How can it be that this is all a result of stress? Why is it so important for you and everyone to understand stress? Because stress is the brain and body's reaction to the most important function in your life! STRESS is the natural reaction to the most central function in your brain, SURVIVAL. Therefore, stress is not some occasional nuisance. It doesn't just keep you from being effective at work or enjoying life. It is your ancient survival function.
Why is the survival connection not noticed? Because the stress mechanism works deep in the oldest part of your brain. This old part of your brain is "subconscious". Therefore you do not have easy access to it. Your conscious mind sits in your new brain, the neocortex. This makes it so difficult for your conscious, thinking mind to be aware of how stress comes about and how it affects you.
Now you understand why stress is such an important part of your life. Stress is related to the most important function which has kept you alive. When this central function is overworked or misdirected it causes big problems. That is why major universities and medical professionals tell us that about 80% of all illness is related to stress. But it is not just illness. Stress will affect your performance and happiness in life too.
Should You Care About Stress? How About Survival?
Insight: Your stress brain is also your survival brain! The human brain has developed over millions of years through natural selection. All features our brain has must have served this survival function well or you wouldn't be alive today. But the brain doesn't change that quickly. The survival function the brain performs was appropriate for human life 10,000 or 100,000 years ago. The brain did not adapt yet to the Industrial Revolution or today's computerized online world. Your brain cannot change that quickly.
What are the survival skills your brain is built for? Those survival skills are FIGHT, FLIGHT or FREEZE. If you were attacked you had to fight back for your survival. This includes hunting a big animal so you and your tribe can eat. If the attacker was too big to defeat, you had to run for your life.
If your attacker was too big to fight and too fast for you to run away, then your last option was to freeze. You would collapse, lie motionless and play dead. This was the last desperate option taken only if you had no other choice. Why? Because a hungry predator might eat you anyway. Or you might be lucky and it didn't like "dead meat" and walk away. Because of all of this, your survival systems were built primarily for fight or flight.
Let's take a look now how your day-to-day stress symptoms fit into this survival model of the human brain, your own brain.
Symptoms of Stress
All stress symptoms can be explained with the answers to this one question. What were the requirements 10,000 years ago for your body and mind to successfully fight and conquer or run to live? Why 10,000 years ago? Because your body and brain developed slowly over millions of years. Both did not change much since then. Therefore let's take a look from this unique point of view. You will be surprised. Immediately, you will begin to understand.
Your old brain manages your survival functions and generates the stress you experience. This is how it works.
General stress reaction. Your autonomous nervous system manages the body and all its functions. It has only two modes of operation:
Survival; in the stress mode everything in your body is prioritized for effective fight or flight.
Relaxation: now your body and mind can function normally. You can perform your regular functions, work, fun, rest and creative thinking. Your body cells can heal and regenerate to stay fresh and youthful.
1. Immediate effects
Act fast - reflex reactions Your old brain works much faster than your thinking neocortex. These are your learned and automated routines just like pulling you hand back when you touch something hot or when riding your bike. Your old brain instantly switches your autonomic nervous system to "sympathetic" or stress mode.
Your old brain works much faster than your thinking neocortex. If you drive down the street and suddenly a kid runs out in front of you, you hit the brakes long before you think about it. Only afterwards you think how fortunate you were so fast. How does your old brain accomplish this? Your old brain runs your body. It gets the signals from your eyes that something is in front of you, a kid, a dog, a falling tree. Automatically the old brain sends the signal it was trained for to your muscles which will hit the breaks. These automatic impulses can turn into your quick reactions which you may later regret. This happens because they are so fast, your thinking brain is not activated yet.
Act powerfully - stress hormones How does your brain get the body wide-awake and ready for action? Automatically your old brain sends a signal to the adrenal glands. They instantly produce cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones switch everything to survival mode.
4) Aggressive, irritable and trigger happy 5) Being more alert to danger, anxious, even fearful 6) Wide awake, restless and can't sleep
Single focus In a life and death situation you must focus only on the danger in front of you. Your neurophysiology switches your body and brain to be able to process only that one thing. There cannot be any distraction or you could not survive. Your senses and thinking switch to single track.
Fuel for action - sugar Your muscles need fuel for powerful action. Therefore, your liver dumps massive amounts of glucose into your bloodstream.
10) Increased glucose level 11) Crave sweets and fat
Pump fuel fast How do you get that glucose fuel, the stress hormones and oxygen quickly to the places where they are needed? Your old brain instantly turns up the heart rate and blood pressure. Just like on a fire engine, the pumps run faster and the pressure is increased to get more water needed to fight the flames.
Reserve blood for muscles action Your survival is at stake. Your old brain commandeers all blood for muscle action. It takes it from your neocortex thinking brain and from digestion. These two can wait until you are safe again.
14) Pull blood from the brain - foggy thinking 15) Take blood from the gut - bad digestion
Activate muscles Your old brain readies your muscles for violent action. It has increased the blood available, the speed of the blood flow and the amount of glucose. But it also gets the nerves ready to fire and get muscles moving. Now they twitch for action. Muscles begin to tense to release full power in a fraction of a second. You can feel that tension building.
16) General tension, even achiness 17) Stiff neck and shoulders, spasms 18) Neck pain, back pain 19) Stress headaches
Cool the body Violent action, fight or run, will heat up your body. Your old brain knows this. It reserves all fluid not needed for survival. Then it begins to pre-cool you to be effective in your actions.
20) Preserve fluids - dry mouth, dry eyes 21) Pre-cool the body - profuse sweating
After the crisis relax and return to rest When the danger is over and you did survive your old brain will switch your autonomic nervous system back to "parasympathetic" or relaxation mode. Your body can now recover. Your sleep is sound. Your mind thinks clearly with broader perspective. Healing hormones are produced. Your cells regenerate.
What if that doesn't happen anymore?
2. Long-term health effects: dangerous PermaStress What happens when there's always "danger"? What if you feel pressured, anxious, and restless all the time? The human brain developed in a time long ago. There was a hunt and danger, but there were also long periods of quiet and routine. Your brain and body needs those times of rest. It needs them to be healthy and effective in what you do. But in this modern life will you have rest? With the Internet and smart phones, with work and kids and family, commutes and traffic, with television hyped up news and advertising - how often can you really be at peace and totally relaxed? Your old brain does not like constant change. Your old brain "thinks" that change brings danger! It will always be on some alert. In this modern world of never ending information flow and stimulation the old brain cannot be relaxed. PermaStress is what we call this situation. Why this new term? Because we haven't found any place in the millions of references to stress, not from universities not from medicine, which adequately explains this new and dangerous phenomenon. We define PermaStress in the book "The Girl Who Couldn’t Laugh: The Neuroscience of Stress Management": PermaStress is a permanent or semi-permanent low level of stress for which the stressing events (stressors) are not new and do not stand out in a unique way. These stress triggers are generally only processed in the subconscious parts of the brain. In a state of permastress, the autonomic nervous system operates more or less continuously in sympathetic or “stress” mode. In short, the individual experiences general feelings of tension, stress or overwhelm, but is mostly unaware of specific stress triggers causing them. What will this nearly permanent low-level stress and aggravation do to you, your health, to your effectiveness at work and home? With PermaStress you will never be fully relaxed. Let's review together what happens based on the old survival actions. Act fast - reflex reactions Tendency to make rash decisions, to blow up easily or to be aggressive, defensive and passive aggressive.
Effort to "repair" damage, guilt feelings
Relationships fray making work and home life difficult, adding more stress
Powerful action - stress hormones The continuous elevated levels of stress hormones will make you more anxious, irritable and feeling pressured. You can sleep but your sleep will be restless. You wake up not fully refreshed. Fatigue and low energy make your life more stressful feeding the vicious cycle of stress.
Can't sleep well, fatigue
Exhaustion from the constant over-stimulation by stress hormones
Cortisol has many negative long-term effects:
Reduce immune function, more susceptible to colds, flu, infections, immune disorders, and slower wound healing
Inhibits calcium deposits to bones, osteoporosis
Slows collagen production affecting connective tissues
Increases appetite, sugar and fat craving, contributes to obesity
Adrenaline long-term effects:
Stimulates the fear response leading to anxiety and depression
Single focus Over time your vision will narrow. Your will listen less carefully. It will be harder to take a broad perspective. Your abstract and creative thinking will suffer. Your mind will ruminate going over the same old negative thought patterns.
Repetitive negative thought patterns
Fuel for action - sugar The glucose level in your blood will be elevated most of the time. This creates stress for your sugar metabolism resulting in more fat deposits and preconditions for diabetes.
Poor diabetic control and risk factor for diabetes
Increased appetite and food intake
Central fat deposition
Pump fuel fast Your heart is under constant strain working harder than necessary. Blood pressure elevated frequently. Without vigorous action your breathing is too shallow to provide sufficient oxygen. How many years until these systems so overworked will cause you problems.
Risk of cardiac problems
Hypertension and stroke
Reserve blood for muscle action Low-level stress pulls some blood supply away from brain and from digestion. They will still function but are handicapped. With less oxygen your thinking brain will be a little slower and more foggy. Less mental clarity, functional deterioration and loss of memory Poor digestion, flatulence, constipation, low energy Activate muscles You are sitting at the desk with your computer or talking with a client or the boss. You work construction or assembly line. But subtle stress primes your muscles for intensive action. They are tense and they can spasm. They pull your back, your shoulders and your neck. Days and weeks of service will cause you pain in back and neck. And headaches follow, perhaps general achiness.
Chronic back, neck and shoulder pain
Poor posture, appearing older, deleterious effect on spine and joints
Frequent tension headaches and migraines
Cool the body The old brain wants your body cooled for your survival. It will take fluid from your eyes and mouth. Dry eyes do irritate. Dry mouth will let bacteria grow to damage gums and teeth and give you bad breath. You sweat more easily with more bad odors and sometimes sweaty hands.