Stress: we all seem to have it these days, or know people who are trying whatever they can to avoid it. Turn on the TV or listen to the radio, and the news initiates a stress response. Or at least our reactive feelings generate that response. And while we continue to cope as best we can, the subtle and persistent threat from outside influencers builds a momentum over time that affects our health, our well-being, and our ability to fully thrive in everyday life.
There are ways, however, to defeat this “silent thief” that robs us of our joy; and it all begins with gaining awareness. With awareness comes our ability to manifest peace, happiness and creative self-expression. But it takes some inner work in the form of focus, attention and coming to know that deep down we are safe, no matter what. But until then persistent stress affects our physical health.
A portion of the information below was taken from a report of The American Psychological Association. (http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx)
How stress affect our bodies
Our bodies are especially vulnerable to stress. The physical reaction to fear and stress can cause all sorts of short term problems and can have various long term effects. Here’s what happens:
When the body is stressed, (becomes anxious, fearful, or perceives danger) the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) generates what is known as the “fight or flight” response. The body shifts all of its energy resources toward fighting off a life threat, or fleeing from an enemy (real or simply perceived as real). The SNS signals the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, digestive process to change and glucose levels (sugar energy) in the bloodstream to increase to deal with the emergency.
Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body. As the SNS continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.
Below are five examples of how the body reacts to chronic stress which dramatically impacts our health:
- When cortisol and epinephrine are released, the liver produces more glucose, a blood sugar that would give you the energy for “fight or flight” in an emergency.For some people — especially people vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes — that extra blood sugar can mean diabetes.
- When you’re stressed, you may eat much more or much less than you usually do. If you eat more or different foods, or increase your use of alcohol or tobacco, you can experience heartburn or acid reflux.
- Stress can make you breathe harder, and for those with asthma or a lung disease such as emphysema, getting the oxygen you need to breathe easier can be difficult.
- Chronic stress can contribute tolong-term problems for heart and blood vessels resulting in the risk for hypertension, and inflammation in the coronary arteries leading to a heart attack or stroke.
- It also appears that how a person responds to stress can affect cholesterol levels.
How stress affects our lives
While the body’s health is diminished as a result of chronic stress, so too is a person’s ability to live a joyous and fruitful life. In my opinion, this may be the most costly of all responses to stress.
But because there are very few Saber-Tooth Tigers to run from these days, (other than the perceived threat of a “saber-tooth boss” lurking in the shadows), we do not actually need such a powerful automatic response to fear that has gained a momentum (prolonged habit) over time. We can begin to decrease our stress response, and the way to do this is through mindfulness training and practice.
While various relaxation techniques, including meditation and the use of audio-technology sound waves have been shown to effectively reduce muscle tension, decrease the incidence of certain stress-related disorders, and increase a sense of well-being, the need to change one’s mindset and way of perceiving the world must accompany the behavioral changes. If we want to dramatically reduce or “preempt” stress before it occurs we need a sustained method to counteract our habitual response. Here’s how meditation helps in opening the brain for greater awareness, clarity and peace of mind.
Meditation as one Antidote
After about 300 hours of meditation (eight weeks or so) the brain’s fight or flight center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making becomes thicker. The functional connectivity between these regions i.e. how often they are activated together also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.
“The scale of these changes correlate with the number of hours of meditation practice a person has done,” says Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh. “The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity,” she says. In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.
Conclusion: To reduce stress and your brain’s automatic response to challenging perceived or real external conditions, meditate to gain awareness, concentration, and attention. With greater awareness comes the ability to choose your reactions and not be a slave to them. We can overcome the automatic response of the sympathetic nervous system, and live more stress lives. And it begins with a consistent practice of meditation.
Other Methods to Eliminate or Preempt the Stress Response
While meditation is a powerful, yet somewhat “passive” combatant to stress, so too are other methods to pro-actively head off stress before it takes over. These methods are presented in my workshops and can be found in my latest book available for purchase at Amazon. Here’s the link: Eliminate Stress in Your Organization.