The Wiring Mess of Stress

Evolutionarily, the stress response was designed to keep us alive and safe. The caveman who did not respond to the presence of a saber-toothed tiger would have made a great lunch. So it makes sense that we are pre-wired to have the stress response.

The part of the brain involved in the stress response is in the limbic part of the brain called the amygdala. It is often referred to as the reptilian or lizard brain as in evolutionary terms, it is ancient and primal, keeping us safe. The amygdala signals that we are under ‘attack’ and tells us that we ‘lack’ so we gather more resources to survive. 

The Sympathetic and Parasympathic Nervous Systems

The amygdala receives sensory information from the outside world and then responds by activating systems that control the responses. It is connected to the autonomic nervous system that has two main branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic is often referred to as the gas petal, and the parasympathetic, the brake.

When the gas petal or sympathetic nervous system is activated, it’s response is fight, flight or freeze. In this state the body is aroused; heart rate increases, blood vessels are constricted to keep the blood flow to the major organs, blood pressure increases and digestion slows down. The parasympathetic response or the brake, helps us restore, refuel and relax. It is often referred to as the rest and digest system.  The body is required to be in this state to heal and repair.

Robert Sapolsky, professor at Stanford University, has defined stress as anything that knocks us out of homeostatic balance. It will move systems from functioning out of normal range. When animals become stressed, they return to a level of homeostasis quickly thereafter. They go back to grazing or caring for their young. With humans however, we can continue the story in our heads. Our frontal lobe allows us to think on a deeper level. This can help us reflect on deeper meanings and can also get us excited about new adventures, but it can also cause us to worry or ruminate about stressors in the past or anticipate possible stressors in the future that might not even happen. As Mark Twain quoted, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Stress can actually be helpful to people. It can give them motivation and help them perform. Sometimes we need the deadline to keep us on task to finish the job, but research indicates that many people experience chronic stress. Prolonged or chronic stress can produce wear and tear on our minds and bodies and also effect our behavior. 

The see-saw of the hot and cold systems of the brain 

The amygdala cannot tell the difference between a real threat like a car coming at you driving on the wrong side of the road, (which happened to me in Australia only it was me who was on the wrong side … Oops) and perceived threats that are thoughts, feelings and beliefs in your mind.  Sometimes the amygdala can become over sensitize and activate a strong stress response for something as simple as a traffic delay.  The amygdala can even forms associations with random or neutral events like the words: test, sport, or plane, as I have become familiar with as a teacher and consulting hypnosist. The word fear has been commonly given an acronym –  F.E.A.R. – False Evidence Appearing Real, because that is what is often happening.

Walter Mischel designer of the famous marshmallow experiment, describes the brain having a hot and cold system.  The hot system, the limbic system, where the amygdala is located, is emotional and reflexive.  The cold system which is slower, cognitive and reflective is associated with the prefrontal cortex.  When the amygdala, the hot system is activated by either perceived or real threat; the frontal lobe, the cold system, the area of the brain where good decision making, self regulation, weighing consequences of action, and rational thought is located, is deactivated. A metaphor useful for describing the way these two systems operate is a teeter-totter or see-saw; if one of the systems is really high, the other must be low. A lot of us have observed this when witnessing someone in the heat of emotion. An angry person who is emotionally charged and has activated the limbic parts of the brain, are often not logical or even rational. Their argument often makes no sense.  Parents and teachers have learned that it is almost impossible to have a rational discussion with an emotional child or teen. We wait until they have calmed or cooled down and their cold system is working to discuss the issue.  A highly emotional state turns off the cognitive part of the brain and this  could explain why the stressed out kid says to me that their ‘mind goes blank’.

Studies have shown that relaxing students before a test or performance can significantly increase their results. Their cognitive brain is functioning better in this state.  Being too rational, logical or having the emotional brain turned off, ‘like Spock’, can lead to people lacking in compassion. A good goal would be to develop equanimity or resilience and be able to balance the hot and cold systems and the see-saw.

Stress is universal and unavoidable, but the key is to learn effective ways to deal with it

There are things that we can learn to do to maintain equanimity when faced with stress so that we can become more resilient. It is ultimately how we deal with stress, that will effect our well-being.  Anything that calms the amygdala will release the stress and make you feel relaxed. When you are relaxed the level of stress hormones drop, and health-inducing hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, nitric oxide, and endorphins are released.  

Here are some good ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and turn on the relaxation response:

  • Exercise. People who exercise regularly often show increased vagal tone.  Because the vagus nerve is the central component of the parasympathetic nervous system, people with higher vagal tone have been shown to have more resilience to stressors.  Exercise also increases brain function, which is an added bonus.
  • Practice mindfulness. When we become mindful of our thoughts and subconscious programming we can let go of unhelpful thoughts. 
  • Do things that require focused attention.  Developing perseverance and grit can help fire up the wiring of the cold systems of the brain.
  • Cultivate positive thoughts.  Positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, compassion, hope and love to turn on the relaxation response. 
  • Be with nature. This can create a sense of wonder and awe.  These powerful positive emotions can also activate parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing.  Ancient wisdom teaches us to use the diaphragm while breathing. When doing this it is natural that your belly should move in and out, not your chest. Because the parasympathetic nervous system is activated when we breath out, focusing mentally on the outward breath can be very helpful.  

Another great way to relax would be hands on work like massage. But of course my personal favourites would be meditation or hypnosis whether they are self-guided or otherwise.  They both are great ways to calm down both the amygdala and production of stress hormones like cortisol.  It is what I call my ‘mental massage’.

Ginette,  BSc. BEd. CH.
From http://rightbrainhypnosis.com/

About the author ...

Ginette Andress has a degree in Biochemistry from the University of Waterloo, a Bachelor of Education from the University or Toronto and has been passionately teaching secondary school science and mathematics for 23 years. She received her Certification as a Consulting Hypnotist with the National Guild of Hypnotists.

Coping Strategies for the Holiday Season

Many clients over the years have disclosed how difficult the holiday season can be.  Many expressed worry about being triggered and relapsing back in to their addiction, they explained how they cannot attended events due to overwhelming anxiety, or they expressed how isolated they feel despite all the activities. As a therapist, I seek to empower my clients to take ownership over their experiences, finding new ways to work through it and deal with uncomfortable situations.  How do they do this? By planning ahead and utilizing simple coping strategies that can be adapted in many ways.  

Below is a list of some coping strategies that clients have used during the holiday season:

  • Be accountable: tell someone your plans (location, time) or better yet, take someone you trust to the event.
  • Limit money availability:  if money is a trigger, pre-plan the amount you’ll need (food/transportation) and bring that amount in cash, leaving debit/credit cards behind. 
  • Time Outs: anxiety/panic attacks can happen at any time, so if you feel one coming on (tightening of chest, shallow breathing, sweating), head to a quiet area (sometimes it’s the bathroom!), and give yourself a 5-minute time out. Breathe deeply, placing feet firmly on the floor. Ground yourself, bringing yourself back to the present moment. 
  • Schedule your time: planning ahead is vital when feeling isolated/lonely. There are many events going on through community and volunteer agencies, and churches. Also calling up a friend or a family member can be a wonderful reminder of the support and love you have in your life.  Being proactive and searching out activities you can do will help lessen the burden of feeling alone; make a list of activities you want to do this season and make it happen! 

Wishing you a healthy and happy Holiday season,

Better Health Clinic

About the author ...

Jordan Smith received her Masters of Social work from the University of Toronto, specializing in both mental health and addictions. Jordan is focused on compassionate, strength-based, and client-centred care all while using a motivational and recovery-orientated approach.

The Mind-Body Connection

The mind is a powerful thing, and the body is a powerful vessel.  Knowing the fierce connection between the two, they are truly powerful allies. The mind-body connection relates to how our health problems can affect our emotions, and how our psychological state can affect how well we treat, manage, or cope with our physical issues. Even simpler, how we think can effect how we feel, and how we feel can effect how we think.

As a social worker in the addictions and mental health field, I easily recognized and concluded very early on in my career that addiction and mental health issues are symptoms of something deeper. I have never met someone who has “just an addiction,” nor have I met someone who is depressed “just because,” it simply does not work that way. I have worked with hundreds of client’s suffering from depression and anxiety while also struggling with chronic pain and fatigue.  In turn, I have worked with client’s who suffered from debilitating migraines and misused alcohol in order to deal with flashbacks from childhood abuse.  Although their stories are different, the commonality of their underlying symptoms not related to their presenting issues, is truly remarkable.

With new research circulating through the medical field, many physicians are beginning to understand how their patient’s psychological state can influence their physical well-being. We know that depression and stress significantly reduces one’s immune system, particularly during difficult times of the year, like winter. Speaking to your doctor about your mental and physical health is vitally important, as well as to your Better Health Clinic practitioner. Evidence also supports that talking to a trained counselling professional about your issues and concerns, all within a non-judgemental and supportive environment, is conducive to a healthier you; improved psychological functioning equals improved quality of life.
 
In joining the Better Health Clinic team, a new pathway has been created, a holistic and integrated approach to your care. Our hope is that by introducing psychotherapy into our repertoire of services, if you suffer from chronic illnesses, pain, depressive or anxiety symptoms, you can now easily reach out for help and find the support you need. The mind-body connection is real, and we must start listening to what it’s trying to tell us.

The next time you have a stress head ache, a new and on-going pain, or you notice that you are spending more time in bed than usual, stop and ask yourself, what else could be going on?  Visit the Better Health Clinic to support and nurture your whole-self.

About the author ...

Jordan Smith received her Masters of Social work from the University of Toronto, specializing in both mental health and addictions. Jordan is focused on compassionate, strength-based, and client-centred care all while using a motivational and recovery-orientated approach.