Understanding The Stress Response


What is the stress response?

As humans we all come with a hard-wired survival mechanism, it is preloaded information, our survival instincts. This information is stored in the part of our brain often referred to as the reptilian or primitive part of the brain. The amygdale, hippocampus and hypothalamus among others drive our instinctive responses, they tell us when we are in crisis or emergency and then inform us how to behave. The problem comes however, when instead of primitive dangers such as wild animals and other tribesmen, we perceive an event in our lives as a crisis for example, problems with our jobs, relationships and self esteem. The primitive brain responds in exactly the same way to the crisis, tripping the switch of the stress response and encouraging us to fight, flight or freeze.

How does this manifest itself then? To fight or flight means we are flooded with chemicals and neurotransmitters to make us stronger and faster, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Once in our system these make us feel anxious and angry, our heart rate increases and we feel on the edge of panic or anger, or even both. Then there is the other end of the stress response, the freeze, we opt-out and put everything on hold including our chemicals in order to save valuable energies in case we need them later on. We are in a state of high alert, obsessive and vigilant in case we need to change quickly to fight or flight mode. Sometimes though, people can freeze and then spend so much time ‘opting out’ so as to avoid potentially harmful situations, this can lead to depression and sleep disorders.

If we think about our job, relationships and self esteem in negative ways, as things to worry about, we will trigger our stress responses as our mind receives information that we are under threat, in crisis and all is not well. We, in effect, put ourselves on red alert. The only behavioural outcome then is routed in panic, anxiety, anger and depression. If we are lucky enough to sleep well and have good social support structures this doesn’t evolve into a problem and is soon dealt with effectively by our brain and put into perspective, de-aroused and we are able to move forward. However, when this is not the case panic/anxiety/depressive disorders can develop and we may find that help is needed to get back on track.

In addition to anxiety and stress disorders there is also of course the modern day coping method which is reaching for our Drug of Choice (DOC). Our DOC could be caffeine, nicotine, salt, sugar, and of course alcohol. We are training our brains to accept this ‘quick fix’. We take on the chemicals contained in our DOC and this becomes our ‘pick-me-up’ – it doesn’t take long for the primitive brain to pattern match to the DOC and we become serotonin depleted preferring again and again to use our ‘fake’ comfort response instead of getting our neurotransmitters generating the crucial feel good chemicals we need. Humans are the only animals on the planet to have a neurological system to hard-wired into the need for rewards. We need to take positive action, have positive interactions positive thoughts in order to feel motivated and achieve goals. It is only through the achievement of these goals that we can become fulfilled and motivated. It is little wonder then that addicts of various DOC though their depletion of feel good chemicals lack the motivation to want to make changes.

The good news is that with understanding and insight getting back on track and back in control can be achieved. Once we understand that this mechanism is actually activating our stress responses we are immediately better equipped to return to intellectual control, turn off our flight, flight and freeze, switching our focus from negative to positive. Sounds simple? It is simple but not necessarily easy. Changing thought and behaviour patterns does take effort, like learning and acquiring any new skill. So, how do we turn-off our stress response and get back a sense of control?

Well, we need to address our sleep. Sleep is absolutely pivotal to positive mental health … all the usual advice is an excellent place to start, good bedtime routines, exercise, getting time outdoors and anything that promotes relaxation such as meditation, acupuncture, massage, hypnotherapy, listening to music and much more besides. Taking control of the negative radio in our heads is also pivotal … all those negative thoughts accumulate. Positive thoughts, distraction and forming manageable achievable goals will help restore intellectual control and turn down the stress response.

Imagine this … if you were out for a stroll in the jungle and you think you hear a lion approaching; you begin to turn on your panic response. Gradually you will feel more and more panicked, more and more stress hormones will race through you body, losing more and more intellectual control until the fight, flight freeze in switched on … but, what if you happen upon a stunning orchid grove. You stop to smell the flowers and begin to drink in your environment. What then? Well, your brain would stop panicking for a start! It would know that if you had time to stop and wonder at the vibrancy of the flowers and the beautiful sights and smells that surrounded you then the panic must be over and the threat must be gone. Apply this to modern day stresses and the effect is the same. Stop to notice the moment, be mindful and be in the present noticing little wonders all around you, smells, sights, colours, trees, birds, smiles, songs – basically anything at all that focuses you on the here and now; stops your mind and your negative radio racing away with you. Being mindful is a way of paying attention to the present moment, using techniques like meditation, breathing and yoga. It helps us become more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, we’re better able to manage them. Practising mindfulness can give people more insight into their emotions, boost their attention and concentration and improve relationships. It’s proven to help with stress, anxiety, depression and addictive behaviours, and can even have a positive effect on physical problems like hypertension, heart disease and chronic pain.

Turning off our flight, fight, freeze response is also crucial, and of course, being relaxed is the opposite of being stressed. In her paper ‘Talking to the Amygdala: Expanding the Science of Hypnosis’ by Muriel Price Warren, she cites that by talking to the amygdala, an experienced hypnotherapist can relax the autonomic nervous system, shutting down, or curtailing, the trigger that sets off secretion of the adrenal and pituitary glands. When a patient is in a hypnotic trance the amygdala automatically shuts down the rapid alert system and turns off the stress hormones epinephrine, cortocotropin, and glucocorticoids and we can then inhibit the flight, fight or freeze mechanism. In the cases she mentions in her research the technique of relaxation through hypnosis has proven to be a highly effective tool in giving the body a chance to heal itself through its own inherent wisdom system. When we focus on what we want then the Reticular Activating System (RAS) will notice anything through our senses. Primarily what we see or focus on increases and the RAS can find those previously elusive solutions because we have changed from a problem focus to a solutions focus; when we change our filters our viewfinder has been modified so we can see things differently. Also when we are positive we become more attuned to noticing opportunities and we cope better with setbacks and remove obstacles (Warren cited by M. Hughes in ‘Hypnotherpay Today’ Association for Solution Focused Hypnotherapy Journal Volume 2)

With improved sleep, more positive thinking and the formation of achievable goals we can go a long way to combat the effects of stress and living in today’s hectic and demanding world. Couple these with some enjoyable regular exercise and we really can tip the balance in our brains, being much more relaxed and calm, and when we are relaxed and clam we remain in control and able to make a proper assessment of the situation. Taking frequent effective exercise is one of the best physical stress-reduction techniques available. Exercise not only improves your health and reduces stress; it also relaxes tense muscles and helps you to sleep. Once free from the negative and primitive brain responses that are instinctively tied to feelings of anger, anxiety and depression; all of which fuel addiction and of course the NEED for that DOC we are once again able to see the wood for the trees and that feels good. Once we have something to feel good about we are winning … instead of stress chemicals coursing through our veins we can instead generate serotonin, dopamine, noradrenalin’s etc chemicals that make us feel happy, motivated and successful. We can’t argue with our chemistry! How we think really does affect how we feel, our brain releases the chemicals we tell it we need, based on our assessment of the reality we inhabit.

So, stop to smell the roses, get your heart pumping, attend to your sleep routines and use all the tools you have to get your intellectual thinking self back on board, taking your foot off the flight, fight and freeze, and therefore feeling much calmer. And if you only do one thing differently, do something for yourself, only for yourself that you enjoy … when we do this we feel good and ultimately have more resources available for others. Relaxing and focusing on the positives really does help restore intellectual control, putting you back on a ‘full set of cylinders’ and able to make proper assessments of life’s situations.

Jessica Driscoll

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