What is stress? We all know what it feels like when we have stress- our hearts race, our senses are heightened, and our hands feel cold and clammy. But what goes on in our brain when we feel stressed?
The Brain’s Response to Stress
The brain works through a reward system and a reward circuitry. If the light is green, the brain tells the foot to step on the gas. This is a predictable action. The reward for the brain is repetition – that whenever the light turns green, the foot will always go on the gas pedal. Our brain is able to constantly learn new information this way, first with heightened awareness and then with recall through memory traces. But when we are stressed our brain resorts to our old habits in order to react quickly to remove or modify the stress. When we are stressed, the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are released. These hormones work through specific neuronal pathways in the brain to either alter the stress or to ameliorate its effects. Serotonin acts on the nucleus accumbens which causes it to release dopamine. Dopamine stimulates our reward and habit system. This means that we are more likely to resort to old habits. When we are not stressed our prefrontal cortex, the executive functioning part of our brain, overrides a lot of our behaviors. This self regulatory part of our brain doesn’t really kick in until young adulthood. If someone before that age has learned to cope with stress through unhealthy actions like overeating, pornography, promiscuous sex, alcohol, drugs or gambling, it will be the initial preference for the brain’s stress lifeline. This does not mean someone is doomed to never break away from the unhealthy habit, but it will take work and commitment and might be easier with a counselor or health coach.
But what if we learned how to better manage our lives so that we could decrease exposure to stress or change our perception of stress? Like the Three Little Pigs, is your life built out of hay, sticks or brick? What are you doing to make yourself more equipped to handle the stress in your life?
Fortify Your Foundation
What tends to make us feel stressed is when we feel out of control. This can be due to having too much to do or it can be from our perception of what needs to be done. In the first situation ask yourself if you are saying “yes” to more things than you have time to get done. Are you using your time efficiently, avoiding a task until the last minute because you don’t like doing the task? Could you break down the task into smaller pieces and do a little each day? Are you saving the more difficult tasks for the end of the day when you are more tired or are you getting them done early when you have more energy? Are you doing everything yourself or are there things you could delegate if you let go? Are you doing things in an inefficient way that is taking more time than necessary? Do you have unrealistic expectations of what you have to get done? Are you expecting perfection?
Sometimes we feel stressed and it’s really due to how we perceive the situation. Distorted perceptions can happen when we don’t get enough sleep. The average adult needs at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Do you keep a regular schedule for going to bed? Do you allow yourself enough time to wind down before bed? Do you keep a consistent meal time schedule? We know eating off schedule can cause disconnection with hunger cues and lead to overeating at night. When things don’t go well do you tend to catastrophize, make the problem bigger than it is and let it expand into other parts of your day because you’ve let it grow out of proportion in your mind?
Take Control of Your Life
The brain will actually change the stress response and not release serotonin when we think we have control over the stressful situation. There are many things you can do to give you a sense of control. Yoga, tai chi, qigong can help you gain a sense of control through body postures, breathing and focus. When these practices are done regularly the sense of control and focus transcends into other areas of one’s life. Mindfulness, a daily practice where you pause and take in your environment through your senses and become focused on the present moment can also help give you a sense of control of your life..which is really becoming aware of senses and feelings in the present moment. Meditation, which is really just focused breathing, can be done through guided imagery or simply by sitting still and upright, focusing on one’s breath, and slowing the breathing down to a rhythmical pace. Counting the exhale to ten can help keep thoughts from “sticking” and allow the mind to stay clear. It is through the absence of thought during meditation that solutions to problems are reached and perceptions are changed.
We might not be able to always change the stress in our life but we can certainly mitigate it through time management, getting difficult tasks done early in the day, asking for help, getting a good nights sleep on schedule and eating three balanced meals. Doing this in conjunction with yoga, tai chi or qigong, mindfulness and meditation one becomes better at forming balanced assessments of situations which will help us handle stress better and be happier for it.