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Wise Online- Week 4

 

Understanding 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 a feeling of positivity and fulfilment. 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 looming work deadline, or psychological, such as persistent worry, 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 us to fight a 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, verbal conflict and work difficulties.

Real or imagined threat?

As we have learnt, 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.
  • Catastrophising (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)
  • Self-criticism.
  • Hostility.
  • Rumination about a negative event or difficulty.
  • Emotional avoidance (creates build up/ overwhelm).
  • Pessimism.
  • 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, as well as many other illnesses.

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

  1. Acute – Acute stress prepares us for ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and is generally short-term.
  2. Chronic – Chronic stress is long-term and is the primary cause of stress-related health problems. This accumulative stress/ daily stress is what we are focusing on throughout this program.

Physical responses 

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

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)… 

1.

2.

3.

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- your nervous system responds by stimulation of the sympathetic branch.

You can break the Stress Reaction Cycle (SRC) by bringing awareness to what is happening in the mind and the body (sensations, emotions and thoughts) WITHOUT reacting to it.

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 (neocortex / CEO brain) to the limbic brain to calm ‘Amy-G (the amygdala) and let “her” know you are safe from harm and danger.

S.T.O.P – The Space Between Stimulus and Response

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth, freedom and happiness. When we do not see that space between stimulus and response we are on ‘auto-pilot’, reacting to whatever thought or emotions arise and we will always getting the same results.

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 WISE mind and determine what is in or out of our control.

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”. This will activate the WISE mind.

 

WEEKLY PRACTICE TASKS

INFORMAL PRACTICE- Practice S.T.O.P/ Awareness of Stress Reactivity

 

Each day this week see if you can choose one difficult situation where you would be inclined to reactive unfavourably. S.T.O.P and bring awareness to moments of stress reactivity without trying to change them. Use this opportunity to notice what is happening in the body and the mind during challenging or difficult times. This will help to form new neural pathways and a new way of responding, rather than reacting in habitual ways.

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 this 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)

Body Scan (15 min)

Seated Stretches