Knowing how the body reacts to stressful situations is half the battle won. We are currently going through very difficult times and are all feeling the stress one way or the other. Of course there is the threat to life itself -our own and that of our dear one from this deadly enemy COVID 19. With the stay in place order, many of us are protected from the imminent threat to life. However there are other stresses – how to feed a family that is hunkering down within the walls of your home especially when essentials are in short supply. The fear of going to a store that is still teeming with people, How to keep the little ones engaged? How to ensure that older family members are safe and well stocked , dealing with crabby family members – especially teenagers and young adults who are itching to go out since “the virus does not attack younger folks ” ( who said that? ), it goes on and on . We are each dealing with our specific situations and our individual challenges.
Knowing what stress does to us and developing a practice that calms the mind and behavior may help us through this war. This article addresses stress in daily life- people like you and me who are facing annoying circumstances and definitely not in the league of doctors treating patients with this disease or soldiers on the warfront.
This is how the human body functions when faced by perceived threats – When threatened by a situation, it could be a perception of threat on any level – physical, emotional or mental, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. “Perception” because when a person is faced with an unsafe situation – images of danger that pass through their mind can be based on one’s own previous experiences or the experiences of others. Such memories create thoughts of being unsafe. The normal human tendency when faced with an unsafe situation is either fight or flight, both set off by fright. These impulses are controlled by the hypothalamus which sends messages to the autonomic nervous system which governs the involuntary functioning of the body during a stressful or threatening situation. The sympathetic nervous system reacts by increasing the heart rate, dilating the pupil and giving the pituitary gland the order to secrete more adrenaline, leading to a sudden rush of bodily activity. One feels breathless, feels the heart beating faster and starts sweating preparing the body for action – either to hold the ground and fight or leave the arena- flight. In both cases it is necessary to get the muscles moving for immediate action and tap all energy resources at hand.
|Sympathetic Nervous system function Fight, flight, fright||Parasympathetic nervous system function Rest and Digest|
|Increases heart rate, Blood pressure, body temperature, Heavy breathing, redirects the blood away from the Immune system and the Digestive system to legs, arms and brain Body tenses, Breath becomes shallow Digestion shuts off Immune system shuts off.||Regulates normal body processes – breathing, digestion Heartrate slows, Breathing becomes even and relaxed Muscles relax Immune and digestive system start working again. Helps to grow, heal, relax and regenerate|
For any protective activity to be performed in a threatening situation, a certain threshold of nervous activity must be present. This is a normal reaction. Once that threshold is achieved the body and mind go into reactionary mode and perform activities that eliminates the threat and returns balance to the mind and body. Very simply it’s the sympathetic nervous system that sends blood coursing through the muscles getting them to move. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are secreted at the command of the SNS. They are the messengers that travel to various parts of the body to make them action ready.When the threat diminishes, the parasympathetic system takes over by reducing the heart rate and normalizing blood flow. Breathing slows down and returns to regular pace. The body starts cooling down.
The superior intelligence of human beings allows the cumulation of experiences and perceptions to create stress. It could be a thought, (or what is called in Cognitive behavior therapy an automatic thought), memory or anticipation of a difficult situation based on experience. Ultimately stress is created by psychological factors. It originates in the mind of a person at the perception of threat – physical, emotional, social. Over a period the body starts releasing cortisol even at the thought of a stressful situation. This leads to chronic stress. Eventually too much cortisol, released by the perception of stress, kills the cells of the hippocampus. . The prefrontal cortex shuts down which cause everyone and everything to seem stressful.
At the root of any neural excitement that causes the system to be stressed, is fear. Abnormal and illogical fear accompanies by rumination ( building on a thought that arises out of fear or perceived threat to self, and spiralling out of control that it becomes hard to see the real picture)
Once rational thought takes over, homeostasis is achieved, and the stress levels dissipate. However, when people have panic attacks, rational thought is overcome by irrational or automatic thoughts that rapidly spiral out of control giving rise to mental disorders such as Anxiety and Depression.
When the brain and the body go into this stressed spin, an intervention is necessary to rewire the brain and stop it from reacting to real or perceived threats. That intervention has to help the brain send messages to the other body parts. Slowing the breath deliberately is one such intervention and is associated with meditation, mindfulness or contemplation. Breathing techniques help to reset the brain and activate the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore calms the body down.
My next post will contain breathing techniques that help to shift the bodily function from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system. Over time these practices help to rewire the brain allowing the individual to catch stress build up early enough to prevent it from becoming a consistent pattern of behavior. The field of mindfulness uses this premise as its basis. Breathing techniques help us to practice mindfulness. Meditation is the next step to further calm the mind.
CHAPTER 1. Loomings
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time tozz get to sea as soon as I can.