The Physiology of Chronic Stress

 

Not all stress is bad.  Certain stress (ie. interviewing for a job, going on a first date, riding a roller coaster, etc,), if experienced in short term bursts, can actually help us grow.   For example, we build muscle mass by applying stress to our muscle tissue.  We learn new information by challenging ourselves to learn. All sorts of hardships, if within our coping abilities, can actually push us to evolve emotionally.

Furthermore, our biological stress response keeps us alive.  Human bodies have evolved throughout thousands of years to relate to life-threatening stressors in a way that is both intelligent and effective. 

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What does the stress response look like?  When we encounter something that may be a threat to our survival, our body responds with a cascade of biological mechanisms that give us the energy, clarity, and focus needed to respond effectively to that stressor.  

A very brief overview of the way our nervous system is organized: our autonomic nervous system is responsible for bodily functions that are not consciously directed (breathing, the heartbeat, digestion, etc).  Two branches of the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic nervous system (‘‘fight or flight’) and parasympathetic nervous system (‘rest & digest’).  The sympathetic nervous system is designed to mobilize energy and the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for conserving energy.  If both of these branches are working optimally, the body is in balance (aka, homeostasis). 

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When a stressor presents itself, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, which results in the following physiological responses:  

Physiological Effects of the Stress Response

-       Natural fats and sugars that are stored in our system are mobilized for extra energy.  

-       Epinephrine (aka adrenaline) causes our heart to beat faster so that extra oxygen/nutrients are sent to our skeletal muscles quickly, which results in extra power and agility. 

-       Extra oxygen is sent to the brain for immediate clarity.  

-       Endorphins are released and bind to opiate receptors in the brain to lessen our perception of pain (think ‘runners high’). 

-       Dopamine is released to increase psychomotor speed for quick mental processing

-       Increased cortisol levels (the ‘stress’ hormone) keeps the body on high alert, maintaining many of the processes above

In the blink of an eye, we basically become superhuman.  We’ve all been there, too.  Think of a moment in your life where you’ve responded quickly with instinctual power – perhaps you’ve saved yourself or someone from a life threatening accident, or maybe you’ve had to jump out of the way of a moving vehicle.  Your body inherently knows what it needs to do to survive in these moments.  It’s beyond our conscious reasoning.  In fact, these physiological responses start occurring even before our vision can process the threat at hand.

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The experience of short term, acute stress isn’t bad.  In fact, one could even make the argument that it’s completely natural.  The health risks happen when, over time, the sympathetic nervous system puts the body in overdrive, knocking the entire system out of balance.   The constant presence of stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, norepinepherine) become unhealthy over long periods of time for a number of reasons:   

Negative Effects of Chronic Stress:

-       Decrease in digestive activity as blood flow decreases to stomach, kidney, and liver

-       Natural dopamine stores become depleted, which can be linked to the experience of depression, anxiety, and addiction

-       Persistent adrenaline can damage blood vessels and arteries, increase blood pressure, and raise the risk of heart attacks

-       Cortisol keeps the body on high alert, using a lot of energy.  Over time, the body will become exhausted.  The immune system is weakened.

-       The constant presence of high beta brain waves are associated with anxiety, paranoia, chronic pain, and insomnia

-       The hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with long term memory), decreases in size, as stress hormones block the ability of new neurons to be created.

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When the parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous system are out of balance, the body is no longer in homeostasis.  As mentioned previously, homeostasis refers to balance, which is the ability of an organism to regulate its internal conditions and maintain optimal health and functioning (regardless of outside conditions).  As a society, we are on overdrive – not just with our schedules, workload, and commitments, but also within our emotions and thoughts. 

This is why carving out time for ourselves to rest, rejuvenate, and recover is so important.  Without the proper time for stillness, the parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t have the space to rebuild and repair our bodies.  Yoga, meditation, and exercise have all been scientifically proved to reduce the effects of chronic stress on the physical body.

If you want to learn more about the biology behind these process and discover ways to interact with stress in a way that’s healthy, check out my Science & Magic program, where I offer courses, workshops, and intensives that provide an embodied learning of the human nervous system.     

 

Brain Waves & Meditation

 

Neurons are the fundamental units of the brain and nervous system.  Each of us has roughly 100 billion neurons in our brain That’s hard to comprehend, right?  Our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and behaviors are a result of the patterns of communication between different groups of neurons (aka, brain waves).  Brain waves, measured in Hertz (cycles per second) vary based on the activities we are doing or what we are feeling/thinking.

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Higher frequency brain waves usually coincide to feeling alert, active, restless, or wired while lower frequency brain waves are concurrent with sensations of sluggishness, fatigue, cloudiness, relaxation, dreaminess, etc.  

Some of the different brain waves frequencies (from high to low):

High range beta - Excitement, anger, stress, anxiety.  Living in survival mode.

Mid range beta - Paying attention in order to actively figure something out (ie. listening to a lecture knowing that there will be a test afterwards)

Low level beta - Relaxed and paying attention with very low levels of stress (ie. listening to a lecture knowing that there will be a test in a month)

Alpha - When your inner world is more real than the outside world (ie. visualizations, daydreams, etc).  You have access to the present moment, allowing your thoughts to be quiet, flowing, and easeful.

Theta - When you close your eyes, remain awake, but let your body fall asleep a little bit.  Your body is asleep but your mind is awake. It feels like you are in a dream - vivid imagery, information, and experiences that go beyond your usual conscious processing

Delta - Deep, restorative, dreamless sleep.  Healing and rejuvenation occur during these waves.  External awareness is suspended as you enter into the deep levels of your subconscious mind.

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Our brain naturally fluctuates between alpha and beta brain waves all day long - this is one of the ways that we learn and integrate our outside experience into our actual nervous system.  We take experiences from our outer world that are felt by our senses and integrate them into our internal world.

Anxious people usually have a lot of high-range beta brain waves and a low level of delta brain-wave frequencies.  I’ve suffered from my fair share of anxiety, so I found this interesting.

The detrimental effects of living in a constant state of high stress are plentiful (ie. imbalances with hormones, heart health, immune system, etc.), and it’s more than I’ll get into for this particular article.  In regards to brain waves specifically, I found the following information interesting.

High beta brain waves...

1) HEIGHTEN SENSES:  when you are operating from high beta brain waves your senses become heightened.   You are very concerned with the world outside of yourself because every cell in your body is preparing to react to a crisis.

2) LOWER CREATIVE ABILITY:  when you are living in high beta frequency all the time, it’s nearly impossible for new information to enter the nervous system because it’s not a time to learn, it’s a time to react to an emergency.  It’s not a time to trust, grow, or create - it’s time to survive.

3) USE A LOT OF ENERGY: continually running the brain from a place of high frequency is not an efficient way to operate because it takes a lot of energy to do so

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This is where meditation comes in.  Engaging in meditation practices encourages your brain waves to start to move towards a slower frequency, from beta waves to more cohesive alpha and theta waves.  

Meditating may seem intimidating, overwhelming, and even unattainable.  I get it!!  It’s taken me a long time to build a regular habit for mindfully sitting with my breath, and I still don’t do it every single day.  However, I promise you this: moving beyond the overactive and analytic mind of beta brain waves and into a more suggestible, subconscious state of lower frequency brain waves is a skill that can be improved with practice.

RESEARCH:

In a study done at Dr. Joe Dispenza’s four day advanced workshop in 2016, 117 workshop participants had their brain waves measured via the use of electroencephalograms (EEGs).  Over the four day workshop, participants lowered their high-range beta brain waves by an average of 124 percent and increased their delta brain waves by an average of 149 percent. WOW.  Furthermore, the amount of high-range beta brain waves diminished relative to the amount of delta waves by 62 percent. This all happened in four days.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these were four intensive days of meditation, visualization, and focus.  It can be difficult to envision carving out that kind of time and energy into our busy lives. If you have a personality for diving deeply and intensely into something, I suggest go for an experience like that!  If you prefer to ease into a new practice, you can start slowly too. Even five minutes a day is plenty. The point is not to get down on yourself about having a hard time sitting still.  I’ve been there myself - it can be difficult.

There is a lot of scientific evidence that mindfulness practices can do wonders for our nervous system.  By understanding how our body works, my hope is for all of us to feel more empowered to take action steps, no matter how small they may be.