We all experience stress. It is a part of our daily lives and it is inevitable. Eustress is a good level of stress, it motivates us. When stress is no longer tolerable or manageble, it can become Distress. While we cannot always control what is stressing us out, understanding our stress response may help us recover and build resilience to stress.
What happens when we are Distressed?
Our brains have evolved to detect threats quickly, as a survival mechanism to protect us. In fact, we have a special area in our brain called the Limbic system which immediately picks up on a percieved threat, activates us into the “fight or flight" response, and our stress becomes embodied. Our adrenal glands are triggered to release the stress hormones Adrenalin and Cortisol, which act on our bodies to create the changes we feel when we are under stress. As a result, our blood moves away from our gut, to our arms and legs. Our hearts begin to race, our blood pressure rises and we start to breath faster, getting us ready escape or fight our percieved threat. The stress response may also cause us to freeze in a nervous tension, submit to the danger, or even faint. It was a pretty important response when our ancestors needed to run from a tiger! Unfortunately, today that tiger has been replaced by the acute and chronic stressors of an overwhelming, overstimulating society.
Our stress response is necessary to help us survive our lives. However, how we respond to our stress and our lack of recovery from it, can adversely affect our mental and physical health. At times of stress, we may begin to crave fuel in the form of carbohydrates and fats (not always what we need!). As a result, we may have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight. We may feel exhausted, and less motivated. We may develop chronic headaches or migraines. We may experience anxiety, depression, or have difficulty sleeping. Overtime, we may develop chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and memory problems.
On top of this, if we have had a stressful situation in the past, our brains will remember those situations, and couple our stress response with the emotions and sensations we experienced at the time of our negative experience. As the saying goes, "neurons that fire together wire together." The next time we are threatened, for whatever reason big or small, we may not only experience the stress, but all the sensations that we had associate with stress. For example, think back to when you were a kid and had a big test. Did you get the butterflies? Were you stressed then? Now when you get stressed, do you still get stomach pains or feel it in your gut? What else did you experience then? What happens now when you get stressed now? You may notice the same emotions and bodily sensations as memory and the response gets triggered in your body.
It can seem like a viscious cycle, one that may cause us to become stuck. But there is hope. We now have scientific evidence of Neuroplasticity – meaning that the brain can change and rewire. How? This is where we turn to the Eastern Traditions.
Practicing yoga can lead to physical and chemical changes in our minds and our bodies. Through the practice of postures (Asana) co-ordinated with our breath, we begin to stimulate the Parasympathetic Nervous System, our "rest and digest" response. We release tension from our bodies, and the result is that our minds become more clear. As our minds become more clear, we can be more "mindful" of our personal experience in the present moment. When we accept our experince as it is, we can then choose how we respond. As we develop the capacity to practice compassion towards ourselves and others, we begin to release our mammalian caregiving hormones, which allow us to heal and recover from stress, leading us towards greater well being. We are then in a better position to accept what is front of us and make positive changes.
It takes discipline, but if you make a commitment to yourself, you will see a change in your health and happiness. Isn't that what you really want?