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the science behind stress

What is stress? Is it some mystical force out to get us? (Feels like it sometimes.) In truth, stress is simply a category for events that evoke an emergency response from your nervous system. Stress is a very real thing and how you "deal with" it makes a world of difference to your nervous system and health.

Let's take a look at how your autonomic (self-operating) nervous system and it should become abundantly clear why.

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for pretty much every other than movement and brain function: “heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, pupil size, sweating, immune system, mucus production, caliber of the airways, blood sugar levels, adrenal hormone levels, digestive functions, your immune system” and still more bodily functions (1). It can be broken down into three systems: enteric NS ("gut brain"), sympathetic NS (emergency responder), and parasympathetic NS (maintenance crew). We're interested here in the latter two.

Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks into gear almost instantly in response to emergency or the threat of emergency. Here's what that response looks like:

  • Your "thinking" brain, the prefrontal cortex thought to be responsible for sophisticated decision making, switches "off"
  • Your motor-sensory cortex in the brain gets that extra juice so your limbs coordinate well
  • A wash of stress-inducing chemicals (adrenalin and others) gives you superhuman strength by boosting heart-rate, blood pressure, and fast action
  • Your digestion, reproduction, and repair activities shut down --because you don't need to worry about digesting lunch if you're about to be lunch

All of these responses are FABULOUS when you are in a true emergency. You basically get to be your favorite superhero for a few minutes! Oh, did you think this state was supposed to last longer? Nope, your SNS works best at a sprint, not a marathon, because you need a high-intensity response to use up the chemicals produced. In that case, your body will crave a balancing hormone (oxytocin) once the threat passes and send you seeking comfort. As you begin to feel safe, your body dutifully produces the oxytocin, which helps you move into a state of rest and repair after your big getaway. Now the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is at work. Here's what that looks like:

  • Your body produces acetylcholine, a hormone which triggers a calm, vegetative state
  • Your heart beat slows and blood pressure decreases, things go back to normal
  • Digestion and reproductive system support resume
  • Any healing needed commences
  • Your cognitive processing and learning ability comes back online in tip top shape

The two sides of your nervous system work beautifully together, though they are not by any means meant to work in equal measure throughout the day. Optimal balance for good health requires a 7:1 ratio of time spent in parasympathetic and sympathetic systems. Does that seem like a lot of rest to you? It did to me, but when I think about how amazing I feel when I get a full night's sleep, time to eat with leisure, time to exercise, time to play, time to be with friends and family --and how much more effective I am at work when all of those other things happen-- it starts to make a little more sense.

Unfortunately, most of us, myself included, don't always manage this ratio. And we have a fair amount of stress that isn't life threatening, doesn't cause an adrenaline-burning reaction, and leaves us in a wash of stress chemicals that have never been used up. When this happens, your body gets chemically confused --should you keep on alert or are you safe? Remember how the SNS is better suited to a mad dash than a long run? Well, this "confusion" takes your SNS on a stroll. Your PNS never really gets to settle in because SNS is still sauntering around looking for danger. When your stress sticks with you, your health starts to take a toll. Much of your maintenance resources are diverted to being on a steady alert.

Happily, there are ways to use this old stress, too. Basically you have to get your body to realize you're safe, no danger is present. It depends on the nature of the individual and the stressor as to what will best switch your stress responses off. Kelly McGonigal suggests a well-timed change in attitude (which is just how amazing our brains are, by the way; so much comes back to how you view the world). My buddy Jason Vinci praises sky diving (for many reasons, actually). And here I am to tell you to try restorative yoga.

Restorative yoga!

I feel like I should shout it from the rooftops--everyone should know about restorative yoga! At the very least, the practice has been life changing for this red-head. Next week, I'll walk you through the whys and hows, and hopefully introduce you to the wonders of the yoga nap!

hari om tat sat!

esther

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