May is a busy month and is known as Mental Health Awareness month. Earlier this month, we had lunch with Dr. Heidi Hanna to talk about stress and how one navigates the positive elements as well as how it can be a negative! More importantly, she shares more information on stress and what happens to our bodies as well as her work in the space. She also talks about the importance of the beach as it pertains to alleviating stress. In a world that continues to move quickly, these are great things to note as we go about our day to day.
ATHLEISURE MAG: Can you tell us about your background and how you came to focus on stress and how one can manage it?
DR. HEIDI HANNA: So the first thing I'll tell you about my background is that I grew up with an anxiety disorder that started when I was about 12 years old and it caused me to have headaches and stomach aches, and then actually led to me fainting and losing consciousness. For about 40 years I didn't understand what was going on and I tried various coping mechanisms that weren't super healthy for me, before finally realizing through my own research and interviewing experts that I have a condition called Vaso – Vasovagal Syncope. This is what happens when our heart rhythms and our blood pressure actually can't get enough blood flow and oxygen to the brain and we get that kind of dizzy feeling like if we stand up too fast or if we have low blood pressure or low blood sugar. A lot of people can feel this dizziness and sometimes even lose consciousness temporarily. When we have those episodes on an ongoing basis, it turns out that my anxiety or panic attacks would trigger this. I already have low blood pressure regularly, but this would cause my blood pressure to drop even more quickly and cause me to lose consciousness.
So because of those personal challenges, I think it forced me to really take a look at how stress was impacting me and the difference between stress, which is just the gap between demand and capacity, and the energy and information that the brain and the nervous system provide to help us overcome that gap. The difference between that kind of stress reaction that leads to a stress response versus things ongoing like anxiety and even depression and other things that can result from that. So I ended up actually studying integrative methodologies. I have a background in psychology, nutrition, exercise and physiology, and then started exploring more as an integrative neuroscientist really looking at the connection between stress and the brain and the nervous system, and how that affects the body. And that's what's led me to the work that I'm doing now.
AM: What organizations do you work with where you assist those in being aware of these issues?
DR. HH: I've written seven different books all related to stress and how it can hijack our brain and our body. And I'm really trying to focus mostly now on providing people with simple strategies that they can implement into their routine to circuit break stress or to recharge their own energy so that they have the capacity they need to deal with the challenges in their life. I've worked at a lot of different organizations and I have most of them listed on my bio which I will attach for you right now. REEF is one of the partners that I'm working with to really get the message out to people about the negative impact of chronic stress, as well as some of those simple strategies we can use to really change it in an impactful way. I also work with a lot of corporate groups where I teach practitioners how to implement stress mastery solutions into their practice so whether they're in health care or they're coaching individuals or running full blown organizational development programs. I would say my real passion is helping companies implement this because there's already a lot of systems in place that can help us with things like accountability and sustainable habit change. I really want to help companies learn how to implement energy management and isolation more strategically.
AM: In speaking with you at lunch, you were saying that there are those that are more sensitive and absorbing various things which can also lend itself to stress. Can you share more about that?
DR. HH: I did mention stress sensitivity and there is about 15 to 20 percent of the population who have a genetic predisposition for sensitivity and there has been a bunch of research on the topic. One is the work of Dr. Elaine Aaron in the highly sensitive person trait and she's done a lot of great work that shows that these highly sensitive individuals have a heightened sensory sensitivity so they tend to react more to bright lights, loud noises, even smells or physical sensations that are processed more deeply into the brain stem than they are for the other 80 percent of the population. There's also research looking at something called Vantage plasticity which is a more positive way of thinking about the senses’ sensitivity, which basically means that people who have a higher sensitive nervous system react more to potential threats in their environment but also react more strongly to positive experiences so they may have higher levels of joy when something good happens, but they also may experience a lot more stress when something negative happens.
I'm also doing a lot of ongoing research to help educate the minority of people struggling with sensitivity. This also happens to be most people who are highly creative like actors and singers. I would say even a lot of athletes that really rely on intuition have what may seem like this heightened sensitivity and are able to anticipate patterns in their environment and this can make them really great high peak performers, but can also cause them to burn out or break down faster than those who are more resilient.
AM: Are there varying categories of stress?
DR. HH: There are varying categories of stress, but I think one of the challenges with this is that we tend to create a point system for things in life that would cause someone stress. So we could calculate in a life stress survey what's happening in your life right now and what the stress load that puts on your system. This is how it's typically been done in the past, but I think what's really missing from this calculation is the stress sensitivity and the perception that one brings to those experiences. Someone who is highly sensitive may have a greater stress load with less stressful circumstances in their life than somebody who has more genetic resilience that their nervous system isn't affected as much by the stimulation around them. And so the stress 360 assessment that I've developed is to really look at what are the lifestyle patterns that are happening in your life right now. Things like how you eat, how you move, how you sleep, your social connections and even how much humor and play you experience throughout your life. I like to look at that as a way to determine your capacity. And then looking at your stress perception or what I call your “stress lens” to see how much sensitivity you have to those circumstances. The third component of the stress 360 assessment is looking at your unique stress signature that tells you how much stress you're experiencing. Most of us have signs that we experience right away like maybe a headache or muscle tension and we know that we're starting to have too much stress. But over time these can lead to stress symptoms that are more long term, like weight gain or weight loss, not sleeping enough or sleeping too much. These could be emotional imbalances like feeling anxious or even feeling depressed. And so our goal in all of this is to help people assess, appreciate and adjust what's happening in their stress experience by looking at those small lifestyle factors that they can really impact vs. looking at what feels overwhelming.
AM: Are there beneficial components to stress that can actually assist us in our activities?
DR: HH: There are a lot of beneficial components to stress that actually help us. So one of the things I'd like people to understand is the difference between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is short term in nature. It provides us primarily with adrenaline, which is an energy enhancing stress hormone that has a short lifespan in the brain and the body to help us bridge that gap between demand and capacity. So when we're producing this short term stress reaction of fight or flight we have a limited amount of time to either take care of the situation or avoid it and depending on whether or not we really believe that the problem is taken care of, we may or may not then go to a chronic stress reaction. The chronic, every day, ongoing stress reaction is the one that is most toxic to our system. It’s fueled primarily by cortisol and other inflammatory hormones in our body and our brain. These are the ones that really rewire and change the way that the brain and the nervous system operate by decreasing access to the prefrontal cortex where our brain does its best work. The goal with this is to really notice when we have that short term, more enhancing stress that can help us to have better energy and insight, but then taking some sort of action to move us forward in a positive way. That’s better than pushing stress down or pushing it away. That's where it really becomes dangerous to our system.
AM: What are the indicators that one may note that stress is taking place?
DR. HH: In terms of some of the indicators that stress is taking place, I think it's different for everyone and I really encourage people to get as clear as possible as they can on what their primary signs of stress are. Those quick things like maybe a mild headache or tension in their jaw, back and shoulders. It could even be feelings of anxiety or nervousness in the body, or even something more sluggish like chronic fatigue or digestive problems - anything that gives us the sense that something's just not quite right is actually usually a good indication that we have more demand in our system than capacity. Those are the things that lead to stress over time and cause burnout, breakdown and long term emotional changes.
AM: Many people joke about being stressed, but can stress be critical in the long run when not effectively dealt with?
DR. HH: A lot of people tend to joke about being stressed. I think this is one of the ways that we bond with each other. Stress actually gives us connection and validation. We feel like people who have more stress are more important and have more going on. But most people don't really understand that this every day, nagging stress is literally reprogramming the way their nervous system reacts to the world around us. In contributes to how the brain perceives the world around us in a way that can be really debilitating. We don't want to overwhelm people with that information, but to help them understand that we can learn from our stress experiences and positively reprogram how we experience the challenges of life so that they're perceived as an opportunity for growth as opposed to a threat.
AM: What is the connection with the beach and stress management?
DR. HH: When I conducted an initial survey after kicking off my partnership with REEF, I asked people where they think about when they want to relax. An overwhelming 80 percent of people said the beach, which was very high compared to the second highest of 7.5% saying the mountains or green spaces. It was great to establish that first connection of people visualizing the beach above all else when they want to relax.
It’s important to take time out from our daily grind. Everything about the human system is designed to oscillate. We’re supposed to have these stress experiences and these recharge experiences. So to me, visualizing the beach and really trying to experience the essence of what the beach provides allows us to circuit break our stress reactions and shift out of them temporarily to totally refocus our priorities and our perspective. Taking that a step further, the first level of that is listening to sounds of the ocean and visualizing being at the beach.
Taking deep breaths and just allowing the body to let go of tension. That in and of itself is a great little mini recharge experience, and research has shown that listening to sounds of the ocean waves actually puts the brain and the body into a parasympathetic or relaxation state more effectively than listening to relaxation music or other sounds of nature. So we know that it's effective just to listen to waves crashing, but then we can add elements to take it further, like actually taking off our shoes and imagining that we have our feet in the sand, or putting on REEF flip flops or sandals as if we were there. To create a sensory experience essential oils can be used or even having fan blowing on us to capture the essence of the beach. It may sound like a lot to put into place to recharge our energy, but you could literally think about this as stopping to fill up your tank of gas. It requires some time, energy and money, but if you don't fill up the tank you're not going anywhere. For me, the beach is one of the best ways to bring all of these elements together and really come to our senses by using sensory integration through a breathing visualization or meditation practice that is so simple that we could repeat it several times throughout the day to recharge really effectively.
Of course, going to the beach is going to heighten that even more because when we're at the beach we're getting exposure to natural light, fresh air and negative ions in the oxygen we're breathing in from the saltwater moving over the surface of the sand and rocks. It changes the air we breathe to have this antioxidant healing property. Plus, putting our feet in the sand to get the grounding impact of absorbing the Earth's vibrations can also be really helpful. So as much as we can layer on these essential elements of what the beach provides, and even do that when we're at work, is going to recharge our energy even more effectively.
It’s creating the sensations of the beach that is key. The beach is my happy place and for me, creating that non-conscious reminder as I'm traveling and working like using a beach blend essential oil, serves as a little nudge for the brain to pair an item with an experience. If we do that consistently over time, the brain will start to act faster in its relaxation, especially if we pair more of those sensory items together like listening to sounds of the ocean or slipping on a pair of flip flops.
AM: Are there foods, sprays, ointments etc that can assist in reducing stress?
DR. HH: I think the goal here is to minimize overstimulation and maximize the recharge elements of what we use. For example, there's seven core foods that can be stressful to the system.
There are sensitivities or inflammatory reactions to these core foods which include gluten, soy, corn, dairy, sugar, artificial sweeteners and peanuts. It's not to say that any of these foods are bad, it's just that a lot of people have an inflammatory reaction to them. And so it's helpful to eliminate those from the diet for a short period of time and then introduce them back one at a time to really look at what might be inflammatory or stressful to you.
Similarly with sprays and ointments, there's a lot of different things that can be helpful. I think breathing in essential oils or even putting them on the skin can be really beneficial. But the primary goal is what helps each individual feel like they're being nourished, whether that be getting a massage and taking a bubble bath, playing sports or going for a run or spending time with family and friends. There's so many different elements that can help to recharge and destress depending on the individual.
AM: Does stress affect men and women differently?
DR. HH: Stress definitely affects men and women differently. The primary differerence is that while the “fight or flight” adrenaline-based reaction is more common with a male brain's stress pattern, there's something called “tend and befriend” which is more associated with a female brain pattern. This means that women typically seek support and want to nurture in times of stress, instead of leading with a more aggressive reaction.
AM: Why did you partner with REEF and what synergies exist between you and this brand?
DR. HH: When I connected with REEF, we wanted to explore the idea that being at the beach was good for your health. The brand saw that a stress epidemic was happening and wanted to see if there was a way to really educate people on the negative impact of stress and using the beach to optimize mental and emotional health. There was so much synergy because the beach has been my happy place for a long time, and I wanted to educate people by giving them fun, flexible tools that they can implement into their daily routine. Honestly, most people know what they should be doing but there there's this huge gap that exists between what we know and what we do! So when you give people a practical tool like a sandal or flip flop or an essential oil or a visualization of being at the beach, it really helps with engagement.
REEF’s whole mantra is “Beach Freely” – based on the idea that everybody fits in at the beach, and the beach lifestyle is something that we can all incorporate into our day. I think this is a great platform to help people with their mental and emotional health.
AM: Where can we find more information from you about stress, finding appropriate tools etc. to maintain this in a productive way?
DR. HH: For more information people can visit my website – https://heidihanna.com. There they can find a lot of highly customizable content – a free stress 360 survey, recharge tool kit and online course. I also have a professional training program people can enter into if they want to use it in their personal practice or even within an organization. I'm always looking for more champions to really help get this message out, because I can tell you at the core of all of our issues is this stress epidemic. And it's not about eliminating stress. It's about building consistent, effective and efficient recharge strategies into our daily lives.