Over the past three decades, the stress level in our world has escalated. This year, as the COVID19 Pandemic has unfolded, stress has taken center stage. Research has shown stress to be an underlying risk factor for most of the common diseases in our society, in fact, 75 to 90% of all doctor visits have been shown to be for stress-related complaints. Stress impacts both our mind and body in unhealthy ways. Understanding the mechanism of the stress response is the first step towards mitigating its negative impact on our bodies. Then, when we learn skills that have been shown to intercept its negative impact on our mind and body, we can reap the lasting benefits that can restore our health and well-being.
What is stress? Stress is defined simply as ‘a pressure or tension exerted on an object.’ This can be physical, mental, or emotional in nature. The response generated by a stressor in our body triggers a physiological cascade of reactions designed to help us survive. The stressor or threat can be either real or perceived. Both will trigger the same response in the body. When an external event is perceived as a threat, we react automatically or unconsciously to it, in the same way as we do in the presence of a real threat. Our brain perceives either kind of threat as a threat to our survival. Our response against a real threat can save our life, but against a perceived threat will often create disharmony in our mind and body. This is why a skill set to decipher a real from a perceived threat can be so helpful. Learning how to reduce perceived stress can also be lifesaving in the long run, so learning the skills described below, can be an important addition to your toolbox for promoting health and well-being.
The biological pathway of the stress response is fascinating. When our senses perceive danger, they send a signal to a part of our brain called the amygdala. This is an area of the brain where emotional processing takes place. The amygdala interprets images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it sends an instant distress signal to the hypothalamus, another part of the brain located in its vicinity. The hypothalamus functions as a command center and communicates with the rest of our body through the involuntary or autonomic nervous system. This happens without our awareness or control. The amygdala and hypothalamus comprise the limbic system, the part of our brain that reacts and responds to stress.
The autonomic nervous system has two components, sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is like an accelerator in a car. When it is triggered, the autonomic nerves send messages to our adrenal glands to pump out adrenalin. Adrenalin increases our blood pressure and heart rate and sends out a burst of energy through our nervous system that helps increase blood flow in our large muscles that helps us to ‘fight or flee.’ This is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The parasympathetic nervous system is like the brakes in a car. It calms the body down after the threat has passed. It is the ‘rest and digest’ response of our body. If our parasympathetic nervous system is not strong and healthy, our body will stay activated long after the stressor has passed.
When the stress response is prolonged or chronic, our adrenals glands pump out the hormone cortisol, in addition to adrenalin. When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated repeatedly (as in a stressful job or relationship), cortisol levels remain elevated. Chronically elevated cortisol can wreak havoc in the body and is thought to be a contributor to many of our chronic diseases. In fact, it also acts as an immunosuppressant, causes weight gain, heart disease, ulcers, microbiome disruption, and inflammation, anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness, and many others, independent of lifestyle choices.
When our limbic system is activated, it reacts within nanoseconds, high jacking our gray matter, the executive function of our brain. This nanosecond response is meant for survival only, and nothing more. It triggers us into fighting or fleeing from danger, as described above, rather than offering us the ability to respond in a level headed, conscious manner. In contrast, when our parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it assists us to respond more consciously rather than react by fighting or fleeing. With this engaged, we have more access to consciousness, reason, and logic, because unlike the nanosecond sympathetic response, this response takes milliseconds, which is 1×109 times slower. This gives our nervous system time to access our executive function.
The parasympathetic response is so much better for our health than the repeated fight or flight response, that a company called Heart Math, founded by Doc Childre in 1991, developed a scientifically based system to empower people to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and to intercept the impact of the stress response on health. The results of their interventions ranged from the resolution of anxiety and panic to the resolution of life-threatening arrhythmias. 300 studies have documented the benefits of Heart Math’s protocol for resolving emotional and physical health conditions caused by stress.
Herbert Benson, a prominent Harvard trained cardiologist, also demonstrated the powerful impact of stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, in his technique termed the ‘Relaxation Response.’ This too was a skill set he has taught for the past four decades to intercept the stress response and promote relaxation instead.
Given that we know that the parasympathetic nervous system can be lifesaving and healthier for us, how can we stimulate it more often? I have created a set of tools that can easily intercept the stress response mechanisms and promote a healthier way to encounter a perceived threat. I call it the A, B, C’s, of reducing stress, where A stands for Awareness, B for Breathing, and C for Consciousness.
As stated earlier, our sympathetic response highjacks our connection to executive function, so becoming Aware that we are triggered is a critical first step. In this moment of awareness, we can evaluate if the threat we are feeling is real or perceived. This momentary pause can be enough to short circuit the fight or flight response, and prevent our body from dumping adrenalin and cortisol into our bloodstream. Awareness can buy us enough time to slow down our nervous system from reacting in nanoseconds to responding in milliseconds, enough to engage our executive function. If we realize during this time, that the threat is perceived and not real, we can take the next step to assist us, by engaging conscious Breathing.
Breathing consciously from our abdomen is an age-old technique known to promote relaxation and centeredness. When we are stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, but when we breathe consciously from our abdomen, (expanding it when we inhale and contracting it when we exhale), we can stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing this way requires practice. When our abdomen expands outward as we inhale, our diaphragm moves downward into the abdomen, stimulating the vagus nerve. This stimulates the parasympathetic neurotransmitter, present in the vagus nerve called acetylcholine, which triggers relaxation. In addition, the downward movement of the diaphragm enlarges the chest cavity, increasing oxygen delivery to the heart and vital organs, which supports and relaxes our cardiovascular system. Acetylcholine intercepts our limbic circuitry, allowing greater access to executive function. This offers us the ability to respond more Consciously, offering us access to our maturity and wisdom, by engaging our problem-solving abilities rather than our desire to fight or flee.
So next time you are triggered by a stressor, try using the A, B, C skill set to bring yourself back from an adrenally charged and reactive, fight or flight, adrenalin triggering reaction, to a more centered and conscious response to mitigate the perceived threat. You will be amazed as to how much easier this gets with practice. An added benefit of cultivating this response pattern is that it adds an additional measure of respect towards ourselves and also from others towards us. We unknowingly mentor others around us with our mature and conscious responses to stress which creates a healthy environment around us. I think we could all use a more conscious way of responding during these uncertain times of transformation. Don’t you?
Additional modalities that reduce stress by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system are CranioSacral Therapy, Acupuncture, Reiki, and Yoga, all available at The Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine. Call to make an appointment with one of our skilled practitioners: (262) 695-5311.
©October 2020Kalpana (Rose) M. Kumar M.D., CEO and Medical Director, The Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine, Pewaukee, WI. www.ommanicenter.com Author of 2nd Edition – Becoming Real: ReclaimingYour Health in Midlife 2014, Medial Press. She is currently accepting new patients-call 262.695.5311 for an appointment. During this time of COVID19 pandemic, she is offering both telephonic or in-person appointments for those people free of symptoms.