Our Secret Weapon Against Stress: Rebooting the Brain

  • I am angry. Feeling hurt, let down, used, abused, dismissed.
  • I am panicked. Do it now! I don’t care if you’re ready. 
  • I am embarrassed. Everyone is looking at me. What if I mess up again?

Everywhere we go in life, stress is there to meet us. And it is unwelcome company. This is nothing new to humankind. Since the early days of the cave man (and cave woman), survival has put demands on our minds and bodies. Fortunately, we are designed to withstand these demands. Our “fight or flight” system is alerted to the threat — we call this the “stress response” — and multiple body systems are activated to manage the threat. Our hearts race, blood pressure soars and breath quickens, as blood is shunted to muscles-at-the-ready carrying extra supplies of blood glucose. Whether we fight or flee, we will be prepared.

What if we can neither fight nor flee?

This is the dilemma of today… What if, instead of fighting or fleeing, we have to stand there and take it? We can’t escape the barrage of abuse? We can’t slow the ticking clock? We can’t hide from the watchful eyes? We have to carry on, in spite of it all. When we can’t change our circumstances; we must manage them. And often the stress of the circumstance leaves us feeling less able rather than more. What worked for the cave man and woman simply doesn’t work well for us today. Yet, we’re stuck with a body that works the same way.

Can we handle today’s stresses in ways that are healthy for our minds and bodies? 

 Acute Stress vs Chronic Stress

We need to make an important distinction between acute stress and chronic stress. Not all stress is created equal. Acute stress, while it may be intense, is relatively short-lived. It may be physical (the final seconds of the game), social/emotional (an attractive person walks by) or metabolic (hunger or thirst strike), and subsides when we attend to them or circumstances change. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is acute stress that hangs around. If the stressful feelings or circumstances remain for an extended period of time without resolution, our body’s response shifts form short term alerting and readiness to hunkering down for a long battle. In essence, we go into survival mode.

Stress that becomes chronic, continuing over an extended period of time and lasting days, weeks or longer is not healthy and can be debilitating. When the body’s alarm system doesn’t shut off, it’s like someone just keeps pressing the panic button. Everything the cave man needed to fight the woolly mammoth continues to be released into the blood stream including hormones and neurotransmitters designed for the job, at the expense of normal body processes. Our brains feel fully engaged but their focus on the threat comes at the expense of careful reasoning, memory acquisition and healthy coping. If you, in an anxious moment before an important test, have found it difficult to retrieve answers you could easily recite before the test, this is an example of brain in “survival mode.”

Stress Doesn’t Need to Be a “Clear and Present Danger”

Ironically, the stressor/danger doesn’t even need to be present to activate the stress response. We humans have evolved the ability to anticipate, remember, conceptualize and even imagine a stressor. These feelings can evoke the same bodily fight or flight response. The stress loop keeps going as long as we let it. Left untended, this can result in symptoms of emotional and physical strain which may progress to disordered mental states like anxiety and depression or surface as physical ailments like high blood pressure, heart ailments, autoimmune illnesses and perhaps cancers.

Because untended or poorly managed stress ignites a positive feedback loop (It keeps pushing its own panic button.) it overwhelms the body’s defense systems in a dangerous and unhealthy way. The body’s normal equilibrium is tipped way out of balance.

Exercise “Reboots” Our Brain

Have you ever noticed that, even when you’ve had a stressful day, a bit of vigorous activity – perhaps a light jog or a workout – gives you a sunnier disposition or puts a more positive spin on your outlook? Me too. The cave man did this without noticing: hunting the mammoth or defending his kill against scavenging animals burned off all those products of stress. Though I don’t know about the sunny disposition.

Modern day man and woman are not any more stressed than cave man or woman who hunted and foraged to survive; we are just way less active. Sedentary, present-day man is who is compromising our bodies and minds.

Yes, while vigorous physical activity is a stressor (and the body doesn’t distinguish between “good” stress and “bad” stress) it uses the body’s stress response in a healthy way. It sends the body’s systems into Go-Zone; revving up the heart, circulation and breathing, and supplying extra glucose where the body demands it. That is the key: supply meets demand. When the hard-working body makes good use of what it has “asked” for, our bodies are in balance.

Maintaining this equilibrium supports healthy function of mind and body. Life stress “treated” with physical activity puts our bodies back in balance, chemically, emotionally and physically. This is how exercise helps us cope with the challenging day to day. Exercise “reboots” our brain!

What strategies are you using to help reboot your brain when stress strikes?

Next Up: The Brain: Wired for What?

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