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Week 4- Outsmarting the Stress Response
- Stress is not all bad. There is eustress (good) and distress (bad). The good stress helps us with passion, drive, motivation, getting out of bed, doing our daily tasks and performing well. Eustress is the positive cognitive response to stress that is healthy, or gives one a feeling of fulfilment or other positive feeling. Eustress is not defined by the stressor type, but rather how one perceives that stressor (e.g. a negative threat versus a positive challenge).
- There is acute stress (this is the ‘fight, flight, freeze, faint’ response) and chronic stress. Chronic daily stress and suppressed emotions can accumulate, increasing inflammation, pain and ‘dis-ease’ in the body.
- We can use mindfulness to practice ‘letting go’ in each of the stressful or challenging moments throughout the day. This way the stress does not accumulate and cause reactivity at the end of the day.
- The mind doesn’t know the difference between real or imagined. We can create the stress response in our body from thought alone. We can use this to our advantage by outsmarting the stress response and recovering quickly when it arises. Use the autogenic practice to redirect blood flow away from the main “stressy” areas where we usually experience sensations of stress (the throat, chest, top of the stomach, belly etc).
- We will always react with our reactive mind/dinosaur brain. We have now learnt how to re-engage our thinking cap and respond with our WISE Mind. One of the strategies is to take a breathing space and S.T.O.P.
- When our thinking cap is engaged we can produce a calmer, more regulated and more reflective response. When we “flip our lip” we can use mindfulness to put a lid back on our emotions and regulate those lower sub-cortisol areas.
- Acknowledge AmyG and let her know you are safe and you are okay. Then work through the body and the 5 senses (find creative ways to improve blood flow to your sensory cortex).
- Use the Sphere of Influence tool to firstly evaluate and name all the things which are out of your control. Then get curious about what is in your control. We always have control over our reactivity and our response to what is happening… (for example check-in with your breath, your body, notice the story-line/narrative associated with the situation, your thoughts, check that you are being kind and gentle with yourself).
Real or imagined threat?
As we have learnt in this course, AmyG does a wonderful job at initiating the hard-wired physiological stress response if we are in extreme danger. Although this physiological stress response is essential for survival, the body’s perception of ‘perceived threat’ is rarely accurate or true.A stressful situation — whether something environmental, such as a challenging work event, or psychological, such as persistent negative rumination about a difficult work event, can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes.
A stressful incident can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscles tense and beads of sweat appear. This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the “fight, flight, freeze, faint” response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling humans and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. This instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the brain can also overreact to stress that is not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, conflict and family difficulties.
Interestingly, the following are some of the ways our mind can create the stress reaction in our bodies:
- Imagined scenarios involving threat or failure.
- Catatrophising (seeing the worst invites the worst).
- Perceived stress (I am not up to this, there isn’t enough time)
- Recall of disturbing or stressful events (such as trauma)
- Rumination about a negative event or difficulty.
- Emotional avoidance (creates build up/ overwhelm).
- Denial/ avoidance (including self-soothing techniques/ substance abuse).
Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. It can lead to systemic inflammation in the body, changing the lining (endothelium) of the arteries meaning plaque can be more easily deposited on the vessel walls. Blood glucose levels can also rise due to more glycogen being broken down into glucose for readily available energy. These changes can result in higher rates of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
It is no surprise the word ‘disease’ can be broken down into two parts: DIS-EASE.
What is Stress
There Are Reasons We Experience Stress
As we have explored, stress is a physical expression of our “Fight, Flight, Freeze, Faint” survival mechanism.
Two types of stress
- Acute – Acute stress prepares us for ‘fight, flight’ and is generally short-term (and can be helpful for protection and safety in your role).
- Chronic – Chronic stress is long-term and is the primary cause of stress-related health problems.
Last week the formal recording was to notice what was happening in your mind and body during moments of ‘unpleasant’. Where do you notice the sensations occurring in the body? When we start to pay attention to the stress response, we can also see that many sensations arise in the body. It is helpful to pay attention to these physical sensations as this will allow you to gain greater awareness of when the stress response is in activation. With practice, we can become more mindful and more aware so that we can deactivate the stress response quicker and more effectively.
First, lets have a look at the physical sensations and responses that are related to the stress response.
- blood sugar levels rise.
- heart rate/ pulse increases.
- blood pressure rises.
- additional red blood cells are released (to carry extra oxygen).
- peripheral blood vessels constrict
- muscles tighten and brace to prepare for an injury.
- pupils dilate.
- blood flows away from the main digestive organs (digestion is not a priority at this stage) and moves to the arms and legs where it is needed for ‘fight or flight’. This may produce feelings of nausea, butterflies, or other stomach and digestive issues.
- saliva production decreases, sometimes producing a dry mouth.
- bladder and colon prepare to void their contents in preparation for violent action and possibly injury.
- hair stands on end.
- skin vessels constrict, causing chills and sweat.
Early Warning Signs of Stress
- Staying up late binge watching TV or anything similar on your smart phone/ electronic device.
- Self-soothing (wine, food, medication, drugs, gambling, risk-taking behaviours etc).
- Avoidance (avoidance of people, gym, exercise, healthy eating, social situations and gatherings etc).
- Messy house or very clean house (depending on your norm).
- Loss of sense of humour.
- Memory loss.
- Scattered mind. Busy thoughts, over-thinking, negative rumination about a particular issue, situation or difficulty.
- Short fuse, increased irritability.
- Less patience.
- More emotions that appear to bubble up for no good reason.
- Reduced/ Increased libido.
- Less sleep, broken sleep, waking in the early hours of the morning (usually between 2am and 4am)
- Over talkative, over stimulated. (e.g. Increased desire to have more caffeine and stimulants, which may be a sign of adrenal fatigue).
My early warning signs of stress are (Make a note of your top three early warning signs that tell you you might be close to tipping over the edge…
Outsmarting the Stress Response
Quite simply, one of the first impacts of practicing mindfulness can be the capacity to move out of an aroused, activated, stressed state into a calmer, more reflective, regulated state.
This relaxed state- called the parasympathetic state- is displayed in physical responses such as slowing down of the heartbeat, increase of expiration, relaxation of muscles, increased digestive activity and recuperation and rest. It is associated with a pleasurable feeling of relaxation (as well as the vulnerable emotions such as sadness, hurt and grief).
A lot of us spend our time with the sympathetic branch of the nervous system in activation. This is the energy-mobilising aspect of the nervous system, which prepares you for active engagement with the environment. It is associated with the more active emotions such as anger, rage, fear, irritation, frustration, and also excitement, joy and interest. When you are challenged by life- e.g. people at work, difficulties in your relationships, your team losing an important contract or game- your nervous system responds by stimulation of the sympathetic branch.
It is important to activate the senses and feel the sensations of the breath (particularly in the abdomen) when you breathe consciously. This will help ‘redirect’ blood flow and activate the ‘long route’ to engage the sensory cortex (producing a calming more regulated outcome).
Mindfulness helps us to connect to the present moment and this breaks habitual patterns and the undesirable stress response. Calming signals and neurotransmitters are sent down from the sensory cortex (Chief Commissioner of your brain) to the limbic brain to calm ‘Amy-G (the amygdala) and let “her” know you are safe from harm and danger. By supporting your adrenal glands and lowering cortisol output, this vicious cycle can be broken.
S.T.O.P – The Breathing Space Tool
There are times when we all just need some “breathing space”? This practice provides a way to step out of automatic pilot mode and into the present moment. What we are doing is creating a space to reconnect with your natural resilience and wisdom. You are simply tuning in to what is happening right now, without expectation of any particular result.
If you remember nothing else, just remember the word “STOP”.
S – Stop
T – Take a Mindful Breath (Feel the breath)
O – Open and Observe (Check in with your Head (Thoughts), Heart (Emotions)/ Body (Sensations)
P – Proceed With Beginners Mind
WEEKLY PRACTICE TASKS
INFORMAL PRACTICE- S.T.O.P
Each day this week see if you can choose one stressful situation where you would be inclined to react unfavourably. Bring awareness to moments of stress reactivity without trying to change them. Use these opportunities to notice what is happening in the body and the mind during difficult and stressful times. This will help to form a new neural pathway and a new way of responding, rather than reacting in habitual ways. Really explore on a deeper level any physical sensations you notice in your body when doing S.T.O.P.
*You may like to combine the sphere of influence tool with this practice.
FORMAL PRACTICE- Autogenic Training & Body Scan
Autogenic training is a combination of psycho-physiology. This is a powerful relaxation technique that uses the power of your mind to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. It can be used to help reduce stress, anxiety or hyperarousal. It is also useful during times of hypervigilance or when you notice your heart rate and breathing has quickened due to stress.
Try the short practice of autogenic training below to produce a calming effect on the nervous system. It works through a series of self-statements about heaviness and warmth in different parts of the body. You can focus on your pulse or heart rate too, i.e. you might like to repeat to yourself “my pulse is regular” as you’re feeling the pulse come down. Through this process a positive effect is induced on the autonomic nervous system.
Autogenic Training (5 min)
Practice the Body Scan each night this week. The Body Scan originated with the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program introduced by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s. Below is the original body scan recording from the MBSR program that is well-researched. The practice involves a progression of attention over the sensations in the body, allowing them to come and go, whilst also practicing a release of any emotions, mind states and judgments. For example, do you notice impatience, irritation, anxiety, temperature changes, various sensations, an urge to scratch, itchiness etc. Can you let those urges come and then pass through? When practiced regularly, this level of acceptance can lead to deep states of relaxation.