How to cope with stressors

The Amygdala HijackThe human body responds to stress with a powerful fight-or-flight reaction. The main parts of the brain that are responsible for our reactions to stress include the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex.

In any given moment we receive input IN, it can be via Social Media, sounds, news, conversation the list in endless. How we process what we received depends on the information received and the individual.
For much of human history, this emergency response system was useful. But today, the stress in most people’s lives comes from the more psychological and seemingly endless pressures of modern life.

To get a better grasp of the situation lets delve into the area’s of the brain that are directly related/responsible for our human emotions.

The Limbic System

The brain is a very complex organ that processes our thoughts which can be complicated, stressful and therefore passes through more than one area of the brain. Currently, it is known that the majority of our Emotional and Psychological as well as some physiological responses are determines and /or worked out in the Limbic System. {side note: Re-read the above paragraph and sit on it for a moment, it gives you an understanding of 1: How complex it is and 2: How we are STILL working structures, processes and responses out.}

Below [figure 4.6 [1]] is a partial diagram of the limbic system, also known as the paleomammalian cortex, is a set of brain structures located on both sides of the thalamus, immediately beneath the medial temporal lobe of the cerebrum primarily in the forebrain.[1]

It supports a variety of functions including emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory, and olfaction.[2] Emotional life is largely housed in the limbic system, and it critically aids the formation of memories.

When we’re startled, or acutely stressed “fear center” of the brain, called the amygdala activates our central stress response system. Known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenalcortical (HPA) axis because it is comprised of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and the adrenal cortex.

This stress response system regulates hormones, particularly the stress hormone cortisol. When we detect stress our brain first sends a message to the hypothalamus, which fires off a message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is only the size of a pea however it releases hormones, which are messengers in the stress-response system. These hormones travel out of the brain to the adrenal glands which sit on top of our kidneys. These bad boy glands release the big guns which is our Cortisol. This is sthe stress hormone or the message that is released by the HPA axis to advise all of our organs in the body to deal with the stressors.

Other things happen during this process, this process also is responsible for rapidly increasing glucose levels, speeding the heart rate, and increasing blood flow to the muscles in our arms and legs, this stress response allows us to respond to a threat.  After the danger has passed, the system works to return hormone levels to normal.

Complex? yes however it is important to have a basic structural understanding before we work on what we CAN do to control out stressors. Below is a diagram  explaining the above.

The Amygdala

The amygdala, which is the size of an almond is the brain’s structure that actually detects stress and tells the HPA axis to respond. It can detect both emotional and biological stressors.

  • An emotional stressor is something in the environment that may cause you to feel scared, sad, or frustrated, like the bear.
  • A biological stressor is internal stress felt by the body, because of an injury or illness [1].

The amygdala is sometimes called the aggression center and  if you stimulate the amygdala, you can produce feelings of anger, and violence, fear and anxiety.

These functions of the amygdala are extremely important for survival. Just think—if you could not detect things that are harmful or stressful, you would not survive! The amygdala talk to our prefrontal cortex.

This is the control center of the brain that controls thoughts and actions. Its main job is to control the emotional responses to stress by regulating the amygdala.
The prefrontal cortex is a big region in the front of the brain. It can be called the control center of our brains because it helps to control our thoughts and actions. The main job of the prefrontal cortex is to control our emotional responses to stress so that we do not get too stressed out.

The amygdala quickly signals a threat or stress in the environment, and the prefrontal cortex helps the amygdala to see stressful events as a little less scary or frustrating. It is important to be able to use the brain to help slow the production of cortisol in the HPA axis. This process helps us calm down during a normal stressor by perceiving the situation as non-life threatening.

FACT that we will talk more about later is that the Amygdala CAN and DOES grow with use!!! The more we stress the bigger our Amygdala becomes which leads us into the Segway of The Negative Bias.

The Negative Bias

Another things we need to also think about is how our (humans) negative bias comes into play.
Negative experiences from a survival standpoint over the 600-million-year evolution of the nervous system, have more urgency and impact typically than positive experiences do.

Watch your own mind do this. It does five things automatically.

  1. Our minds look for bad news out in the world, in the body, in the mind.
  2. When it finds it, when it finds that one tile in the mosaic of reality flashing red, it overfocuses upon it.
  3. WE overreacts to it. Lots of evidence that people react more to pain than pleasure, more to loss than to gain.
  4. The whole package is fast-tracked into memory, especially somatic memory, emotional memory, body memory. The residues of lived experience sinking into us. Once burned, twice shy.
  5. The stress hormone cortisol that’s released when we’re stressed or irritated, frazzled, pressured, lonely or blue, that goes up into the brain, crosses the blood–brain barrier and turbocharges the amygdala.

So now that alarm bell rings more readily, and cortisol weakens the nearby part of the brain, the hippocampus, that calms down the amygdala, puts things in context, and tells the hypothalamus to quit calling for stress hormones. This creates a vicious cycle, all the while our Amygdala is growing larger – this is NOT a good thing.

Stress today makes us just a little more vulnerable to stress tomorrow, which increases the stress tomorrow, which then makes us even more vulnerable for the day after that.

That IS the negativity bias in a nutshell.

What fires together – WIRES together

Neurons that fire together, wire togehter‘ – Donald HebbNeuropsychologist Donald Hebb first used this phrase in 1949 to describe how pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced through repetition.
Before I geek out & dive into a deep rabbit hole of the origins of Neuropsychology

Neurons that fire together, wire together.” are sustained patterns of neural mental activation co-occurring together leave lasting physical changes behind in neural structure and function.

This means the more you run a neural-cicruit ie: the more your brain does a certain task, the stronger that neural network becomes, making the process more efficient each successive time.
This is why, to quote another old saying, “practice makes perfect”. The more you practice piano, or speaking a language, or juggling, the stronger those circuits get.

What it also means is that the more you stress, the more you will develop these stressor pathways AND the easier it will become to see a situation as stressful.
Lets put it to another situation, when you start an exercise program for the first time it is hard however the more you do it the easier it becomes and you can even say add more load to your squat bar. Your muscles will even grow and this is exactly the same as experiencing STRESS.

What Fires together Wires together! Interesting fact is the Amygdala can grow, just like a muscle. The more you stress the more it will grow.

Prolonged stress leads to a range of behavioral abnormalities. Interestingly, some of the key emotional and cognitive symptoms of stress disorders are quite divergent. This is evident in the contrasting effects of chronic stress on the structure and function of two brain areas critically involved in learning and memory: the hippocampus and amygdala.

Above Figure from The Hidden Face of Fear in the COVID-19 Era: The Amygdala Hijack:
Functional MRI. Tasks with happy faces and threat-related cues show a significant activation map (T-score 3–6) of the amygdalae, superimposed on a T1-weighted volumetric interpolated brain sequence. The ICU task involved images of intubated patients and healthcare personal with protective equipment, evoking the COVID-19 emergency and a stronger bilateral activation of the basolateral amygdala. ICU, intensive care unit.

Reducing Stress

I hope the above information has fired off a few NEWER neurons or maybe a light bulb moment [punt intended] so now lets get down to how we can make some changes to harness our stressors.It comes down to understanding the above and developing strategies to assist you during times of stress.

Fun Fact “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” are sustained patterns of neural mental activation co-occurring together leave lasting physical changes behind in neural structure and function. WHICH we already read above however ALL “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that when we develop strategies to handle stress and practises these stragetiges our brain can be hardwired or for some re-hardwired for happiness.

Every person is different and could/will require different ‘areas’ in their  strategies however they only differ by degree – not kind.

Accepting is POWERFUL
Go with me here, it may seem airy fairy to some, however if you are looking for more of a Mind Body process scroll past this point (if you must). 

  1. I want to say I am not talking about positive thinking always or suppressing or resisting what is painful or difficult. In other words, whether it is driven by the negative bias or not if you are feeling anxious or physical pain, hurt or sad, whatever it might be, the first and foremost thing is to be with it mindfully and hopefully, stepping back from it a bit. Relating to it with self-compassion and acceptance however fundamentally being with it. That is the foundation or your practice.
  2. Then, ensuring we don’t get stuck in a passive receptive, be-with-it orientation without moving forward. We need to be able to let go. There could be sadness and even anger, let the thoughts come into your mind however don’t offer them a cup of tea. Don’t entertain them and do not feed them.
  3. Is the ability to move past them, grow from them and hopefully having the opportunity to experience something beneficial which is growing because of them. that is the authentic and real, yet not chasing a positive experience but growing from a negative one. It is also about allowing beneficial experiences that happen due to the current stressors. For example reaching out to someone or someone reaching out to you, allowing that to happen.

Whenever it might be, slowing it down to help your brain actually convert that passing experience, that momentary state, to some kind of lasting change in neural structure and function. And when you do this is you gradually fill yourself up and you grow what I called the unshakable core of resilient well-being, hardwired into your own body. As you do fill yourself up in these ways, craving diminishes. Because if you think about it, craving, probably defined, is a drive state based on an underlying felt sense of something missing and something longed.But when you repeatedly internalize the felt sense of needs sufficiently met, enough safety or satisfaction or connection in the moment, and as you grow in a growing sense of peace, contentment, and love inside yourself, then you’re a lot harder to manipulate by advertisers and fearmongers and those who would try to breed us against them grievances and rivalries.

Understanding the Mind Body Connection
Here we come down to the Nuts and Bolts of it all. You WANT and NEED to be in a state of Homeostasis; Homeostasis refers to the body’s need to reach and maintain a certain state of equilibrium. The term is often used to refer to the body’s tendency to monitor and maintain internal states such as temperature and energy levels at fairly constant and stable levels.

If you don’t understand the Mind Body Connection it can cause ALL sorts of Gut & Intestinal Issues (this is ANOTHER Blog in the making).

So lets look at some of the Fundamentals to put this into practice.

  • Sleep:
    Your brain cleans itself out when you sleep #fact! have you ever felt like your brain is full, usually when you learn something new, or start a new job or hobby? This is actually far worse when you have been experiencing Mental stress. SLEEP is needed as you are mentally exhausted. Sleep is also needed on the regular to combat stress and allow our mind to R E S T.
  • Identify:
    Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. While it’s easy to identify major stressors such as changing jobs, moving, or a going through a divorce, pinpointing the sources of chronic stress can be more complicated. It’s all too easy to overlook how your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors contribute to your everyday stress levels. Sure, you may know that you’re constantly worried about work deadlines, but maybe it’s your procrastination, rather than the actual job demands, that is causing the stress. Until you accept responsibility for the role you play in creating or maintaining it, your stress level will remain outside your control.
  • Get Moving:
    When you’re stressed, the last thing you probably feel like doing is getting up and exercising. But physical activity is a huge stress reliever—and you don’t have to be an athlete or spend hours in a gym to experience the benefits. Exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good, and it can also serve as a valuable distraction from your daily worries. While you’ll get the most benefit from regularly exercising for 30 minutes or more, it’s okay to build up your fitness level gradually. Even very small activities can add up over the course of a day. The first step is to get yourself up and moving.
  • Balance a Health Lifestyle:
    Eat a healthy diet. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat. Start your day right with breakfast, and keep your energy up and your mind clear with balanced, nutritious meals throughout the day.
    Reduce caffeine and sugar. The temporary “highs” caffeine and sugar provide often end in with a crash in mood and energy. By reducing the amount of coffee, soft drinks, chocolate, and sugar snacks in your diet, you’ll feel more relaxed and you’ll sleep better.
    Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs may provide an easy escape from stress, but the relief is only temporary. Don’t avoid or mask the issue at hand; deal with problems head on and with a clear mind.
  • Make Time for Fun and Relaxation:
    Set aside time.
     Include rest and relaxation in your daily life. Don’t allow other obligations to creep in. This is your time to take a break from all responsibilities and recharge your batteries.
    Do something you enjoy every day. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be stargazing, playing the piano, or working on your bike.
    Keep your sense of humor. This includes the ability to laugh at yourself. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.
    Take up a relaxation practice. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the fight or flight or mobilization stress response. As you learn and practice these techniques, your stress levels will decrease and your mind and body will become
    calm and centered.

Resources:

  1. NeuroScience The Amygdala Hack https://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/17/7234
  2. (2009) Hyperdopaminergia and NMDA receptor hypofunction disrupt neural phase signaling. J Neurosci 29:8215–8224, doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1773-09.2009, pmid:19553461.
    Abstract/FREE Full Text
  3. Dzirasa K
    (1982) Measurement of linear dependence and feedback between multiple time series. J Am Stat Assoc 77:304–313, doi:10.1080/01621459.1982.10477803.
    CrossRef
  4. Geweke J(1969) Investigating causal relations by econometric models and cross-spectral methods. Econometrica 37:424–438.
    CrossRe
  5. http://www.mhhe.com/biosci/genbio/enger/student/olc/art_quizzes/genbiomedia/0665.jpgTortora, G.J. and Derrickson, B. (2012, 9th Edition) Introduction to the Human Body:  The essentials of anatomy and physiology.
  6. 1. Hick J, Biddinger P. Novel coronavirus and old lessons: preparing the health system for the pandemic. N Engl J Med. 2020 Mar;25 [PubMed]
  7. 2. Goleman D. Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books; 1995.
  8. The Hidden Face of Fear in the COVID-19 Era:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7270062/
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