We’re all well aware of the concept of stress, or rather the feeling. We can feel on edge and overwhelmed which can then often leave us feeling helpless and exhausted. A quick search on google and there are thousands of suggestions on how to manage stress or simply feel less stressed, but given how many of us continue to feel this way, we’re hazarding a guess that those strategies aren’t working out too well.
So maybe we need to understand our friend stress a little more.
The stress response is literally there to save our life. It pulls out the big guns whenever anything threatens normal bodily function. Historically, this would have been to escape any predators that came to chase us, but we’re no longer sprinting through the wilderness, unfortunately, that looming deadline now threatens our normal functions, because we acknowledge we only have so many hours in a day and can’t suddenly find more!
The stress response has two sides. But we often forget this.
We have the fight and flight response which starts in the brain.
When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, their eyes or ears, or both (and parts of the peripheral nervous system) send this information to the amygdala, which is the area of the brain that deals with emotions. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds and sends a message to the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus is like the command centre. It communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions like breathing, blood pressure and heartbeat. It also controls the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles.
These signals get sent to the adrenal glands which start pumping adrenaline into the blood stream, which is actually what’s responsible for the physiological changes noted above. Your heart beats faster than normal, so it can push blood to muscles and other vital organs.
What is particularly cool is that this is all involuntary. So, you have no control over this happening. You don’t tell your heart to start beating faster, it happens and then you notice the thud in your chest.
Your body and brain identify the threat. Which is sometimes where the problem lies.
Whenever you are exposed to something new, your brain forms new connections to establish the experience – whether this is good or bad. These experiences get stored as memories, so when you are exposed again, you know what to do, or how to deal with it. Like driving a car.
The issue is if you’ve had a bad meeting with a manager previously, you’ll dread future meetings, and your stress response will kick in. If you have slept late once, you’ll often not sleep great for fear of not waking up in time again. If you‘ve had difficult interactions with someone, being around them in future will likely kick up your stress response.
All of these potentially small stressors can soon add up. Your stress response can be likened to a bucket; the more stress you experience in your life, the fuller your bucket becomes. It can soon overflow.
But the other side of the response can put holes in the bottom of the bucket.
This is known as the rest and digest phase of the stress response. This calms your ramped up stress response and returns bodily functions to normal.
Without this side, your HPA axis or hypothalamus-pituitary-axis remains activated which can lead to a range of undesirable health outcomes from high blood pressure to a range of mental health challenges. Anxiety is the definition of a ramped up HPA axis!
But you can only activate the rest and digest side, if your body and brain no longer perceive there is a threat. Remember, the stress response is activated involuntarily in many cases.
You can take a quiet bath, but often if you don’t address why you’re dreading that meeting with your manager, as soon as you get out of the bath, you’ll likely feel stressed soon enough.
The stress response is literally there to save our lives, and we shouldn’t demonise it. By understanding its function, hopefully we can work through ways to tackle it. If you are feeling overwhelmed, please seek out professional support.
And if you want a quick tip to activate your rest and digest side of the response, hum. It may sound odd but give it a try.