The science behind stress and countering measures
Stress is a vital survival response which can get out of control and be detrimental to health.
We probably all know the feeling of stress: panic, sweaty palms, butterflies, increased heart rate, clenched jaw, heavy breathing, insomnia and the list could go on.
What happens, is we perceive a stress in the environment through our senses, we could see a traffic jam, hear an argument, smell a gas leak or feel worried about keeping our job or house.
This information is sent to the amygdala, the emotional processing centre, if a threat is detected a distress signal is sent to the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus is the command centre and communicates to the rest of the body what processes need to happen or not happen.
The hypothalamus controls the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions, such as:
· Blood pressure
· Heart rate
2 components of autonomic nervous system
Sympathetic nervous system – the accelerator, triggers the fight of flight response
Parasympathetic – the brakes. Promotes rest and digest
Diagram from https://www.christopherreeve.org/living-with-paralysis/health/secondary-conditions/autonomic-dysreflexia
When a hypothalamus is sent a distress signal the sympathetic nervous system, ‘fight or flight,’ is triggered. Adrenaline is released leading to shallow, rapid breathing, a faster heart rate, sweating, loss of appetite, cold extremities.
If the amygdala sends ongoing distress signals to the hypothalamus, the secondary stress response is activated, the HPA axis, which releases cortisol. This means the body can stay ready to fight or fly for a longer period of time.
Cortisol increases blood sugar availability, through increased appetite and storage, to maintain energy reserves for fight or flight. It also down-regulates nonessential processes during crisis-mode such as immune, digestive, reproductive and growth processes.
When cortisol levels fall the parasympathetic nervous system can kick in and but the brakes on, reducing heart rate, breath rate, promoting digestion, reproduction and full immune function.
Spiralling effects of chronic stress
High and continuous adrenaline damages vessels and cortisol causes behavioural and physical changes like increased appetite and storage of sugar and fat, poor sleep. Coping mechanisms can also have negative effects such as smoking and drinking. This can spiral into onset and worsening of diseases such as depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions, cardiovascular diseases, and autoimmune diseases.
That is why it is crucial to learn to identify and manage stress, this doesn’t need to be an yet another stress but instead can be seen as an empowering journey where you learn more about yourself and the space you live in. Finding solutions and prevention methods enables you to do what you value most, in the end helping you enjoy your day to day more and live longer!
Moving from stress to rest
People can struggle to switch from the accelerator ‘sympathetic nervous system‘ to the brakes ‘parasympathetic nervous system’. This can be made difficult by the rat race of growing the socioeconomic ladder, ongoing global turmoil and other challenging living conditions causing chronic stress, associated with higher cortisol levels, inhibiting the parasympathetic system.
However, you have control here, this system is controlled by your mind so it figures that controlling your mind can change the system, counter stress measures can down regulate the accelerator system and help the brakes come on.
Self-reflection and awareness can help you identify the triggers of your stress. Although it can be hard to problem solve and find solutions when high levels of stress are ongoing.
Identifying and countering some of your stressors can give you the mental space to find solutions to more complex issues that are stressing you. With mindfulness and acceptance of the things we can change and the things we cannot change.
You can start to see immediate benefits including improved self-awareness, control and focus, reduction in blood pressure.
Journaling, self-reflection and speaking to a trusted listener can help you identify and solve the underlying causes of your stress.
Deep abdominal breathing, visualising tranquil scenes, repeating soothing words, repetitive action such as prayer, yoga or tai chi can help you relax your body and breathing, reducing cortisol and helping your body move out of fight or flight.
Any form of exercise can act as a stress reliever, from aerobics to yoga or tai chi. Exercise increases endorphins which are feel good neurotransmitters and can reduce adrenaline and cortisol in the blood.
Exercise also promotes deeper breathing and relaxation, as well as taking your mind of the stressful things in life. As you feel stronger and fitter you may feel more self-confident and less inclined to smoke or drink and more inclined to socialise and eat healthy.
Exercise also reduces a lot of the negative side effects from stress, improving cardiovascular, digestive and immune functions.
The reasons are unclear but the evidence is unquestionable, fulfilling social networks protect and sustain health and wellbeing in times of crisis or chronic stress. A social network provides a range of trusted individuals to discuss issues and problem solve with, as well as that much needed distraction!
Volunteering or joining a group to expand your social network, prioritising to-do lists and letting lower priority tasks go can help you take time for your hobbies, family, friends and other things you value.
These methods and others can be used to reduce the stress signals sent by the amygdala to the hypothalamus, and reduce the amount you are on acceleration-mode compared to the amount you put on the brakes.
So this April, for Stress Awareness Month, take time to consciously relax, breathe deeply, find joy and allow your body to take care of itself.