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YOUR MIND ON STRESSJuly 29, 2013 Blog
In the first part of the Stress Series, I talked about how stress impacts our health and how stress management is key to preventing the occurrence of degenerative conditions such as depression, diabetes, heart disease, and GERD (to name a few).
As I have mentioned, research has shown for over 50 years, the medical establishment has proven that the body and mind have the natural ability to heal itself without the use of drugs or surgery. When we capitalize on this effort, we can maximize our natural healing abilities to abort the stress response and relax our nervous system.
Stress: Real or Perceived?
In today’s society, stress comes in many forms. It can be real or perceived. It can be internal or external. Currently, the “fight” or “flight” response isn’t temporary such as running away from a bear or tiger. Instead, it is a continuous trigger/reaction to respond to the excessive demands placed on us by modern society. For instance, you experience an emotion of fear and irritability. You are sitting in traffic and you are late for your important meeting — which can affect the status of your job. Your conscious mind, the area of your forebrain, is aware of these emotions of fear and irritability. However, the area near your brainstem that houses the hypothalamus cannot tell the difference between an abstract thought of fear and a real threat. This stimulates the stress response, setting off the “fight or flight” mechanisms, turning on the sympathetic system, and getting you ready to run away from danger. Your body is responding or reacting as if you are threatened by a bear versus worrying and sitting in traffic.
The Physiological Effects of the Stress Response
When under stress, the demand for cortisol from our adrenal glands increases in order to help the body maintain homeostasis. The stress(ors) trigger the amygdala in the limbic brain to send out a red alert signal to activate the “fight or flight” stress response. Blood pressure and heart rate rises, respiration is increased, blood flow to the organs such as digestive and reproductive organs are reduced, and the breakdown of sugars into the bloodstream for fuel is also increased. As long as the brain perceives stress – whether real or perceived, it continues to send out the red signals to release cortisol. The body’s stress response ends when the brain relaxes, allowing hormone levels to return normal.
Chronic Stress Halts Your Body’s Self-Repair/Maintenance Functions
Typically, these stress responses do not last very long. Stress was meant to be triggered only very rarely. However, when the presence of long-term or chronic stress continues to persist, the body’s stress response is overactive for too long causing many physiological symptoms or imbalances. As mentioned in the first part of this series, some of these imbalances include sleep quality disruption, weak immunity, high blood sugar levels, and increased belly fat.
Physiologically, when the nervous system is in a sympathetic overdrive, the body’s self-healing mechanisms do not function properly as they should. Such chronic stress may produce physical or psychological damage over time leading to degenerative conditions such as depression, GERD, heart disease, and diabetes.
The problem lies when our bodies react to chronic stress the same way as acute stress does.
The stressors of daily life – such as financial, family, anxiety, depression, work, relationship, etc. result in the conscious mind and feelings that repetitively trigger the hypothalamus to elicit stress responses. The mind knows it is a feeling but the body thinks it is under attack.
As a result, the body cannot relax and repair itself. Chronic wear and tear on the body can lead to degenerative conditions as mentioned earlier.
In order to encourage the body’s natural self-repair/maintenance functions to flourish, we must abort the stress response.
The Body Can Heal Naturally
The body knows how to restore and balance itself – also known as homeostasis. It knows how to relax and abort the stress response. When this occurs, the sympathetic nervous system shuts off and the parasympathetic nervous system turns on. Cortisol and adrenaline levels drop, the immune system boosts, allowing the body’s self-repair/maintenance systems to function properly.
How does the body know how to counterbalance the stress response?
There is evidence that demonstrates that our thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behavior are all capable of inducing healing or positive physiological changes in our bodies such as foods, supplements, exercise, pills, and lifestyle choices.
First, consider the placebo effect. It has been proven repeatedly that substances like sugar pills or saline solutions (placebo) can have similar or even greater therapeutic effects than drugs. What is even more interesting is that clinical trials have shown that placebo surgery (fake surgery with small incisions to demonstrate to the patient that they have had the operation but no real surgery performed) is effective as the actual surgery. Ultimately, at one point those who got the placebo got better due to less trauma on the body with little incisions.
Secondly, consider the caring nature of a health care practitioner. Studies have shown that the act of a caring practitioner may be responsible for a large part of the positive response patients experience when treated with placebos. Scientists have postulated that it wouldn’t be enough to imbibe placebos without the participation of a health practitioner or physician. The combination of the two – placebo effect and nurturing care of a health practitioner have been found to be very effective in treatment outcomes.
This clearly demonstrates that the power of our minds (along with a positive healing relationship with a practitioner) can heal our bodies naturally. If only we can have the belief that we will heal is enough to induce the positive physiological changes without the use of drugs or surgery, then it is clear that our thoughts, beliefs and emotions have the potential to be a powerful medicine in itself.
The Health of the Body Requires the Health of the Mind
Your thoughts are powerful. As mentioned earlier, the part of the brain (near your brainstem) that houses the hypothalamus cannot tell the difference between an abstract emotion – such as the thought of fear and a live threat that affects survival. In this instance, this triggers the stress response.
On the other hand, when the conscious mind thinks positive thoughts and feelings, the hypothalamus stops triggering the stress responses, turning off the sympathetic nervous system, lowering cortisol and adrenaline levels, the immune system is triggered and the body can do what it knows – to bring the body back to homeostasis by activating its natural self-repair mechanisms to prevent illness and disease. Thus, your thoughts lead to self-healing.
Meditation Helps the Health of the Mind and Body
There isn’t one right way of doing or practicing meditation. Meditation comes in many forms. All forms, to some degree, do the following physiologically:
- Activate the parasympathetic nervous system
- Decrease cortisol (stress)
- Reduce respiration and heart rate
- Reduce the metabolic rate
- Increase blood flow in the brain
- Boosts immunity
- Facilitates a state of relaxation
- Reduces pain, anxiety and depression
- Promotes cardiovascular health
- Improves cognitive function
- Lowers blood pressure
- Controls blood sugar
- Promotes a healthy weight
Although meditation is highly important, it isn’t the only practice that shuts off the stress response. There are various ways to elicit the parasympathetic relaxation response such as being with the people you care and love, laughter, yoga, getting a massage, reading, singing, sex, cooking, qi gong, tai ji, walking in the park or by the beach, taking a hot bath, hiking, making time for creative expression, etc.
Creating a stress management practice can help abort the stress response, induce and capitalize the body’s natural healing mechanisms and allow the pleasure/relaxation response to flourish instead. This will be discussed in more detail in the final part of the Stress Series.
Like this article? Stay tuned for more on the final part of the Stress Series III.