What is STRESS? How to move beyond managing it, to resolving it!
The Body-Mind Connection: Level One
Most of us are familiar with “The Stress Response”. This is the automatic biological reaction that occurs when we perceive a threat to our safety. The perception of danger stimulates a neurological response in the brain which in turn stimulates the release of hormones that travel to other organs in the body to help us respond to the danger.
The most important player in the stress response is the hormone cortisol. Released by the adrenal glands, this powerful hormone causes dramatic changes in many organs and systems of the body. Cortisol; also called “The Stress Hormone” increases heart rate and blood pressure, stimulates stomach acid while decreasing overall digestive abilities and causes the skeletal muscles to tighten. These are only some of the direct effects of cortisol. Indirectly, the stress response promotes systemic inflammation and interferes dramatically with immune function.
The stress response is an essential way that the mind (our organ of perception) and the body interact. Without it we could not survive; we wouldn’t become alert upon hearing a loud sound in the night, run out of the way of a speeding car (or bear!) or avoid dark allys!
Our stress response is a primitive and critical mechanism that works whether or not we are aware of a threat. How many times has your hand flown out, without you thinking, to grab a railing or a wall when you stumble? Have you sat bolt upright out of a deep sleep with your heart pounding, your eyes wide, breath fast, skin tingling and muscles tightened wondering what the loud noise was that you were not quite sure you heard?
Is that a Bear or My Boss?
While our neurochemical stress response is critical and effective in helping us survive danger, it can also get us into a lot of trouble! The reason is that our miraculously brilliant nervous systems don’t know how to distinguish between different kinds of danger or “stress”! We have the same physiological stress response for external dangers like grizzly bears and speeding cars, as we do for non physical “dangers” like public speaking and fear of rejection. In other words; our bodies undergo the same physiological changes when we sit with our boss for our performance review, as we do when we are attacked by a bear. And unlike bears, which (if they don’t actually eat you) will eventually go away, our modern social anxieties, like job performance and personal acceptance, tend to be much more chronic.
“Is it Life or is it Memorex?”
Just as our nervous systems don’t know the difference between a bear and a boss, eg; between a physical and an emotional threat; they also can’t tell the difference between the past and the present! We will often respond automatically in the present to situations that were dangerous to us either physically or emotionally, in the past. This is called conditioning. This is where trauma reactions come into play. When someone who has PTSD from military duty, for example, hears the loud bang of a car backfiring, their body goes into a reaction as though they were under fire from enemy artillery. Their nervous system, way before the person is aware, interprets the present stimulus based on the past.
This can happen on the emotional and deep psychological level as well. Social anxiety in the present may stem from rejection (actual or assumed) from people in one’s past. And no matter how much we might understand this intellectually, in order to overcome these stress reactions, we need to help our nervous systems learn to read the present situation for what it is, and not be caught in the past, held hostage by our early learning.
If You Believe You Can or You Believe You Can’t – You’re Right!
Finally, the third way these brilliant nervous systems of ours get confused is that they don’t always know the difference between an actual threat and an imagined one! We all know the anxiety that arises within us when we don’t believe we can do something that we actually can do. Our beliefs are tremendously powerful, particularly our negative ones! If we imagine that we will fail or are inadequate, our nervous systems react to that belief with the stress response! Failure is an emotional threat! And to make matters worse, our unconscious stress response will be activated by the negative beliefs we hold that we’re not even aware of!
So you can see that there are countless threats; real and imagined, past and present, emotional, physical and even existential that our systems are trying to survive all the time! And every one of them initiates the neurochemical Stress Response. Ouch! I heard the phrase recently that aptly describes our common physiological state in this modern culture; we are literally marinating in cortisol! It’s a miracle our immune systems are not completely pickled! And maybe they actually are.
So what can we do about this? Well we have a number of powerful and clinically proven methods for managing stress. Meditation, biofeedback, yoga, exercise (to name only a few) are essential practices to counteract the chronic activation of the stress response. These practices have been proven to change our neurochemistry and induce the Relaxation Response, the biological opposite of the Stress Response. And every where you turn in the health literature on the newsstands, you can find an article encouraging you to adopt a balanced lifestyle that avoids the external stresses of overwork and under-rest.
There Must Be a Better Way!
There is another powerful way to combat stress. That is to become aware of those un-conscious beliefs, memories and perceptions that cause your system to go on alert. When you become aware of your emotions; fear of rejection, anger or resentment, you can make a conscious effort to let your body off the hook of defending you. Though you may not know how to resolve the emotional experience in the moment, you can deepen your breath, relax your tense muscles and do an exercise to get more grounded and centered. See my article on “Getting back to cool” for an effective exercise that can help you reverse the effects of stress.
It is critical to our health that we identify the chronic beliefs about ourselves and the world, and catch our automatic perceptions of imagined dangers. Without this awareness we can end up walking around in chronic patterns of stress and in perpetual cortisol overload. We can practice powerful techniques to release stress but if we can prevent the internal triggers that create it, then we can actually prevent it and live in a state of more emotional and physical freedom and health.