“Why do I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus?” Those were my thoughts recently, when it was a struggle to get out of bed.
Have you ever had a moment in a particularly stressful situation when you think, ‘how on earth am I ever going to get through this?’ or you don’t know what the outcome of a stressful situation will be or that you can’t believe this situation is happening? Yet, when it’s over and you get through it or when you finally have a moment to really think about what has recently happened, you find that it’s your body that has taken the brunt of it all and it begins feeling worse for wear?
This happened to me recently after caring for a family member who became ill. And, I thought to write this blog to let you guys know that this is a very real thing!
It’s referred to as The Let-Down Effect.
Yes! After researching this topic, I realised how many people suffer with this and that we can help ourselves through this with a few simple tactics.
So, what exactly is The Let-Down Effect?
It’s a condition following stressful events, such as conflict, work deadlines, or school exams etc. that leads to illness or even symptoms like: the common cold and influenza (the flu), depression and anxiety, headaches, stomach pain, panic attacks, binge eating, skin outbreaks, allergic reactions and fatigue or tiredness, to name a few.
The funny thing is, is that it can even occur after positive events as well, such as a wedding or a sporting event.
Another thing to note is that it frequently occurs on or after weekends, holidays or after retirement. You know, that moment when you finally feel that you can actually rest? I’ve heard of women who give birth soon after they stop working full time and I believe that it is because of this very same reason.
It’s like for a prolonged period the body goes through stress, stress and more stress and the minute we throw it into instant relaxation our bodies don’t know how to cope with that change.
We’ve all heard that stress can lead to illness, right? But if stress leads to illness, then you would expect that people would always become sick while under stress. Yet, a large subset of people can, at times, find themselves becoming run down, sick or developing physical symptoms after the stressful period is over – feeling like these symptoms have magically appeared out of nowhere.
I say this all the time, but it is true. Our human is so intelligent.
During periods of stress, our human body attempts to protect us by boosting the immune response and accelerating the rate of inflammation in the body. Once the stress is over, we typically take a break from that intensity we are experiencing and may want to spend more time relaxing or sleeping. After all, isn’t relaxation part of holistic living?
Well, yes. But please heed this advice. When we de-stress too rapidly, it can lead to biochemical changes that actually result in a weakened immune system, leaving us vulnerable to illness or physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach disorders, panic attacks, and other pain reactions I mentioned before. When this occurs, we have indeed experienced The Let Down Effect.
Did You Know?
The let-down effect can also happen with flare-ups of asthma, autoimmune diseases (like lupus and Crohn’s disease), digestive problems and skin conditions (such as eczema and psoriasis), as said by psychologist Marc Schoen.
How stress affects the body.
During acute stress, the body releases key hormones – including glucocorticoids (like cortisol), catecholamines (like norepinephrine) and adrenaline – to prepare itself to fight or flight and to trigger the immune system to step up certain types of ‘watch dogs’. Basically, our body goes into protection mode. Behavioural neuroscientist Leah Pyter explains that in this process, however, “glucocorticoids can reactivate latent viral infections such as herpes simplex 1 (which causes cold sores) and Epstein-Barr virus (which can trigger fatigue, fever, sore throat and swollen glands), for which symptoms are only obvious after a few days”.
Psychologist Dawn Buse explains that during your period of stress, the rise in cortisol and other stress hormones can protect you against the perception of pain, which is helpful in the moment because it can help you reach safety in a dangerous situation without being hindered by pain.
“After a stressful period has passed, the body returns to a state of normality and many of the systems that were activated calm down,” she says. “This includes a drop in cortisol as well as other stress hormones (which could) set the stage to initiate a migraine.” Similarly, that post-stress drop in cortisol could trigger a flare-up of other forms of chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia and arthritis.
Why Am I Binge Eating After A Stressful Situation?
This was me recently. We overeat because our body is trying to find a way to feel pleasure again and it’s important to recognise this symptom. “Emotional stress and physical stress kick up the same inflammatory response, which opens the door for illness or the let-down effect,” Schoen explains. After either type of stress dies down, there’s “a down-regulation of the immune system, a suppression of the immune response, (as a reaction) to the easing of stress.” In addition, the surge-and-fall of stress hormones could knock down dopamine levels in the brain, which can trigger overeating and substance abuse as people (unconsciously) try to raise their dopamine levels so they can feel reward and pleasure again, Schoen explains.
So how do we help ourselves?
Our best chance for beating the Let Down Effect is to relax in a way that keeps the immune system on alert. Think of it like this, relaxing too quickly can shock your system.
One of the best ways to avoid the let-down effect is to prevent the pressure from getting to you by:
1) Being aware and pacing yourself when you’re under pressure.
2) Getting plenty of exercise, even 20 minutes a day helps.
3) Getting good quality sleep for a 7-8 hour period.
4) Eating nutritious foods and,
5) Taking time for yourself on a regular basis for things like quiet time, meditation, deep breathing, journaling or other relaxation techniques.
“During a stressful period, have a plan that calls for breaks as you go through it” so that you’re not revved up 24/7. Indeed, the body’s “fight-or-flight response can be deactivated quite effectively through diaphragmatic breathing and guided visual imagery,” Buse says.
For example, if you have high levels of stress in your day at work or home, stop and take 5 – 10 really slow, deep, calming breaths every so often to avoid the build-up of stress that could happen over the course of your day. Something as simple as that helps!
De-stressing slowly made so much sense to me and my body, and will probably make sense to you too. Can you think of a moment when you have experienced this? I’m a holistic Personal Trainer, and I believe that warming the body up before exercise (physical stress) and warming the body down after exercise (de-stress) is essential.
Stress can come in the form of physical, mental and emotional.
“Just like you have a warm-down period after exercising, you want your body to have a tapering down of stress,” Schoen explains. The key, he says, is “to keep your body slightly revved up to keep your immune system from downshifting abruptly” when the stress comes to an end.
The best way to do this, Schoen says, is to seek the right intensity of physical and mental stimulation.
These are the 2 things you should take into consideration to help you.
- Physical Stimulation
- Mental Stimulation
Here are some ideas for physical stimulation:
- Exercise in quick bursts 5-10 minutes at a time, like a small HIIT circuit
- A walk around the block
- A short power walk
- A jog
- Cycling around the block
- Climbing a set of stairs
Here are some ideas for mental stimulation:
- Do challenging crossword puzzles
- Play logic games
- Play chess under time pressure
- Learning something new
- Do a puzzle
Do these activities for three days after a stressful period – “that’s the critical window,” Schoen says – and you’ll improve your odds of emerging from the aftermath of stress feeling good, not sick.
I hope this blog was interesting for you, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this!