, helping us avoid getting eaten by predators for centuries. When this system kicks into high gear, it sends out a flood of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. They get your heart pounding and divert crucial resources like blood and oxygen to places you'd need them in life-or-death situations: your heart, lungs, muscles, and the amygdala (the fear center of your brain). The sympathetic nervous system is critical to our survival.

Survival Mode Side Effects

The sympathetic nervous system is all good if you're trying to outrun a bear, but what happens when this system stays activated? Well, your body can’t always read the difference between life-threatening stress versus stressful daily inconveniences, and the same system kicks in to protect you anyway. When the stress response is activated, systems that aren’t “mission-critical,” like digestion, reproduction, and even your immune response, take a backseat. We're talking about long-term damage here, folks: messed up sleep cycles, frequent illnesses, and burnout that feels like you’re dragging yourself through the mud.

The Ripple Effects

But it doesn't stop there. When your body thinks you’re perpetually in danger, getting through the day feels infinitely harder and a lot of the joy of life is missed. Your focus dwindles, relaxing becomes a distant dream, and you forget about deep meditation or solid sleep. You’re also more prone to making poor choices, like reaching for that third cup of coffee or that nightly wine to relax, which may offer some immediate relief but these habits tend to perpetuate the stress response.

Left unchecked, chronic stress can lead to a slippery slope to insomnia, anxiety, depression, and a laundry list of other health issues, including heart conditions and metabolic disorders.

Breaking The Cycle

Finding a solution starts with understanding our nervous system’s evolution, and something we can all monitor: Heart Rate Variability or HRV. HRV is a nifty marker for stress resilience. A high HRV? You're like a stress-bouncing superhero. Low HRV? It's a red flag your body isn't coping well with stress.

So what is HRV? The definition is quite intuitive to the name—it’s a measure of the variability between heartbeats, a function controlled by your autonomic nervous system. Most people think of the heartbeat as a consistent beat, like a metronome — but it’s not actually quite that precise. Someone with a heart rate of 60 beats per minute doesn’t actually experience a heartbeat every second, on the dot—it can vary by milliseconds. ​​Sympathetic system increases heart rate and the speed of the heart, while the parasympathetic system reduces heart rate and the speed of the heart when we’re in a recovery state.

HRV can be most accurately assessed by electrocardiogram (ECG) and can also be assessed by a number of consumer wearable devices.

Factors Affecting HRV
  • Low HRV: Poor sleep, fatigue, impending illness.
  • High HRV: Balanced diet, regular exercise, and yes—soothing touch.

Your Autonomic Nervous System

Think of it as the conductor of your body's orchestra—managing everything from digestion to hormones. This system is split into the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) branches.

  • Parasympathetic: This is where rest, deep sleep, and healing happen. It fires up when you're safe and relaxed.
  • Sympathetic: This guy comes into play when it's time to tackle threats.

How to Improve HRV and Bounce Back From Stress

Breathe Mindfully

Mindful breathing is a powerful tool for improving HRV and can be done at any point of the day and in any setting. Breathwork is free and has life-changing benefits.

Focus on Sleep Quality

We get it; this is not a small task. When we’re stressed, sleep is the first thing to take a hit. When we’re sleeping, we’re maximally vulnerable. Evolutionarily, it means our body has let down its guard. That’s nearly impossible when we believe that there is something that could possibly be threatening around us. Here are some micro and macro changes to make to get sleep back on your side:

  • Set a consistent bedtime
  • Watch the sunset and go outside as early as you can in the morning
  • Don’t drink liquids for at least an hour before bed 
  • Sleep in a dark room
  • Avoid noise disturbances
  • Avoid blue light from screens for at least an hour before bed
  • Avoid caffeine and stimulants, mainly after noon
  • Avoid alcohol and sedatives before bed 
  • Sleep in a cool environment

Music Impacts HRV

Put headphones on and tune-in to improve HRV and access to safe mindful recovery states. You don’t have to listen to opera or smooth jazz; people feel relaxed from many different music types. It’s worth taking a few minutes to think about what music helps you feel most calm and relaxed. 

HRV Training Through Touch

You know the feeling of a welcomed hug from a loved one on a bad day? A soothing touch from a loved one is one of the most powerful signals that we are safe and ready to recover. Skin hunger is real, so establish someone in your life (platonic or romantic), who you can give a big fat bear hug.

Gentle Movement

Gentle movement is great to unwind from stress. Try basic stretching like Yin Yoga, which  is straightforward and approachable (don’t worry if you’ve never done yoga before). 

HRV Training with the Apollo Wearable

A tool like the Apollo wearable is a catalyst for state change to remind us we’re safe and in control of our experience. The Apollo wearable was developed by neuroscientists and physicians for less stress, better sleep, more energy, relaxation, and focus. Apollo is a wearable that transforms how you feel through your sense of touch giving you more energy, a brighter mood, deeper relaxation & better flow. Through soothing, gentle, waves of vibration, the Apollo wearable helps your body relax and reduces the feelings of stress putting you into a state that allows you to have more control over how you want to feel. 

Apollo Vibes: The Healing Power of Touch

Apollo uses vibration to tap into our inherent sense of touch, soothing or energizing us. Certain frequencies dial down stress, nudging us towards a balanced state. Apollo is designed to improve your HRV, whether you're trying to relax or rev up. There have been two published double-blind randomized placebo-controlled crossover studies proving Apollo’s efficacy at improving HRV. This wearable tech is truly a game-changer.

In summary, chronic stress isn't just a mental or emotional burden; it's a full-body alarm system that stays jammed on the “on” position. If left unchecked, you're paving a not-so-smooth road towards some serious health setbacks. But here's the good news: awareness is the first step to transformation. By understanding how your nervous system is wired to respond and adopting strategies like monitoring your HRV, you can reclaim control. So let's start tuning into ourselves a bit more, shall we? Your mind and body will thank you.

The Health Institute

The Health Institute was founded by Dr. Josh Axe to teach the ancient principles of health to the modern world. Our mission is to empower every individual to transform their mind and body through time-tested practices and protocols that have helped people heal for thousands of years.