The Science of Stress
The human brain is hard-wired to respond to stress or perceived threats to our survival via the fight/flight response, known in scientific circles as the stress response or stress mode. (Essentially ‘stress’, here, means anything that is not relaxed ie anxiety, fear, overwhelm, depression, anger, frustration, sadness, shame, regret, mental busyness and pressure, etc.). Biochemically and physiologically speaking, we are either in a state of relaxation or stress.
When our stress response is activated by the Amygdala – an almond-shape set of neurons (nerve cells) located in the Limbic System, which is found deep within the brain and is involved in motivation, emotion, learning and memory - our brain’s ability for higher thought, learning, creativity, emotional intelligence, awareness and analysis is shut off and we are at the mercy of our primitive, survival brain and instincts.
This very old part of our brain, the Limbic System, which we share with other mammals controls both the endocrine system, which is responsible for our hormones and emotions, and the autonomic nervous system, which controls all of our automatic body functions. These are those functions that occur without conscious thought such as breathing, heartbeat, digestion, reproduction, immune function, etc.
When we are in the stress mode, our bodies prepare to flee or fight, sending blood and energy to our muscles and away from our digestive system, immune system and many other important body systems. This is why chronic stress is not good for us over long periods of time, causing wear and tear on the body and organs and compromising our immune system and the body's natural healing capacity.
We can feel the effects of this evolutionary biochemical stress response even when our survival is not actually threatened, but when we have a stressful or anxious thought, for example, when we are running late, when we make a mistake or are cut off whilst driving (when was the last time you had a stressful thought and you could feel your body tense up, your hands begin to sweat and your heart beating faster?).
It is the same biochemical stress response occurring, evolved to keep us alive, even though these days our lives are not often at risk. The constant communication between mind and body and vice versa means that the fight/flight feeling in our body triggers more stressful thoughts – we get anxious about feeling anxious - which triggers a greater stress response in the body and we can quickly spiral into a very stressed state of mind and body.
It is also important to note that this stress response/survival mechanism is designed to stay switched on until it is actively switched off. The Amygdala needs to be soothed or it will continue to keep our stress response turned on. And the more it is activated the bigger it gets and the more it activates. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the World Health Organisation has already classified stress as the health epidemic of the 21st century (chronic stress is linked to the top six causes of death worldwide).
Meditation practice helps us to effectively turn our stress switch (the Amygdala) off at will, in the moment eg by taking three deep breaths. This gives us a space in which we can dissociate from the stress response, gain perspective and calm our mind and body down. From here we can choose to respond to the stressor or not, rather than reacting from an automatic, highly emotive, fearful and defensive stressed state of mind and body.
Regular meditation helps us to live life in a more relaxed state of mind and body in general, regardless of what happens to us, and to switch from chronically functioning in the stress mode - as triggered by our modern, busy, high-pressure and changeable lives - to functioning in the relaxation mode, a much healthier state to live and work from. 'Stress' is really a by-product of a brain that wasn't designed for the stressors of modern life.
In work and life, there’s what happens and there's our psychological reaction to what happens. With meditation practice we create a larger space between these two separate events which allows us to respond rather than react impulsively or habitually without thinking. It is often our thoughts, emotions and perceptions that we cannot cope with what happens that fuel stress. For example, a cloudy day will not make you feel bad, but wanting it to be sunny when it is cloudy will.
See if you can identify which mode of operation your body is in - relaxed or stressed - and see if you can observe the physical and psychological changes that occur when you are triggered into one state or the other … can you see any link between your thoughts, emotions and feeling relaxed or stressed?
The amygdala, limbic system and other key parts of the brain do not know the difference between real and imagined experience. Neuroplasticity explains that the brain has the power to shape and reshape itself according to our thoughts, feelings and environment. We can change our brain, body and experience by thought alone (Cool, huh?!). This characteristic is exploited by high-performing professionals in sport, health and many other fields., and explains why the stress response can be triggered by thought alone.
Modern neuroscience has shown that the biochemical and physical effects of stress and relaxation on the body occur right down to our DNA and gene expression; that is the brain can influence the body on a cellular level and our state of mind influences our experience and our health.
One study demonstrated that people are able to increase muscle mass by visualising themselves lifting weights alone, without ever actually lifting a weight. While the self-healing properties of the placebo effect can be just as effective as traditional treatments.
It has been reported that we are up to 95% habitual. That is, once we have performed a task enough times, strong neural pathways are created (nerve cells that fire together, wire together) effectively becoming memorised by the brain and body, such that we can perform the task - such as driving - without needing to think about how to do it.
The mind is a very powerful tool and we would be wise to learn how to wield it’s power for our benefit. We can employ these characteristics of our biology knowingly or unknowingly, to help us or to hinder us. Either way, this is how our mind and body work, all the time. And with training, habitual ways of being can be undone as the brain's neuroplasticity continues until death.
So, watch your thoughts, they become your words and they change your body, which influences your actions and behaviours which become your habits and your character, which becomes your destiny!