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Wise Online- Week 4
Week 4- Outsmarting the Stress Response
Not all stress is bad. We have good stress known as “eustress” and unpleasant stress known as “distress”. 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).
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 or freeze” response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling humans and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The carefully orchestrated yet near-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.
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.
Interestingly, the following are some of the ways our mind can create the stress reaction in our bodies:
- Imagined scenarios involving threat of 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 or Freeze” survival mechanism.
Two types of stress
- Acute – Acute stress prepares us for ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and is generally short-term.
- Chronic – Chronic stress is long-term and is the primary cause of stress-related health problems.
Last week the informal practice task was to notice what was happening in your mind and body during moments of ‘unpleasant’. Where do you notice stress occurring in the body? What physical sensations can you identify in your body when stress is present? It is helpful to pay attention to these 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…
How the body and the brain work together to produce and regulate emotions is quite complex. One of the most accessible ways of understanding emotions, and the brain, is to look at the evolution of the brain.
The reptilian brain- The reptilian brain, the oldest of the three, controls the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. Our reptilian brain includes the main structures found in a reptile’s brain: the brain stem and the cerebellum. The reptilian brain is reliable but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive.
The limbic brain -The limbic brain emerged in the first mammals. It can record memories of behaviours that produced agreeable and disagreeable experiences, so it is responsible for what are called emotions in human beings. The main structures of the limbic brain are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The limbic brain is the seat of the value judgments that we make, often unconsciously, that exert such a strong influence on our behaviour.
The neocortex –The neocortex is what makes us human. It first assumed importance in primates and culminated in the human brain with its two large cerebral hemispheres that play a dominant role. These hemispheres have been responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. The neocortex has almost infinite learning abilities.
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
O – Open and Observe (Check in with your Head (Thoughts), Heart (Emotions)/ Body (Sensations)
P – Proceed With Beginners Mind
WEEKLY PRACTICE TASKS
INFORMAL PRACTICE- Awareness of Stress Reactivity
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.
FORMAL PRACTICE- The Body Scan
Between now and next week practice the Body Scan recording at least six times. This is the core practice in the MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction course) so it is a very important practice. Don’t expect anything in particular from this exercise. See if you can give up all expectations about it and just let your experience be your experience.
What came up?
- How did it feel?
- What you noticed in terms of physical sensations, emotions, thoughts?
- Was it enjoyable? Was it hard? Did you notice any negative mind states such as boredom, irritation, itchiness, impatience, anger, anxiousness? What was your reaction to these?
Example: “When I practiced the body scan I noticed I had some sharp stabbing pain in my right hip flexor. I used the exhalation and outbreath to release some of the tension and then I had a sinking sensation which was strange but relaxing (it felt as if I was falling through the floor). I noticed my heart beating faster when I bought awareness to the chest and I found it easy to notice the breath at the belly and feel the rise and fall of my hand when it was placed there.