This article was originally written for WellnessFX, a digital health company based out of San Francisco, CA. For the full article, click here.
Can you remember the last time you were in a heated argument? How did you feel? Did your body temperature rise? Did your hands start sweating? Did you possibly say things you regretted saying?
Our bodies have an array of defense mechanisms to keep us safe and most importantly alive. Having a strong understanding of what those signs and warnings are can allow us to reverse the effects in an efficient and responsible manner, allowing for more effective problem solving, communication and ultimately stronger relationships with others.
Dr. John Gottman, who has spent the last 40 plus years researching couple dynamics coined the term diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). DPA is the physiological overload a person experiences when you’re in fight-or-flight mode. It is a sympathetic nervous system (SNS) response.
4 Ways to Help Manage Physiological Arousal
1. Measure Key Biomarkers
Gain an understanding of where your baseline and hs-CRP and cortisol levels stand. (various WellnessFX panels test these biomarkers)
Hs-CRP, or high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, is currently the human body’s best indicator of inflammation. When you’re injured, your body goes through a process of rushing blood to the injured area, allowing immune cells to begin the healing process. Interestingly enough, inflammation is shown to be a crucial marker of depression, whether mild or severe. This study digs into how inflammation can affect people when they’re feeling depressed about any of life’s stressors. Maintaining healthy hs-CRP levels means your body isn’t constantly injured, or in terms of mental health, depressed. Let’s be real when we use words like depression, you don’t need to be diagnosed with depression to experience depressive symptoms. Knowing that your baseline hs-CRP level is optimal predicts that your body is capable of managing those symptoms effectively which in turn keeps one from experiencing depressive symptoms for extended period of time which is one of the indicators that would lead to a depressive diagnosis, as per the ICD-10.
Cortisol levels can give you insight as to how frequently you engage in fight-or-flight mode. When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands secrete cortisol to help bring your body back to baseline. If you’re constantly stressed (aka constantly secreting cortisol), your baseline cortisol levels are going to be high which can have several implications to your body. If your baseline is over 19.5 µg/dL, you may want to seriously consider the next three tips.
2. Work with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
If you’re experiencing any of the aforementioned physiological reactions due to your style of conflict (confrontational, avoidant, etc.) or due to perpetual arguments with a loved one, a marriage and family therapist can certainly help you and your significant other (or you and your family) work through these issues and teach each of you appropriate coping skills to prevent DPA. LMFTs are specially trained to facilitate individuals, couples and families’ presenting concerns from a systemic approach. They can help their client(s) systematically recognize how recurring issues manifest themselves in different aspects of their lives. LMFTs, like most holistic therapists, help their client(s) work on the root cause of the issue while providing tools for symptom management. Psychotherapists trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also provide effective and evidence-based treatment plans when working with an individual to help the client gain the skills and tools needed to manage stress.
3. Practice Some Form of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation can be a beneficial way to reduce stresses like anxiety and depression as noted in a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Mindfulness meditation can help one gain a deeper and more personal understanding of how to manage stress by allowing the individual time to explore thought patterns which may provoke stress in a relaxed and non-threatening environment. Being mindful to stress provoking thoughts, with practice, could allow acceptance to replace anxiety, leading to new perspective and meaning to these thoughts. A great way to start if you’re a complete beginner is with the HeadSpace app.
4. Track Your Heart Rate Variability
Tracking your heart rate variability (HRV) can give you a strong sense of how resilient you are to daily stressors. To briefly summarize, HRV is the variation in the time interval between heart rates. Heart rate fluctuations are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which works to maintain the body in equilibrium by way of managing blood pressure, heart rate, etc. The ANS consists of the sympathetic branch (fight or flight) which is responsible for speeding your heart rate up and the parasympathetic branch (rest and repair) which is responsible for slowing down your heart rate. Interplay between these two branches gives you an HRV reading. Tracking this measurement can provide you with great insight as to how your own autonomic nervous system functions in response to stress. An easy way to track your HRV is by using the SweetBeat HRV app and a bluetooth chest strap. For more on establishing an HRV tracking routine and what your data means, WellnessFX practitioner Ben Greenfield provides a fantastic introduction (and more advanced resources) to HRV here.