Stress is the response of the body mind to a perceived or actual danger or threat. Stress is a survival response to that actual or perceived threat and it occurs sub-consciously.
If a car is coming at you, your body/mind has to make a decision without you having to think about it. Or perhaps you overhear a conversation about a department at work shutting down, your automatic response is stress. “Are people losing their jobs? How will I survive financially if I lose my job? What if I can’t find another job?” Without thinking specifically, our mind automatically begins to draw conclusions.
Our thoughts then create a response in the body, because thoughts are electro-chemical signals. Our thoughts have the power to increase our heart rate, our blood pressure, how fast we breathe and how sweaty we get. Our subconscious automatic thoughts are linked to our autonomic nervous system that allows our body to respond to the environment in a fast and efficient manner for survival. React now, think later.
Let’s explore this unconscious process and how it results in stress.
The amygdale in the brain is our 24/7 fear alarm center that works closely with our emotional center. Together they instantly process info from our senses about external events and / or internal physical- emotional states.
Let’s say you are walking to your car and out of the corner of your eye you notice someone walking in your direction.
Your amygdale automatically goes to work by asking itself, have we seen anything like this before? It has to decide, is this dangerous?
The amygdale sifts through memory in milliseconds, lightening fast. It has to decide super fast how you need to respond and react, whether you need to run or oh, never mind it’s someone I know.
When the amygdale senses danger it sends a signal to the hippocampus that helps our memory / emotional center connect with the parts of the brain associated with consciousness.
In 3-5 seconds, the conscious brain is online that allows us to compare all the information from the brain to the
situation to come up with a realistic action plan. If we are resourceful in coping in the past we tend to access more
Positive memories and this helps us avoid stress.
So, if someone is walking in the same direction as us, we may choose to be alert, thinking it’s likely someone walking to
their car versus running / screaming because it might be a kidnapper. This is a more controlled stress response.
The amygdale has a fast track response in the body. For example, if someone jumps out at us, we jump and scream
without thinking. We got scared, eventhough it’s a brother playing a mean trick. Our rational, conscious brain does not
always get a chance to respond before the stress response starts, also known as our flight / fright system.
This system is fueled by cortisol, a stress hormone that makes us move and saves our lives.
This is an upside. There are 2 downsides:
- The fast track of the amygdale tends to be based towards the negative and may slant our response. We may over react towards an event when there is no actual danger or threat.
- Cortisol destroys brain cells and can flood the brain making it more difficult to relax. This makes thinking through the situation difficult and leaves the gates open for the amygdale to stay active.
When the amygdale does not shut off, cortisol continues to be released, leaving us feeling alarmed, aroused, agitated and stressed.
The long term consequences are an immune system that can’t function properly that leads to physical illness. Secondly, brings our tolerance down where events can then turn into traumas because we no longer can control how we cope.
How can we train ourselves to be more resilient? How can we train ourselves to respond to stress more positively?
How do we protect our immune system and ability to think through situations clearly?
Here are 6 suggestions:
- Breathing: deep breathing has a direct connection with our rest / repair system. Breathing deeply and slowly can de-escalate a full blown panic attack in a matter of minutes. Just practicing breathing throughout the day helps manage cortisol release and keeps us in an overall relaxed space.
- Hand on heart : The nerve cells around the heart are stimulated during stress. Placing your warm hand over your heart with thoughts / images of something good helps calm those nerves, often in less than a minute.
- Hugs: a 20 second full body hug can reduce stress in couples.
- Counting to 10 before reacting: because it takes longer for the thinking brain to come online, counting to 10 gives it a chance to boot up so you can create a better action plan to a stressful event.
- Take time to smell the roses: spending time in nature, slowing down, breathing allows us to re-group and cope better in the face of stress.
- Forgive yourself in minutes: don’t beat yourself up on what you should or should not have done because you cannot change it. Think about a mistake as an opportunity to grow and learn looking toward the future, not the past.
“Without forgiveness, there is no future” Desmond Tutu
Information for this blog comes from a presentation by Linda graham at the 2017 Neuroscience training Summit and article by Linda Graham called ‘Skillful Ways to deal with Stress and Trauma”.