Stress can mean many things to many people; one person’s jump out of a plane is another’s walk in the park. Understanding that stress can be anything, real or imagined and accepting without judgement that we are all different would go along way to reducing stress in all our lives.
Our brains are super clever, they possess an early warning system, the amygdala which perceives or senses threat and puts our whole body on notice. When the brain registers a stressor, even something as subtle as an unexpected shadow for example — a chain reaction starts. For instance, the amygdala will react similarly to the threat of being eaten by a tiger (physical threat) and the threat of an ego attack (emotional threat) by bringing on the fight or flight reaction.
Memory is accessed from previous experience and from there our perception of the stressor is made: is this positive or negative and our autonomic nervous system kicks in to trigger a chain of activity to meet our needs.
This chain of activity is as follows:
- Cerebrum registers stressor
- Memory accessed
- Hypothalamus and thalamus alerted
First response happens in Sympathetic Nervous System as it activates:
- Physiological changes
- Adrenal medulla secretes adrenaline
- Motor nerves stimulate skeletal muscle
When the Hypothalamus activates the Sympathetic Nervous System, several physiological changes are triggered to prepare the body for the fight or flight reaction:
- Heart rate + blood pressure increase
- Digestion slows down
- Pupils dilate, vision narrows
- Blood vessels to muscles dilate
- Muscles tense, ready for action
- Breathing rate increases
All these changes are designed to deliver more nutrients to the brain and muscles to prepare for fight or flight. The adrenaline, which is secreted from the adrenal glands, reinforces the action of the sympathetic nerves.
This is all brilliant if tigers are stalking you or a threat occurs in daily life but as previously stated, the threat can come in many guises. The issue in today’s busy world is how our bodies then deal with the aftermath of such an episode.
When one experiences an issue that causes the body to resort to fight or flight, the amygdala overtakes the cerebrum (the thinking part of the brain) and there’s little or no ability to rely on intelligence or reasoning. The effect is that energy is drawn exclusively into the fight or flight. The immediate result of fight or flight is a decrease in working memory. Adrenaline is released and will be present and effective for 18 minutes, and other hormones are released into the bloodstream that will take 3 – 4 hours to clear.
Role of stress hormones in Chronic Stress
Noticing that when adrenaline is released, it will be present and effective for 18 minutes, and other hormones are released into the bloodstream that will take 3 – 4 hours to clear – illustrates how chronic stress can rapidly increase and impact our bodies if the stressor remains activate. For example a bullying boss. If you are working in an environment where threat exists as a constant presence your adrenal glands go into overdrive – there is no respite for rest and repair.
If a tiger really was stalking you, you either escape or get eaten. With the escape comes the removal of the threat. Our body is able to activate the fight or flight reaction – you can run away! The body then returns to homeostasis (balance), as it will activate its parasympathetic nervous system once the tiger has gone (or someone fires the bullying boss for being a bully). However if the tiger/boss is still lurking the sympathetic nervous system remains on red alert.
Turning the Parasympathetic Nervous System down
At the same time that the hypothalamus alerted the sympathetic nervous system it also stimulated the pituitary gland. This releases a hormone ACTH that stimulates the adrenal cortex to release the corticosteroids, cortisol and cortisone. These hormones release glycogen which mobiles fats and proteins in stores and liver to deliver more nutrients to the brain and muscles to support fight or flight. They also work to suppress the immune response, as they are both anti-inflammatory and anti allergic. Meanwhile the adrenal cortex is backing up the sympathetic nervous system response with more adrenaline. Exhausted? You will be!
All of this activity means you will not be slowed down by injury or allergic response, your muscles are optimised to run, all your energy is directed to one set of primitive actions – fight or flight.
So what is clear, if the stress is ongoing, the level of adrenaline is high, our organs remain mobilised. The levels of cortisol remains high which means the immune system is disabled. Our heart rate and blood pressure remain elevated, muscles remain tense and fatigued, and digestive system remains suppressed – irritable bowl anyone? Insomnia and tired minds prevent clear thinking.
Enable the body to switch to rest and repair – activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System
If tiger killing isn’t possible or you are going to have to live with that bullying boss, massage can really help.
Deep breathing is key to turning on the relaxation response. During your massage take deep breaths to relax and expand your diaphragm, your vagus system is stimulated, you instantly turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, cortisol levels are reduced, and rest and repair can take place. (The vagus nerve is the nerve that comes from the brain and controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your relaxation response.)
A range of massage strokes can trigger rest and repair:
Kneading and draining can release chronic tension, by releasing the tight muscles, the skeletal system can relax. These strokes can stimulate circulation and remove lactic acid from tight spots, both of which can remove pain.
Energy holds stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, memory of pleasant touch is accessed from previous experience, this positive message activates the central nervous system to tell the brain to relax.
A specific massage technique such as abdominal massage stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve. This can activate peristalsis (which stops during fight or flight) and enables the digestive system to work again.