What Your Brain SeesHow the brain views stress is very complex. Learning how to identify stress before it starts to happen is the key in making healthier rational choices. One of our brain’s most important jobs is to predict the future. The brain is constantly scanning our surrounding environment and comparing it to past experiences, looking for any potential threats to our safety. Some people’s brains are more sensitive to spotting threats than others, even in neutral situations. Think about something that you view as a threat, and it will automatically put you into a state of stress. Is it a public speech, work deadline, unexpected traffic? There are lots of chemical reactions happening in your body the moment you begin to feel stress. Instantly, the body starts to prepare itself for any threatening situation – whether it’s a lion chasing after you at full speed, or you’re giving a speech in front of hundreds of people. Within seconds of the perceived threat, the blood vessels in your body constrict (so you bleed less if you are wounded), there is a reduction of blood flow to the brain, and the adrenal gland releases cortisol (which gives you energizing glucose so you can run as fast as you can). The vagus nerve, which runs in a direct line from your brain to your gut normally helps you keep calm and safe, but during this process it withdraws its activity. This results in both heart rate acceleration and increased blood pressure. The “threat” response essentially shuts you down and prepares you for pain. People that have a history of experiencing chronic stress are constantly seeing routine life events as threats. This internalization of stress works its way into the cells and shortens the DNA’s telomeres, which are the end caps of the chromosomes. Short telomeres are associated with early aging, and a variety of serious diseases. Because stress is directly affecting the cells, the mitochondria function is also severely impacted. However, studies involving mice have shown that this lessened mitochondrial function can recover with time.
The Good StressThere is another side of stress worth noting – the type of stress that actually helps you grow and conquer, and gives you a sense of challenge. The “challenge” stress (caused by activities like high intensity exercise) helps you gather your resources for enhanced performance. Within your body, heart rate increases and the blood becomes oxygenated which allows it to flow where it’s needed – especially to the heart and the brain. During this process the adrenal gland gives you a shot of cortisol for energy, but brain shuts it down as soon as it is no longer needed. The “challenge” response is associated with enhanced problem solving, critical thinking, and performing better in overall tasks. Studies have confirmed that both athletes and highly successful people frequently employ a challenge response to stress, and view their problems as challenges to be conquered, rather than as life threats. Most people aren’t programmed to have exclusively challenge or exclusively threat responses; most experience a variety of both. It is the proportion of these responses that matter the most for the health of the telomeres, which are critical elements in the cells’ aging process. The shorter the telomeres, the faster a person ages. People who showed more “threat” than “challenge” responses had shorter telomeres, and those who see stress as “challenge” more often than “threat” had longer telomeres.
Threat To ChallengeThe good news is that you can improve the length of your telomeres and reduce the adrenal fatigue associated with the constant secretion of cortisol, even when you can’t control the presence of actual stressors in your life. You have a choice to shift the way you view events from “threatening” to “challenging”. When you start to feel the stress signs in your body like heart rate increase, muscle tension, and rapid breathing you can quickly intervene by telling yourself: “This is good stress, my body is giving me the energy I need so I can perform well”. This will shape the body’s response toward feeling more energized, and having more dilation to the vessels and more flow to the brain. You can achieve this by becoming hyperaware of your body and recognizing when stress is starting to surface.
Powerful ways to improve your response to stress:
Breathing:When was the last time you took a deep breath with awareness? Simple breath-work techniques effectively train the body to handle stressful situations. Conscious breathing is a term that refers to breathing that is done with mindfulness and intention. We are breathing all the time without even thinking about it. Learning to breathe consciously is as simple as shifting your attention to your breath. When we’re stressed out, our lungs take in less oxygen. This causes the body to tighten. The opposite is true in a relaxed state where our breathing patterns are slower and deeper. Breathing with awareness engages the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that is responsible for calming us down. This has a positive impact on our health by keeping our stress hormones in check and quieting our busy minds.
Try this:Sit up tall in a chair or lay down on the floor. Rest your hands on your knees and close your eyes. Begin breathing deeply in and out through the nose. With each inhale and exhale, lightly constrict your throat. Keep this contraction engaged the entire time. Bring your attentiveness to the sound of the breath and concentrate on making it profound and softer. Start with 3 minutes in the morning or evening.
Meditation:Just like breath-work, anyone can easily begin to practice meditation. It's simple and free, and it doesn't require any special equipment. You can make your meditation practice as formal or informal as you’d like, however it best suits your lifestyle and situation. Some people build meditation into their daily routine. For example, they may start and end each day with an hour of meditation. But all you really need is a few minutes of quality time for meditation to notice a difference in your response to stress.
Here are some ways you can practice meditation on your own, whenever and wherever you choose:
- Breathe deeply.
- Become aware of your body's various sensations, whether that's pain, tension, warmth or relaxation.
- Repeat a mantra. You can create your own mantra, whether it's religious or secular. Examples of religious mantras include the Jesus Prayer in the Christian tradition, or it can simply be a word that has no definition.
- You can also listen to sacred music, spoken words, or any sounds you find relaxing or inspiring. You may want to write your reflections in a journal or discuss them with a friend or spiritual leader.
Don't judge your meditation skills.This will only increase your stress. Meditation is forever a practice. Keep in mind, for instance, that it's common for your mind to wander during meditation, no matter how long you've been practicing. If you're meditating to calm your mind and your attention wanders, slowly return to the object, sensation or movement you're focusing on. One of the best apps in this fields shows promising results with people that need guided meditation. Try using Headspace App, it's been highly rated by people who are big on meditation.
Self-CompassionA recent study done at the University of Texas showed that people who are high in self-compassion treat themselves with kindness and concern when they experience negative events. Self-compassionate people tend to rely heavily on positive cognitive restructuring. In essence, self-compassion involves directing the same kind of care, kindness, and compassion toward oneself that one conveys toward loved ones who are suffering.
According to psychologist Kristin Neff from the University of Texas “self-compassion involves being open to and moved by one's own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one's inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one's experience is part of the common human experience”
- Treat yourself as you would a small child:
This mainly suggests considering what a child might want or need in a hurtful or stressful situation. That child could be your own, or you could imagine yourself as a child. You can also think of the way you would treat a good friend, or even a beloved pet, and then begin treating yourself accordingly.
- Practice mindfulness:
We are constantly putting ourselves down “You are so stupid for saying that”, and “You can never do that you are not good enough”
If we had another person telling us that every day, we wouldn’t have it. But when we are saying it to ourselves, we accept and internalize it. Mindfulness is a state of non-judgmental awareness. Be aware every time you call yourself stupid. This goes hand in hand with compassion, being understanding with yourself. and being patient. You can find yourself training your brain and being more positive. This ultimately leads to less stress and happier self.Remember that you're not alone. Give yourself permission to be imperfect. And work with a friend to coach you into incorporating these small changes in your life. Additional reading: This Is Why You Can't Fall Asleep