The science of ‘Stress’ and what you can do to resolve it….without having to change your life!
Just in time for National Stress Awareness Day this year on 5th November, here I present you the modern science of stress and the latest research which supports how a practice which has been around for centuries is increasingly being seen at the very contemporary solution….
Some of us wear stress like a badge of honour, it has become such an overused word in our day to day language, and this normalisation has distracted us from the inconvenient truth about its physiological, psychological and emotional toxic load. It’s time to wake up…..Ignore this at your peril!
What is stress?
Stress is caused by the activation of the Stress Response also known as the Fight or Flight Response, it is designed to get us out of danger – it can be thought of as a turbo boost of energy, like the body going into a different gear to prepare us to have the strength and energy to fight, or to flee from threat. Our ancestors would have used it to survive from predators or danger. It revs up the body like this:
- Increases heart rate and blood pressure
- Dilates blood vessels to muscles to pump through sugars and fats
- Kickstarts the respiratory drive so we start to sweat to keep ourselves cool
- Thickens the blood
- Pumps out inflammatory chemicals to activate our immune cells ready for tissue repair if we get wounded in fight or in escape
It is a major physiological, neurological, immunological and metabolic event! It effects changes throughout our whole system.
Clearly, it is an evolutionary adaptation designed to help us respond to a clearly perceived present moment threat, to save our lives….
So what’s gone awry?
Well put simply, as modern humans we are too ‘clever’ for our own good. Now what happens on a weekly, if not daily basis, is that our cognitive function works against us. Our ability to think, to analyse, recall the past and predict the future is what causes us stress.
Our thoughts cause our stress in a way that is as real as if we were genuinely having to escape a wild, hungry tiger!
What drives or produces our stressy thoughts?
Let’s look at some Psychology. If we break the human experience down into very simple terms, we have three important ‘need systems’ which we are driven to meet.
1/ Safety – This is the drive to feel safe and secure in order that we can experience peacefulness.
2/ Satisfaction – This is the drive to seeking rewards in order that we can experience contentment.
3/ Connection – This is the drive to seeking attachment in order that we can experience feelings of love.
These three need systems and their respective drives influence our behaviours in two ways….Firstly ‘avoiding’ behaviours so we can avoid pain, harm and danger. Secondly ‘approaching’ behaviours so we can illicit rewards and pleasure.
If one or more need system is not being met, we activate the Stress Response.
We might consider the constant activation of the response as a modern violation of the evolutionary model, where the Stress Response was designed to come in short bursts. Today, sadly it has become a chronic and ongoing reaction.
So how does this effect us?
Well the emotional and psychological effects are broad ranging, any of the below might be what you would notice in yourself or others:
- Lack of concentration
- Poor decision making
- Creative blocks
- Negative thinking
- Mood swings
- Lack of motivation
- Frustration and irritability
We have all been there!
Physically there’s a whole other batch of symptoms, due to what science terms the Allostatic Load, this is the bodily wear and tear that becomes a burden on our physical as well as mental health.
- Aches and pains
- Muscle tension and teeth grinding
- Frequent colds and infections
- Allergies and skin irritations
- Weight gain
- Indigestion and heartburn
- Dizziness and palpitations
- Tiredness and fatigue
- High blood pressure
All in all it’s rather unpleasant, but more importantly in the long term this toxic load causes inflammation in our internal environment, and taxes the immune system very heavily meaning we succumb to illness and chronic disease as the body’s self healing mechanism gets switched off.
Please say there’s some good news!
Indeed there is….What science has now shown us, is that once we learn how to switch of the Stress Response, when it is not necessary, we can reverse all of the effects of stress right through the body, at a cellular level, and throughout the brain as well.
The major breakthrough in this understanding came from Herbert Benson MD, who discovered that the body has a capacity for an opposite response to the Stress Response, which works as an antidote to it, it is called the Relaxation Response.
Ok, how do we do it?
There’s a really simple solution which will only take 15-20 minutes of your day, and it has been around for over 2000 years! Meditation is the answer
Scientific research into people who meditate discovered there were dramatic physiological changes versus non-meditators:
- Decreased metabolism
- Quieting of the body
- Decreased heart rate
- Slower breathing rate
- Slower brainwaves
All of the above are integral to the Relaxation Response, and these studies allowed it to became recognized by science, it was measurable, predictable and reproducible.
MRI scanning has allowed science to look at the brain in a way which was not possible previously. Modern research has looked at how meditation changes the structure of the brain, something which it has always done since it’s origins, but which had not been measured until the last decade.
What goes on in the brain?
The amygdala is the part of the brain which produces the Stress Response. Recent research by neuroscientist Dr Sarah Lazar, Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and associate researcher in Psychiatry at Massachusetts Genera Hospital, has shown that with regular meditation, the amygdala gets ‘turned down’ and shrinks, it gets quieter in a way which is consistent with decreased arousal and greater feelings of peace.
What’s interesting is that in the study the external life of the participants had not changed at all, it was simply their response to their external ‘stressors’ which changed. Reducing stress is not about changing your life, it is about changing your relationship to your life. Simple!
Mind Calm Meditation
If you would like to learn Mind Calm Meditation with me, get in touch. It is a simple, modern and highly effective technique created by best selling author, acclaimed meditation teacher and award winning trainer Sandy C. Newbigging. I have been trained personally by Sandy to teach this method and I offer it as one to one coaching or in group workshops.
Take a look at these pages of my website for all of the information you will need: