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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The Worry Train

The Worry Train

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I find there is a complex interplay between the various factors that lead to maternal anxiety.

Anxiety can intensify after the birth of a first child, as there is a sense of things being special with the novelty and uncertainty that the first child brings, and the enormous learning curve that the mother is on. Also, some women have unreal expectations that everything will be perfect, which can come from not having had prior experience with raising children, and an attachment to a former life where they enjoyed a feeling of “being in control.” It is time when idealism and realism can collide.

I have heard a mother describe it as the ‘Worry Train.’

Sometimes there are very specific and unrelenting worries, such as the baby’s health, or the lack of a routine, but other times there are no precise fears, but instead just a pervasive sense of vulnerability and that something bad could or might happen.

Our first born was quite an unsettled baby in the first year, who cried a lot and didn’t sleep much. I remember the anxiety that my partner experienced and how at 3am this could become a cascade. Even with all my medical knowledge and experience in a neonatal unit, as a Father it was difficult not to worry.

We can look back at it now with greater understanding, insight and perspective, and even gratitude that our own personal experience gives us empathy for what most, if not all new mothers go through.

 

The Anatomy of Anxiety

Anxiety is an emotion. We have an emotion first before we have a thought. The emotional neurons are faster than thought neurons. This is the result of millions of years of evolution.

When the emotions are very strong then they can derail our thinking. Trying to out-think your emotions even in times of low emotional charge is challenging.

We are designed to have times of high emotion and times of low emotion. We are not designed to be in state of high emotion for extended periods. Our emotional being should be like a strong tree that will sway with the winds of situational emotions then stand straight and tall always coming back to the centre.

We have emotions for a reason and they should not be ignored or suppressed. They need to acknowledged and honoured.

For this tree of emotional being to have strength we need restoration and support. Restoration of the body, physically and emotionally. Support in the home, support in the mind, support in the heart.

 

Hormones

A mothers hormonal state is volatile after the birth of a child. This leaves her vulnerable on many levels.

Old cultures revered the post natal time and would typically allow the mother to be cocooned with the child without work or expectation typically for a month. When hormones do not recover and the sense of vulnerability remains, it starts to effect the nervous system. The nervous system goes into overdrive – a state called Sympathetic Dominance (fight or flight).

The stress button is left on. Being in constant stress is exhausting for the body, and can deplete the body of nutrients and contribute to inflammation.

 

Brain Changes

A mothers brain has been amazingly upgraded and modified during pregnancy. She becomes more observant to the needs of the child, studies suggest that her IQ increases as does her overall awareness.

Mothers have been installed with a radar and extra powers of perception. I would call it “Wonder Mum Super Hero!” I remember my partner being able to sense our children’s needs, by feeling it in her own body, such as cold or hunger. I can well imagine how this heightened awareness – especially if it is not recognised – could contribute to feelings of anxiety especially if a woman is not confident in her mothering skills.

 

The Role of Inflammation

Being pregnant is a controlled state of inflammation, and some mothers are more inflamed than others. The body compensates during pregnancy with hormones. After the pregnancy, the protective role of the hormones has gone and ideally the body returns to its “normal” state of inflammation. Frequently the inflammation doesn’t decrease or can even get worse with conditions like autoimmune disease and gut problems.

The paradox is that the great restorer of inflammation (through complex mechanisms) is sleep. The paradox lies in the fact that mothers aren’t sleeping, especially when they are anxious. It can be a slippery slope.

 

How to Stop the Worry Train

Things to do to in the here and now:

  • Gratitude Practices
  • Moving your body
  • Relaxing your nervous system – through yoga, acupuncture, healthy use of computers and social media (be very, very, very selective with what you expose yourself to.)
  • The breath (you will experience deeper relaxation when exhalation is longer than inhalation, like Lauren teaches in her online course A Daily Dose of Bliss). Five minutes, twice a day can make a BIG difference.
  • Laughing and singing

Things to do that will help tomorrow and next week and in a months time and in the future:

  • Adaptogenic Herbs
  • DHA
  • Correcting micronutrient imbalances such as iron, zinc and Vitamin B12
  • Reducing inflammatory foods in your diet
  • No deep fried foods and chips
  • No sugar
  • De clutter your home
  • Outsourcing and getting Help Help Help with cleaning and babysitting

Dr OsOscar Serrallachcar Serrallach is an Integrative Doctor who practices Nutritional and Environmental Medicine in Byron Bay and Melbourne, Australia.  He is the author of The Postnatal Depletion Cure: A Complete Guide to Rebuilding Your Health and Reclaiming Your Energy for Mothers of Newborns, Toddlers, and Young Children.

Oscar graduated with a medical degree (MBChB) from the Auckland School of Medicine, New Zealand in 1996. He received his fellowship of Family Medicine and General Practice in 2008 and is currently completing a Fellowship in Nutritional and Environmental Medicine.

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