The Science of Stress

The Science of Stress

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Stress.

We all feel it. But what is it?

Having a deeper understanding of stress can help us to overcome and manage its adverse effects on our body and mind.

Signs and Symptoms of Stress

The psychological symptoms of stress include feeling overwhelmed, worry, fear, anger, tearfulness, irritability, anxiety, helplessness and/or memory problems.

Physical symptoms include heart palpitations, fatigue, stomach upset, diarrhoea, headaches, muscular aches and pains, weakened immune system and/ or high blood pressure.

Behavioural symptoms of stress include difficulty concentrating, fatigue, lacking motivation, sleep disturbance, insomnia, social withdrawal, unhealthy eating habits and/or short temper.

Sound familiar?

Definitions of Stress

The dictionary has several definitions of stress, including:

“Pressure or tension exerted on a material object,”
A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances” and
Physiological disturbance or damage caused to an organism by adverse circumstances.”

A stressor is anything that affects one’s well being or survival, and stress is a natural human response to a stressor designed to bring us back to homeostasis. Homeostasis is the way in which the body maintains its internal equilibrium for well being and survival.

The stressor can be an external threat, for example a bomb going off or loosing your job, or it can be internal, like feeling time pressured or worried about the way you’re perceived by your colleagues.

Acute and Chronic Stress

Stress can be acute, in greater or lesser degrees. Mild acute stress, like starting a new job or giving a presentation, can lead to developing an adaptive response to meeting life’s challenges, but severe stress, like being exposed to a violent and life threatening crime, can lead to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or other mental health problems.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is stress that continues over an extended period of time, such as chronic health issues, relationship difficulties, financial problems, bullying, social isolation or living in an unsafe environment.

The Physiology of Stress

The body’s stress response kicks in as soon as we realise the presence of a stressor. Signals are sent to the brain and hormones are released in order to cope with the stress. The energy demands of the body are shifted from long term processes, like digestion, tissue growth and sexual functioning to processes that enable to us to deal with the situation at hand, including utilising muscles required for action, oxygen in the lungs, decreased pain sensitivity, and reduced tendency to bleed.

The hormonal response to stress happens along the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal) axis. The hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenals glands control our reactions to stress, and are responsible for many body processes like digestion, immune functioning, mood, sexuality and energy.

The hypothalamus, the command centre at the base of the brain, is stimulated by the amygdala, an almond shaped set of neurons, located deep in the brains medial temporal lobe, which plays a key role in both the fear response and pleasure. The hypothalamus then excites the pituitary gland, a pea size master gland that sits behind the nose, whose main function is to secrete hormones into the blood stream, regulating many of the bodies vital functions.

The pituitary gland then alerts the adrenal glands, a triangle shaped gland that sits on top of the kidneys, and the adrenal medulla (the inner part of the gland) secretes the neurotransmitter adrenaline (epinephrine), which instigates the fight-or-flight response. This results in an increase in pulse rate, sending more glucose and oxygen to the brain (to keep you more alert), muscles and lungs, a constriction and release of protein in blood vessels to assist with clotting, and a conversion of glycogen to glucose and release of fatty acids from fat stores to supply us with a ready source of available energy. The hormone cortisol is then released, to build back up energy reserves depleted by the surge of adrenaline, by converting food into energy storage with glycogen and fat. Cortisol can continue to be released for hours after the stressor.

Stress and the Autonomic Nervous System

The stress response also activates the Autonomic Nervous System, the part of the nervous system that is in charge of bodily functions, but is not under our conscious control. There are three main branches of the Autonomic Nervous System, the sympathetic, the parasympathetic and the enteric.

The sympathetic branch is activated during the stress response and is like an accelerator in a car, triggering the fight-or-flight response and providing the body with a burst of energy to respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic branch, on the other hand, promotes rest-and-digest is like the brake in the car, dampening the stress response once the threat has passed.

The enteric branch of the nervous system is not widely discussed, but actually has a similar number of neurons as the spinal cord and is sometimes called the little brain. The enteric nervous system is in embedded in the lining of the gut and orchestrates various digestive functions. It is adversely affect by stress.

When the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system kicks in, it prepares you to meet the stressor, including pupils dilating, heart speeding up, digestion slowing down and blood pressure rising.

Activation of the sympathetic nervous system is designed to save our lives in times of crisis, but if it is triggered too often, it can result in stress related disease, including mental health problems, cardiovascular disease, obesity, gastrointestinal problems and more.

Good Stress and Bad Stress

Stress has received a bad reputation, but a little bit of stress can actually be a good thing. It can help to keep us stay alive when we’re in danger and it can actually improve our performance.

Yerkes-Dodson Law (figure from Storost)

Based on the work of Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, the Yerkes-Dodson Law (1908) states that arousal (stress) improves performance up to a certain point, then performance reduces as arousal increases.

Optimal performance is achieved with a moderate amount of arousal.

Responses to Stress

In their book, The Science of Stress, Neuropsychiatrists Albert Yeung, Ana Ivkovic and Gregory Fricchione describe three typical responses to stress.

Firstly, the stressor and the individuals ability to respond may be well matched, and the response results in a return to homeostasis. This is likely to be a less severe or threatening stressor.

Secondly, the stressor may be excessive or continual and be greater than the individual’s capacity to respond. This results in vulnerability as a result of stress. This is likely to be more severe or ongoing stressor.

Thirdly, while the stressor may be excessive or ongoing, there is a good match between the stressor and the individual’s capacity to respond, leading to post-traumatic growth of anti-fragility. This is not always discussed in relation to stress and trauma, but is an important and powerful catalyst for growth and developing inner strength and wisdom.

Managing Stress

The good news is that there are many strategies that help to reduce, manage and prevent stress, including counselling, relaxation training, breath work, mindfulness based practices and meditation.

My personal favourites include practicing Embodied Rest, iRest Meditation, walking in nature, practicing yoga, spending time with friends and loved ones, and finding someone you can trust to talk to about stressful issues and creating a life you love.

References:

Harvard Health Publishing. Understanding the Stress Response. Published March 2011, Updated May 2018.
Million, Mulugeta, and Larauche. Muriel. (2016). Stress, Sex and the Enteric Nervous System. Neurogastroenterology and Motility :The Official Journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society. 28(9):1283-1289.
Pfeiffer, Ronald F. (2007). Neurology of Gastroenterology and Herpetology. In Neurology and Clinical Neuroscience. Edited by Schapira, Anthony. Chapter 114 (pp 1511 – 1524). Elsevier.
Storost, Konrad. (2016). Voluntary Takeover in Automated Driving.10.13140/RG.2.2.35185.68965.
Yerkes, Robert M., and Dodson, John D. (1908). The Relation of Strength of Stimulus to Rapidity of Habit-Formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.
Varvogli, Lisa and Darviri, Christina (2011). Stress management techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health. Health Science Journal, 5(2), 74-89.
Yeung, Albert S., Ivkovic, Ana and Fricchione, Gregory L. (2016). The Science of Stress. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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Look Up to See the Big Picture

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Look Up to See the Big Picture

Look Up to See the Big Picture

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I learned a new word today; allocentric.

Egocentric, as we all well know, is being focused on ourselves; it’s self-centered.

Allocentric, on the other hand, is a wider focus, or other-centered. It allows us a greater perspective to see things as an observer, rather than getting caught up in the minute detail.

According to Rick Hanson, a Buddhist neuropsychologist, author and guest teacher on my online A Daily Dose of Bliss, we naturally switch between egocentric and allocentric processing styles every three to four minutes.

Egocentric processing naturally occurs when we’re thinking about ourselves and our own lives, and also when we’re holding and manipulating objects close to our body.

ALLOCENTRIC PROCESSING AND MEDITATION

In terms of meditation, egocentric processing occurs when we’re practicing concentration meditations, like observing the breath.

Allocentric processing occurs when we’re just “being” rather than “doing,” and especially when we’re practicing meditations like choiceless awareness (being aware of whatever arises, without aversion or clinging).

This can lead to being “poised to shift into intuitive modes of comprehension – into insights of various depths.”

HOW TO CULTIVATE ALLOCENTRIC PROCESSING

Rick teaches a simple way to cultivate allocentric awareness.

It’s easy.

All we need to do is look up and out to the horizon.

When we do this, the part of our brain that’s associated with allocentric processing is triggered, and we can see things with more perspective, as the “seer” or the “other” might.

On the other hand, when we look down and at things close to our body, we trigger the part of our brain that’s associated with egocentric processing.

It works like this:

When we look to the horizon, we’re receiving information from the upper part of the visual field, which flows to the lower regions of thalamus. According to Rick, this part of the brain is associated with world salience.

When we look down however, we receive information from the lower part of the visual field, which passes information to the upper regions of the thalamus, which is associated with self salience.

I’m oversimplifying something pretty complex here, but you get the picture.

We look up, our brain switches into the objective, allocentric mode; we look down and it moves into a more subjective, or egocentric mode of processing.

IT HAPPENS NATURALLY

If you think about it, we do this intrinsically. I know I do.

When I’m trying to remember something I’ve momentarily forgotten, or I’m looking for some other kind of inspiration, I look up.

When I’m feeling more introspective, I naturally look down and turn my gaze inwards.

In either case, I’m not really looking at anything, but the direction of my gaze reveals my style of processing.

When I go for a walk on the beach, I can’t help but look out into the distance, and after awhile, the problems I thought I had when I left home, seem so much less weighty and significant. My world view shifts a little, and I see things with a little more perspective.

It’s no wonder standing at the top of a mountain, surfing, looking out over the front hand in warrior pose and watching the sunset all feel so good.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this.

In the book The Valkyries, Paulo Coelho takes his wife on a 40 day quest into the Mojave Desert where she is taught by the son of a magus to look at the horizon. She finds that doing so causes her soul to grow and her world to expand.

Let’s not forget Buddha.  It is said that he sat under the Bodhi tree for seven days and nights, until he looked up on the eighth morning and saw the morning star and attained enlightenment.

Ok, so maybe he did a little background work before that moment, but still, it was at the moment when he looked up that he found enlightenment.

TRY IT YOURSELF

Take your eyes off this egocentrism-inducing screen and look up and out.

Better still, get yourself outside and look at the horizon.

I’m not guaranteeing enlightenment, but it might just feel good, and give you a little insight.

An earlier version of this article by Dr Lauren Tober was published in Elephant Journal in June 2012

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Look Up to See the Big Picture

I learned a new word today; allocentric. Egocentric, as we all well know, is being focused on ourselves; it’s self-centered. Allocentric, on the other hand, is a wider focus, or other-centered. It allows us a greater perspective to see things as an observer, rather...

read more

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In iRest meditation we cultivate what we call an Inner Resource; a memory or a visualisation that supports us to tap into our innate sense of being and ok-ness. I often feel this deep sense of being-ness and ok-ness when I walk on this beach. When I look at this photo...

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read more

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Cultivating an Inner Resource

Cultivating an Inner Resource

Blog

In iRest meditation we cultivate what we call an Inner Resource; a memory or a visualisation that supports us to tap into our innate sense of being and ok-ness.

I often feel this deep sense of being-ness and ok-ness when I walk on this beach.

When I look at this photo I took the other morning on my beach walk, or I take a moment to close my eyes and take myself back there, that feeling of being-ness and ok-ness returns.

This is my Inner Resource.  And quite frankly it feels like a miracle.

Want to try it?

CULTIVATING YOUR INNER RESOURCE

Remember a time when you felt a sense of being or well being.

Maybe it was when you were at the beach too. Or on a holiday. Or cuddled on your grandma’s lap when you were a kid. Or curled up in bed with a good book and some organic chocolate (ok, maybe that’s just me).

It could also be something completely from your imagination, like imaging yourself surrounded by white light. Or floating on a cloud. Or sitting under a big old tree at the top of a mountain looking out over a beautiful, untouched forest.  Or it could be visualising your deity of choice. Or simply noticing your breath entering and leaving your body.

It doesn’t matter what it is, the idea is simply to choose something that brings you a sense of peace, security, well being or ease.

Whatever it is, close your eyes and conjure it up in your mind.

Explore it using all of your senses…. What does it look like? Taste like? Smell like? Sound like? What does it feel like on your skin?

What emotions are there?

How does it feel in your body?

Take your time. Rest there for awhile.

Congratulations, you’ve just cultivated your Inner Resource!

Now that you’ve found it, you can return to your Inner Resource any time you like. It’s always there waiting for you. It’s free and you don’t need any fancy equipment. Pretty cool huh?

INNER RESOURCE AND iREST MEDITATION

In iRest Meditation, we thread the Inner Resource throughout practice, at the beginning and the end of each meditation, and touch into it throughout the meditation at various times. This supports the Inner Resource to be a deeply embodied experience, and not just an intellectual exercise.

Doing this means that we experience it more deeply (we can feel it in our bones) and that it’s easier to call on when life feels a little shaky and we need to connect in with security, well being and ease.

INNER RESOURCE IN DAILY LIFE

Once you’ve become really well acquainted with your Inner Resource, when you can feel it deep in your body, you can call on it whenever you need to.

If you’re lying awake in an anxious, ruminative state at 3am. Call up your Inner Resource.

If you’re feeling nervous before a job interview. Call up your Inner Resource.

If you’re lying in the dentist chair, with your head back, mouth open and the dentist hovering above you with the drill.  Call up your Inner Resource.

If you can feel the early tingles of a panic attack coming on.  Call up your Inner Resource.

It’s there to support you.

WHAT’S YOUR INNER RESOURCE?

I’d love to hear what your Inner Resource is. Let me know in the comments below.

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Look Up to See the Big Picture

I learned a new word today; allocentric. Egocentric, as we all well know, is being focused on ourselves; it’s self-centered. Allocentric, on the other hand, is a wider focus, or other-centered. It allows us a greater perspective to see things as an observer, rather...

read more

Cultivating an Inner Resource

In iRest meditation we cultivate what we call an Inner Resource; a memory or a visualisation that supports us to tap into our innate sense of being and ok-ness. I often feel this deep sense of being-ness and ok-ness when I walk on this beach. When I look at this photo...

read more

Grace

Moving past mid year we’re called to review and come into alignment with our heart’s deepest calling. As we’re drawn to what we truly love the source of this calling is Grace. How do I speak about Grace? I think of it as an undefinable essence, an abiding...

read more

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Simple Rituals for Letting Go

Simple Rituals for Letting Go

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Are you ready to let go of something that is no longer serving you?

Ritual can be a  powerful way to do this.

I like letting go rituals that are simple.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Write down what you would like to release (a list, a story, a letter, a poem, a drawing or a photograph) and burn it to ashes. As you do so, you might like to say to yourself “with love, compassion and gratitude for myself and all beings, I let go, I let go, I let go.”
  2. There are other ways to let go of what you’ve written. Try putting it through the shredder or ripping it up and throwing it in the compost (so it can act as a fertiliser for your growth).
  3. Release it to the wind. You might release the burnt ashes, or symbolically let go of a feather, a dandelion or allow the sand to flow through your fingers at the beach on a windy day.
  4. Try a breathing practice. Inhale and imagine yourself breathing in love, or whatever you wish for yourself. Then exhale, visualising what you’d like to let go, and say silently to yourself “I release, I release, I release.” Perhaps notice how the visualisation fades as you repeat this, and you’re left with the exhalation and the silent statement of letting go.
  5. At the beach, write what you would like to let go of in the sand, near the shore when the tide is coming in. Watch as the waves wash it away.
  6. Write in your journal what you’d like to let go of. You might like to start with ‘with love, compassion and gratitude for myself and all beings, I let go of ……….”
  7. Wash your hands or have a shower, and as you do so imagine what it is your letting go of washing away down the sink.
  8. Practice the ease of letting go by cradling a soft cushion or toy in your hands, then gently moving your hands apart and allowing it to slide through your fingers and drop to the floor.

Try including gratitude in your letting go ritual.  Say thank you for the lessons you’ve learnt.  You may be ready to let something go, but before you do, acknowledge the blessings that it brought, however small.

What letting go rituals have you tried, or would like to try?  Let me know in the comments below.

With love and gratitude,

If you’re brave enough to say goodbye, life will reward you with a new hello”
Paulo Coelho

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Look Up to See the Big Picture

I learned a new word today; allocentric. Egocentric, as we all well know, is being focused on ourselves; it’s self-centered. Allocentric, on the other hand, is a wider focus, or other-centered. It allows us a greater perspective to see things as an observer, rather...

read more

Cultivating an Inner Resource

In iRest meditation we cultivate what we call an Inner Resource; a memory or a visualisation that supports us to tap into our innate sense of being and ok-ness. I often feel this deep sense of being-ness and ok-ness when I walk on this beach. When I look at this photo...

read more

Grace

Moving past mid year we’re called to review and come into alignment with our heart’s deepest calling. As we’re drawn to what we truly love the source of this calling is Grace. How do I speak about Grace? I think of it as an undefinable essence, an abiding...

read more

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What Do You Desire?

What Do You Desire?

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I’ve been consciously creating a life of meaning and purpose for myself and supporting others on their paths for many years. However it wasn’t until I met Dr Richard Miller and began the journey into iRest Yoga Nidra that I heard the term Heartfelt Desires, and fully realised the potency and importance of living a life fully and unashamedly aligned with our Heartfelt Desires.

Heartfelt Desires are your dharma.

They are your soul’s innate desire or purpose in life.

They are your personal calling, your values or your philosophy on life.

It is life living its highest purpose through you, as its unique and personal expression.

When we live a life in accordance with our heartfelt desires, we are living a life that is in accordance with the natural flow of the universe, and it results in happiness and harmony for ourselves and the entire universe.

Heartfelt Desires are not goals.  Goals are things you can do, then you tick them off your list and your done.

Heartfelt Desires are more like values.  They’re ways of being.  You can never tick them off your list and be done with them.  You live them on a moment-by-moment basis.

What are you Heartfelt Desires?

What do you truly desire more than anything else in life?

My Heartfelt Desires are love, truth, grace and ease.

I’d love to hear what your deepest Heartfelt Desires are.  Leave me a comment below with yours.

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Look Up to See the Big Picture

I learned a new word today; allocentric. Egocentric, as we all well know, is being focused on ourselves; it’s self-centered. Allocentric, on the other hand, is a wider focus, or other-centered. It allows us a greater perspective to see things as an observer, rather...

read more

Cultivating an Inner Resource

In iRest meditation we cultivate what we call an Inner Resource; a memory or a visualisation that supports us to tap into our innate sense of being and ok-ness. I often feel this deep sense of being-ness and ok-ness when I walk on this beach. When I look at this photo...

read more

Grace

Moving past mid year we’re called to review and come into alignment with our heart’s deepest calling. As we’re drawn to what we truly love the source of this calling is Grace. How do I speak about Grace? I think of it as an undefinable essence, an abiding...

read more

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