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What Is Stress and How Does It Work Neurologically?

The word stress comes from the Latin word “Strictus”, which means “drawn tight”. And in old French, the word “estresse” means “narrowness” and “oppression”. If one were to visualize these words being applied to someone: “strict,” “drawn tight,” “narrowness,” “oppression” – they would start to feel pretty stressed outright? Words are powerful and play a huge part in creating our reality. So I thought, what is the opposite of this? Release. Openness. Freedom. Peaceful. Someone taking a deep breath of fresh air outside in an open field or on a mountain top.

Why is it there, and what is the root cause of stress?

Well, stress, along with anxiety, depression, aggression, and all the fight-flight or freeze reactions, are generated from our lower brain, the amygdala, aka our reptile brain or creature brain. It’s part of our subconscious mind. The amygdala is our fear center, it’s always active, no on or off switch, and it works beautifully at keeping us alive. When our nervous system senses a threat, it relayed to the amygdala, and stress hormones (Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine) are released to activate a fight, flight, or freeze reaction. Our human brain selects which action is most appropriate in that situation. One thing about the amygdala is that it cannot distinguish real and present danger from a misperceived danger. The human brain imagines all the horrible things that could happen to our loved ones, or go wrong in our job interview – our creature brain feels a threat to our love, belonging, or safety, and does what it does best. About 80% of all our stress is from some misperceived danger. In today’s society, we generally don’t have to worry about being chased by some predator looking for dinner. Most of our stresses and fears come from our jobs, our relationships, childhood, and traumatic events. The amygdala is also smart enough to store all sorts of information that is happening around us during a time of stress. This helps us to avoid these situations in the future. This is called our emotional memory. Emotional memory is the main problem in the painful posttraumatic stress reactions of war veterans. When our subconscious finds a stored memory that matches something in the present situation, it can trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response flooding us with all those stress hormones. A lot of the time our conscious human brain isn’t aware of the stored memory that caused this reaction. For example, we may find ourselves disliking or fearing someone we meet because the amygdala associated a trait in the person with someone who hurt us in the past. Pretty clever safety patterning, but these patterns can run the rest of our lives, and can often cause a lot of unnecessary stress and limitations. This stress, pain, and suffering travel through time and can be passed on to others. But when one person heals themselves, they stop it from multiplying. They become healthier, their relationships improve, and they are effectively healing our future.

Who knew ending the unnecessary stresses in your life could be so powerful and have such a big impact, not only on yourself but on the people around you as well! It’s kind of like what the flight attendant says at the beginning of every flight – if the cabin is depressurized and the breathing apparatus drops down, parents breath into it first, so they can then be more functional to take care of their children. This is why I am so glad you are here! You have taken the heroic step in healing yourself, which has already started to make a positive impact in the world, whether you realize it or not.

Most repeating stress reactions and the things that keep us really stuck in life are learned patterns that are running automatically in our subconscious. Because if they were conscious you would have changed them already. All of your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes are just manifestations of the neural pathways in your brain. So it’s up to you to update and program your brain, form new neural pathways that have you naturally choosing better thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that will bring you that good life that is right in front of you but may not be quite reachable yet. It’s a good thing your brain is capable of changing and re-wiring itself, also known as neuroplasticity. Let’s get into some of the serious effects that stress can have on our minds and bodies at the cellular level.

Here are some of the Effects Stress have on a cellular level:

  • One of the big ones is Depression – It was found in a study that 80% of people who suffer from depression had some stressful event preceding their depression. The stress hormone, adrenal glucocorticoid, interacts with our serotonin receptors which makes it harder for us to experience pleasure and motivation. Serotonin levels that are consistently out of balance can lead to depression and lower self-esteem. This also suppresses all the wonderful brain activity in our human brain – the one responsible for art, music, engineering, love, empathy, creativity, and so much more.
  • Poor concentration and memory – We are actually less intelligent during times of stress. Stress hormones create a decline in cognitive performance, by using up our neural resources, and directing our energy and focus towards our muscles and reflex behavior to prepare for fight or flight. This reduces our ability to remember things and stay focused.
  • Increase in alcohol/cigarette use – Stress hormones can trigger substance abuse.
  • Impatience, fear, pessimism, and anger – Stress is linked to fear, and evolution figured out that hostility was a better way to survive a threat than expressing peace and love. This works great if we are being attacked by something, but this is hardly the case with most of today’s stress. Stress distorts our view and understanding of a situation to be negative and hostile.
  • Eating more or eating less – Stress hormone Glucocorticoid stimulates appetite. More people experience this, but others can feel a complete lack of appetite… This is the case with me, I lose my appetite.
  • Getting sick more often – Our immune system uses a lot of energy, so in a stress response, our immune system is compromised in order to use more energy for the fight/flight response. Doctors actually give patients stress hormones to suppress the immune system during skin and bone graphs so that the body doesn’t fight off the new tissue initially.
  • Fatigue – Stress hormones in the blood system accelerate heart rate and respiration. Our sympathetic nervous system runs the fight, flight, or freeze response and expends a lot of energy to do so. At the end of our day, this can leave us feeling pretty wiped out.
  • Less sleep and poor sleep quality – Stress hormones can make it harder for us to fall asleep and disrupt the quality of our sleep. You may find it harder to get out of bed in the morning. This adds to our feeling of fatigue too.
  • Faster aging and more susceptibility to disease – Stress hormones actually shorten the length of our telomeres. Telomeres are the tape that keeps our chromosomes healthy and functioning properly, and chromosomes hold the genes that build and repair our bodies. When our telomeres shorten it makes our healthy cells age faster which then leads to age-related diseases.

Telomeres shorten naturally over time, but stress hormones accelerate this process. There is a study from the University of San Francisco that examined the telomeres of mothers all caring for severely disabled children. The study found a high percentage of the mothers had shortened telomeres, about ten years of extra aging, from the daily demands of this type of child care. However, a small percentage of the mothers had much more normal telomere lengths. What was the difference? Attitude! Mothers with normal telomeres had a much more positive attitude. Changing our attitude from judgmental to compassionate, defensive to open, fear to peace generates a new experience of life and changes our brain structure. It allows our bodies to heal faster and live longer and amplifies our higher-order human brain function. Changing our attitude in this way generates powerful effects of neuroplasticity which will happen with just one month of practicing the tools and mediations in this course. That’s pretty quick considering the years of stressful patterning most of us carry around, and results can be noticeable just after a week or two. After doing this morning meditation I noticed some significant differences in my attitude and perspective. Let’s jump into that next. Try doing this meditation every morning for the next month.

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Written by

Eric Lundy