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The Science Of Stress

Imagine the scenario - you're running late for a meeting, or to pick up the kids, what are the thoughts running through your mind? Annoyance? Anxiety? Frustration? Worried about missing an important career chance or that the kids will be alone?

Whilst these thoughts are racing through your mind in the space of about five seconds, what is happening in your body?

The stressful thought (or thoughts) trigger an automatic chemical response in your brain that is known as the "fight or flight" reaction. This originates in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and prepares the body for imminent threat (felt as the physical symptoms of stress such as shaking, dry mouth, racing heart, lack of appetite etc - more on this later).

The second phase of this is then activated in the HPA Axis - hormonal signals are relayed from the hypothalmus, through the pituitary gland and the adrenals, releasing cortisol, which is the chemical that keeps the body on 'high alert'. Ideally, when the perceived threat is passed, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to dampen the stress response and allow the body and mind to return to normal parameters.

However, if this cycle happens too often or for too long, physical damage will occur in the body, and the pathways to the stress response in the brain will become so deeply trodden that this will become your default setting, regardless of how minor the initial stressor is.

Cast your mind back to how many times in the last day or two you have felt 'stressed' - how many of these apply to you?

A work email that adds to your workload

An unexpected bill

A disturbed nights sleep

A child's tantrum

Traffic jam

Something your partner has done that irritates you

A perceived slight from a friend

Anticipation of any of the above before they occur

Thinking about any of the above after they occur

Now be aware that each of these situations are perceived as a real, physical threat by our bodies ancient evolutionary template in our brain and body, and each one will trigger the response detailed above. This means that many of us are living with a near-constant low-level stress response occurring in our bodies. The negative impact of this on our health and wellbeing can't be underestimated.

What does the stress response actually means for your body:

Increased blood pressure - risk of heart attack or stroke, chest pains, breathing difficulties, heart palpitations or arrythmia

Cortisol encourages appetite and fat storage

Decreased digestive function - leading to IBS, compromised metabolism, vitamin intake, and increased free radicals

Increased inflammation in all areas of the body - cytokines (proteins) - involved in the increase of pain reaction which can be felt as low-grade back pain, headaches, slower healing time.

Decreased immune system support and regulation leading to more colds and viruses that take longer to go away.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the area of the body that is in charge of "rest and digest", activating to allow healing and restoration to take place throughout the body - if the ANS is constantly active, the body is not undergoing essential maintenance and repair work on any areas that need it. This is the ideal resting state of the body - the stress response should be the exception not the rule! Put simply if you are in a constant state of low-level stress your body will not be able to function properly, and many of the very common symptoms that many of us 'just live with', such as headaches, bad backs, IBS, constant tiredness or low mood, will occur. You may not even be aware of being stressed, it will have become such a habitual pattern that it has become your normal state of being.

It is vital for us to be able to shut down the stress response and give the PNS adequate time to repair any damage and allow the full range of the bodies physiological systems to run.

Ideally a daily meditation practice can stop the formation of these negative thought patterns, but it is more realistic in this modern world to aim to reduce the severity and the length of any stress, anxiety or anger episodes - there are various methods we can employ to do this, from daily meditation sessions to five minute breathing spaces to positive affirmations and reminders in our daily lives to allow us to access a place of calm and regain perspective on a situation. The simple practice of placing a written affirmation somewhere that you will see it multiple times per day, can help train your mind to follow a different path to the automatic stress response that it is usually conditioned to - for example, "Just Breathe" is a powerful reminder to take a moment before allowing your automatic reactions to overtake you, and take a few breaths so you can slow everything down and give yourself the time to gain balance.

Try writing your own positive statement on a post-it and put it somewhere you look at often - on the car dashboard, on your purse or wallet, above the kettle or on your computer screen - and see if you can use it to bring yourself back from the stress response.