The human brain is an amazing thing, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to give us the ability to navigate the various challenges of the world around us. But while very little has changed in the way our brains work over the past few hundred years, the world our brains have to react to and think about is a very different place, and this has serious ramifications for our mental and physical health, especially when it comes to stress. To find out why, we need to dig into what happens in our bodies when we experience stress. When our brain encounters something that it categorises as stressful, a series of events are triggered. Your Hypothalamus sends a message to the adrenal glands just above your kidneys, resulting in what’s known as an adrenal release of cortisol. In the short term, this produces a range of physical effects which, taken together, are known as the stress response, or fight or flight response. Your heart rate goes up, your breathing becomes faster and shallower, your muscles tense up and your body’s resources go to your arms and legs, your saliva dries up, you may even get some tunnel vision as the feelings of panic start to rise up. Remember, this stuff all happens because for most of our existence on this planet, stressful situations were all about our interaction with the outside world, and would very likely have involved some fighting or fleeing. Hunting, killing, avoiding capture by savage beasts, defending your village from rampaging neanderthals, this is stressful stuff, and the quick pump of extra energy provided by brain drugs like adrenaline and cortisol were well worth the side effects because they kept us alive. However, while it might come in handy before a sporting event, or a big presentation, our stressful events nowadays tend to be longer term, and altogether less physically demanding. We try to bring our kids up while working two jobs, with no help from the “village”. We judge ourselves by the insanely inflated standards of the Instagram influencers. We live in a world where we are constantly reminded by social media and the 24 hour news cycle about dangers all over the world over which we have little or no control. Threats like global warming, terrorism, economic crises and new SARS variants lurk in the undergrowth, ready to pounce and mess up our lives in a way we simply can’t outrun. For most of us, this muscle-tensing rush of physical preparation provided by the fight or flight response is unhelpful and entirely unnecessary. In fact, it’s actively damaging us, physically and mentally.
Just like revving your car up all the time is going to wear your engine out sooner, flooding our bodies with cortisol regularly increases our risk of hypertension, heart attacks and stroke, as our blood pressure is pumped unnecessarily up and down. And the physical side effects don’t end there. Constantly tensing your muscles can lead to musculoskeletal disorders, and chronic stress has been shown to cause problems with everything from our guts to our reproductive systems. It sucks for our bodies, but it’s in the brain where the most serious problems occur. Long periods of stress and all the extra cortisol that comes with it have been shown in experiments to lead to an increased number of connections in the amygdala, our brain’s fear centre, and a reduction of electrical signals in the Hippocampus, which is the area of our brains connected with learning, memory functions, and our ability to control stress. In a vicious spiral, the more we suffer from stress, the worse we feel, and the worse we get at dealing with it. Stress has even been shown to shrink our brains.
If we want to live happier lives, and if you’re reading the Mindshine blog we’ll take that as a given, then lessening the impact of stress in our day-to-day is a no brainer. So what can we do to have a positive effect?
This is just a fancy way of saying changing the way you look at something. If your heart is beating and your palms are sweaty you can look at it as fear, but you could tell yourself you’re excited. The frame through which we choose to look at something changes its meaning for us. Stress is present in all our lives, but depending on how we look at it, it can have a much greater or lesser impact. When we see stress as scary and harmful, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we disappear down the rabbit hole. If we can learn to actually embrace the concept of stress as something normal, temporary, and entirely expected, we become more resilient and ultimately happier. Studies have shown that trying to avoid stress in our lives actually increases our long term risk of things like depression, divorce and losing our jobs. When we engage with stress and view it more positively, it encourages us to believe in ourselves and our ability to find healthier ways to cope and thrive. Stress is going to be there. It’s extra energy for you to work with. You can deal with it. We have loads of reframing exercises in the app to help you practice.
What’s the opposite of stress? Relaxation! And luckily for us, relaxation is something you can absolutely practice and get better at. From breathing exercises, to mindfulness practices, our app is jam packed with techniques and training plans to help you learn how to slow down and move your energy out of fight or flight, and in to the restorative side of your nervous system designed to help you rest and digest. Check out polyvagal theory if you want to know more. It’s interesting stuff! Of just have a go at one of our meditations or SOS exercises.
One of the biggest causes of stress is the pressure of too much to do, and too little time in which to do it. We’ve all been there… work piling up, distractions all around, everyone asking for something, deadlines looming like a huge wave ready to crash on you… makes you want to scream STOP! There’s only one surefire way to avoid this sort of thing, and I’m afraid it’s better planning and preparation. A dig around in the productivity and time management areas of Mindshine will turn up any number of useful courses and techniques. Planning your day backwards, try the Pomodoro technique, learn to fine tune your focus… it’s all good stuff that helps you get stuff done and avoid the stress of everything coming at once.
Finally, and somewhat predictably, one of the main things you can do in order to reduce the amount of stress you feel, and the effect it has on you, is to look after yourself. We know, it’s boring, and you’ve heard it a million times, but regular exercise and a healthy diet have been well and truly proven to have a positive effect on your ability to cope with stress. Thanks for reading, we’re off for a run! You can find more articles about self-belief, positivity,self-awareness or mindfulness in our Magazine. —— Download the Mindshine app (iOS or Android) for more mindfulness and happiness exercises that help you find out what you believe and who you are.
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