The Stress Response
Last post, I shared a closer look at the impacts of stress in your body in correlation with endometriosis. Now, let’s dig deeper into the actual stress response.
If your mind interprets a stressful event as a threat or emergency, this triggers a response from your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This response is often referred to as “fight or flight”.
Your body is flooded with hormones like cortisol and adrenaline via your adrenal glands. These hormones heighten your senses, increase heart rate, blood pressure, slow down your digestion, and suppress your immune system.
This fight or flight response is a built-in survival mechanism, which is useful when your body is actually in an emergency situation. Cortisol helps sharpen your focus and helps you move quickly to deal with demands.
Even if an emergency exists entirely in your imagination, or if the threat is only your feelings, it can still trigger this fight or flight stress response.
Proper Mechanics of the Stress Response
What’s key for these emergency stress situations, is there’s an “on” and “off” switch. So, your stress response turns on for an emergency, then off when it’s over.
When the stressful situation is over, your brain should respond and turn off the stress signal.
Your adrenals should then slow their release of cortisol, and your cortisol levels should come down. When your adrenals are functioning optimally, cortisol should return to its normal level, based on the time of day.
If your body becomes depleted by too much stress, then your adrenals become fatigued and cortisol production decreases.
This becomes worse if we face a life tragedy, like the death of a loved one or loss of a job, or the stress from having surgery. All of these require a great demand on your adrenal glands.
Even if no single stressor is that overwhelming, we may become overwhelmed by a constant stream of minor emergencies. In the cycle of stress, one problem can feed upon another.
This overwhelm is accelerated if you have a chronic condition like endometriosis and gets much worse if we don’t take required time for rest and relaxation, if you don’t get enough sleep, or eat nourishing foods.
We develop more symptoms as the stress effect deepens.
What Happens When Stress Won’t Turn Off?
Remember there should an an “on” and an “off” switch. While your body is designed to be able to deal with challenges, we’re not designed to live in permanent emergency mode.
To stop the cycle, you must take control of that “off” switch and challenge how your body responds.
If you don’t, then your “off” switch stops working. Your brain ignores the signal. Cortisol remains high.
When your adrenals are overstressed and cortisol levels are too high, your body’s not able to correct itself.
If your brain stops flipping the switch to stop cortisol, then you may feel stressed all the time, or feel tired all the time. You may feel unmotivated, unable to sleep, anxious and/or depressed. Even when you try to relax, you feel wired or exhausted.
When you feel exhausted, it’s natural to reach for caffeine or short term energy sources like sugar or simple carbohydrates. While this provides a temporary boost, it depletes your adrenals even further and is followed by a crash that stimulates desire for another boost.
This is a stressful cycle.
Challenging Your Stress Response
Your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for physical relaxation and emotional calming. This is the system you want to activate, to be better able to stop the stress response. To trigger the “off” switch.
With your PNS in play, you’re able to bring your body back to a state of balance.
While your SNS kicks in with its beneficial focus factor, your PNS allows you to remain calm and centered. It keeps your SNS from going into overdrive, triggering SNS emotions of anger, anxiety and aggression.
The gateway to your PNS is your breath. With every deep inhalation, your body shifts to parasympathetic activation. This allows your nervous system to go from an aroused state to a relaxed state.
Yoga stimulates and strengthens your PNS response. When physical demands of yoga are met with mindfulness and steady breathing, then your nervous system responds differently. It maintains activation, while keeping an underlying sense of calm.
Research suggests that even a single session of yoga can encourage your nervous system to find flexibility and balance. This state grants your body greater resilience to stress.
Another suggestion to help stimulate PNS activity and remain calm amidst the storms of life, is meditation.
Meditation trains your body and mind to remain present, calm and connected to your breath. It helps you stay mindful and see things as they are, in the moment, not exacerbated by thoughts of the past or future.
Your Individual Stress Response
It’s important to keep in mind that the way that your body responds to stress is individual. Your mind, emotions, personality and philosophy all impact your stress response, as do your immune system, hormones and neurotransmitters.
Some of us were born more sensitive to stress.
There have been interesting studies done in the growing field of epigenetics that show how early environments impact the stress response.
Your experience in your mother’s womb affected your stress response and your “off” switch. What she ate, how she felt, what happened during pregnancy—all of these shaped your stress response.
Then came childhood. If you grew up in an environment with lots of anxiety, fighting, or stressful events, then your body was impacted.
The result? You’re more sensitive to stress.
You may enter into emergency mode quicker because your adrenal glands were conditioned to remain on high alert. Early on, life became one long emergency.
As a child, you also received conditioning when it came to dealing with stress. This carried through into adulthood. We react as we were taught. It’s good to recognize and be aware of that.
Your stress response is also impacted by your lifestyle. Do you take time for rest and relaxation? Do you meditate? Practice deep breathing? Or are you into activities that are more stressful? What are you watching? Reading? Absorbing? Who are you spending your time with? How’s your job?
On the Positive Side?
Our goal is not to completely eliminate stress (since that is impossible), but to manage it. What makes the difference between a stressful and exhilarating challenge is personal preferences.
Choose stress, challenge, environments and demands that are optimal for you. What energizes you rather than depletes you?
Incorporate balance. What can you make part of your life to stimulate your PNS?
Life’s stressors are not going to go away. You can’t always control what happens to you. But what you can control, is how you react.
Recognize what you do have control over and make the best of that which is out out of your control.
Surrender. Release. It is what it is.
That’s a big lesson. A key one.
When we recognize what we can control, we can make changes so that our SNS isn’t on overdrive. We can trigger the “off” switch and find balance.
A big part of this is connection with your breath. To help, here’s five guided breathing exercises to try. They only take a few minutes each day.