It's all about resiliency: Cultivate it!
This is the second in a series of articles which will discuss various aspects of stress and how we can learn to bounce back from stressful occurrences. In the previous article "It's all about resiliency: Change!" I spoke about the effects we can experience when we face challenging changes in our lives, like moving to another country.
In this article I will highlight what happens to us when stress levels are high. My premise is that if you know what and why something happens, then you will be more motivated to make the necessary changes to cultivate your resiliency.
Fight, flight or freeze
Our bodies are programmed for survival. When the body faces a fight, flight or freeze situation numerous physiological (biological and chemical) reactions occur. In fact, about 1.400 of these take place almost instantaneously once our brain perceives danger. The beauty about this is that we don’t have to give the brain any instructions. It knows instinctively what to do.
One of the reactions that take place is an increase in stress hormone levels. Cortisol and adrenaline are two of the more well known hormones. Amongst other functions, Cortisol ensures that glucose (energy) is released into the bloodstream so that our muscles can function optimally. After all, if there is a lion confronting you on the streets of the Hague, then you want to be able to run away - fast. Adrenaline ensures, amongst other things, for a quick reaction time. Pulling your friend out of the way of a tram on the Leidseplein in Amsterdam requires extreme agility, strength and focus. Adrenaline helps here.
Many more reactions impact our bodies. Both heart rate and blood pressure increases. The immune system is depressed. The pre-frontal cortex (our thinking, rational brain) partially shuts down. This means we don’t have access to our most logical, creative thought processes. After all, we don’t need to be doing multiplication tables while running for our life. The brain has more important things to co-ordinate. Cortisol takes about 12 hours to metabolise. This means our sleep may be interfered with after a stressful occurrence.
Normally, cortisol levels drop in the evening to allow us to fall asleep. After a stress causing encounter, we'll have higher than normal levels circulating in our bloodstream. While adrenaline gives us abundant energy in the moment, when these levels drop (and they drop quickly) we’ll feel exhausted. These are just a few of the responses our bodies undergo.
The really alarming part of this is that we can create all these changes with only our thoughts.
Thinking makes it so
As Robert Sapolsky (a Stanford University professor who has spent 30+ years researching the effects of stress in animals and humans) says, humans are creating these same stress reactions with just our thoughts. And many of us are doing this constantly.
How many times have you come across a lion on the streets of the Hague or had to save someone from a potentially deadly situation? Not very often would be my guess...
How often have you rehashed a painful or embarrassing situation out of the past? Or created fiction for the future wondering "what if... they don’t like me... I’m not good enough... I don’t have what it takes... there’s not enough money to pay that bill?" You’re getting the picture I’m sure. For some, worry, fear, or concern can be constant.
What are the implications of these stress effects? It’s all about how prolonged they are in our bodies. A zebra, having survived facing a life or death situation with a real lion, will return to a normal physiological state within minutes.
As humans, our thinking brain takes over. We’ll ruminate about an argument for hours, days, weeks or even years reliving it many times over. This means we are putting a considerable extra amount of stress on our bodies with just our thoughts. The situation is long past but our brain doesn’t know that. Each time we relive an emotionally charged encounter we create the same chemical soup mix.
Ongoing, higher than normal levels of hormones in the system, along with other physiological changes create toxicity. Over time this can put us at risk for numerous health problems. Heart disease, depression, burnout, even cancer to name only a few. Some researchers are calling maturity onset diabetes a disease of stress. The American Psychological Association has estimated that upwards of 80% of doctor’s visits have stress as an underlying cause.
Next month I’ll continue to provide you with information, technique and tools to cultivate your personal resiliency. We can’t avoid stressful situations but we can certainly learn how to handle them better and recover from them more quickly.