Making Sense of Stress

By Dr Tim Latham

Picture this–you’re alone on a hike in Vermont taking pictures of the beautiful fall foliage to post on Instagram and BOOM! out pops a grizzly bear. Fortunately for you, in less than 1/20 of a second, an important series of physiological reactions, called the fight or flight response, (or acute stress response), occur in your body. Your heart beats faster and blood pressure rises to pump blood out to your muscles, your respiratory rate increases and airways in your lungs expand to bring more oxygen in with each breath, your eyes dilate and senses sharpen to increase awareness to your environment, and the hormones cortisol and adrenaline flood the bloodstream triggering the release of blood glucose (sugar) from body stores, supplying energy to all parts of the body. All of this happens so you can run faster, fight harder, and see more clearly to handle the upcoming threat. Simultaneously, several other systems in your body slow down operations that aren’t needed in this moment of immediate survival. Amongst those are parts of your gastrointestinal system, immune system, and reproductive system. Why, after all, would you need to poop, fight disease, or procreate when you don’t know if you’re going to survive the next two minutes?

Historically, the majority of threats that humans faced were physical–lions and tigers and bears (you know the rest). Today, however, the majority of stress that we face is psychological–work deadlines, finances, social media, and watching the presidential debates. The tricky part is that our bodies can’t tell the difference between that grizzly bear and that PowerPoint presentation you have to give at work tomorrow. Meaning, the same series of physiological reactions occurs in your body in both cases. Now, those reactions are absolutely critical in times of acute stress but when they happen chronically, we get sick. Think about it, if your heart and brain are working overtime, your muscles are constantly tensed up and ready to fight, you have excess sugar floating around your bloodstream, and your gastrointestinal, reproductive, and immune system are suppressed, you have the perfect recipe for the chronic conditions that plague our society. These include, heart disease, neurodegenerative disease, chronic pain, diabetes, cancer, infertility, low libido, etc. (side note – obviously those are all complex conditions that can be impacted by nutrition, physical activity, lifestyle, and genetics but you get the point. Chronic stress is bad for us!) We are essentially wasting precious bodily resources to fight ‘perceived’ stresses and that eventually takes a toll on us physically.

For the majority of Americans, this stress response becomes chronic because we are constantly stimulated. ‘Weapons of mass distraction’ like cell phones, computers, and television keep us engaged in social media/emails/reality television so much so that our brains never get a break. We live under the false premise that we have to be doing something ALL THE TIME. We have become uncomfortable with empty space and are hard wired to reach for our devices at every available moment. If you’ve ever bumped into someone who was staring down at their phone in the grocery store then you know what I’m talking about.

The good news (FINALLY) is that most of these negative effects are reversible with improved awareness.

When was the last time you took a shower? I don’t mean that from a hygienic point-of-view, I mean it from an awareness point-of-view. When was the last time that you JUST took a shower, feeling the warmth of the water, the smell of the soap, the sensations on your scalp, and the sound of the running water?

The practice of mindfulness is defined as “paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, without judgement.” Research has proven that a regular mindfulness practice is beneficial for stress reduction, cognitive function, fatigue, pain, happiness, immune function and much more. Although the benefits of ‘mindfulness’ are becoming more well known, the term can still seem intimidating to some. Rest assured, you are not required to wear an orange robe, burn incense, chant mantras, or move to a cave in Tibet to reap the benefits of improved mental and physical awareness.

Try to identify a time in your day when you typically get ‘stressed out’–whether it’s sitting in traffic, answering emails, public speaking, work deadlines, etc. These are perfect opportunities to tune inward and to take a mini-mindfulness break. If you’re new to this, you can simply focus on taking a relaxed, 4-second inhale followed by a 7-second hold and finishing with an 8-second exhale and then repeating this for 4 cycles. We call this 4-7-8 breathing and it can be a surprisingly powerful tool to help you regain control over your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. If your mind drifts off during this practice, that’s ok. Remember, a key factor in mindfulness practice is the ‘without judgement’ portion. There is no wrong way to do this. If you find yourself feeling angry or scared, that’s ok. It’s not the emotions of anger and fear that are the issue, it’s when we engage those emotions that become problematic. Allow yourself to escape from the illusion of immediacy and embrace the emptiness that simply sitting and paying attention provides.

Check out the Headspace, Buddhify, and Calm apps if you need some assistance and stay tuned for future posts to help you find your inner Zen.
Recommended Posts