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Stress Response in a Nutshell

Have you heard of something called nervous system regulation? As human beings we inherit a survival instinct that's called the stress response. This is how it works: our nervous system constantly, without us being aware of, every moment, scans the environment for this one question: Am I safe? When the ans

wer is no, for whatever reason, it triggers amygdala (the fear centre of the brain) to turn on the stress response. As a result, a flood of hormones are released to prepare the body to eliminate the threat and feel safe again. 

Now, the amygdala is the most primitive part of our brain and we inherit it from our reptile ancestors, so it's millions of years old:). So when the amygdala turns this response system on, the most developed part of our brain, that we're super proud of, does all the analytical thinking, rational decision making, - the neocortex, is not very accessible. From the evolutionary perspective, this was to our benefit for survival. Because who needs to strategize their escape, while a dinosaur is chasing. You just run, if you can. 

Likewise, amygdala has primitive answers to threat: Flight-Flight-Freeze are the only options for amygdala to kick in us. When it feels it can fight against the dinosaur, we fight, when it feels, we better run, we run. When it feels these two are not even options, that is when the threat is too much to handle, we freeze- like the mouse playing the dead. 

In order to prepare the body for fight-flight or freeze, what kind of adjustments do we need to do? Who needs to digest things in their stomachs when they're running? So let's take the blood from the stomach and give to the big muscles like legs. Who needs to breathe deeply while escaping? so let's make the breathing shallow and fast, blood pressure gets higher. There are other changes too: if you hear a noise from the bush, you don't need a wide perspective; but a narrow one focused on where the noise came from. Even the place of our middle ear bone changes its position to adapt to hear more high or low frequency noises. Hence, when two triggered persons are arguing, there is no Esin and Emre any more: there are two reptiles arguing without much hearing from one another. 

Now, this system is a bit outdated in modern times. The nervous system does not differentiate well between a real threat and a perceived one. In modern times, no dinosaurs are chasing us, but deadlines, business deals, traffic lights, childhood traumas, the pandemic, and so on. From all these three, the fight response is like OMG- can be euphoric sometimes. It's a god-like feeling that we can achieve anything, just push harder and longer. Remember the exam weeks that we go through sleepless nights or when we take on a difficult task for promotion. The feeling of 'doing' is sometimes too great that we might just push the limits. 

What are these limits? Well, the stress response is designed as an emergency action plan and NOT as a standard operating procedure. What if the emergency action plan is acting standard operating procedure? Remember the flood of hormones released during stress response? That’s called HPA axis. Hypothalamus warns Pituitary gland which kicks adrenal glands to release those hormones for initiating the above-mentioned changes in the body. What are those hormones? Most notable ones are cortisol and adrenaline. So imagine these hormones run high all the time. The body is not designed to keep that kind of high blood pressure, that hard work for the heart, without digestion and so on. But when that happens for prolonged time, without giving time and space to the nervous system natural regulation mechanism, then there is a problem: increasing body of scientific research links heart problems, diatises, auto-immune problems to high levels of prolonged stress. For instance, the research shows us that in the prolonged stress, the body starts attacking itself in order to eliminate the perceived threat. 

So what are we going to do to manage stress, to have a healthy nervous system regulation, and ultimately to be resilient in the face of life’s surprises? The body and mind are forming a unity for the mechanics of every animal, including homo sapiens. We can actually trick the mind by working with the body to ensure the safety that our nervous system needs. This is called bottom-up approach: a.k.a. working with the body to influence the mind. This is how it works: remember all the changes occured in the body as a result of HPA axis kicked hormones. Many of them we cannot change but we can bring our awareness to our bodily sensations and change the changes that happened in the body. For instance, the easiest way, is to work with breath. If my breathing gets shallow and speedy when I’m stressed, when I breath deep and slow, my body sends the message to my brain that oh it looks like we are safe. So by reversing the changes in the body, we are able to calm down amygdala. This is genius! Especially the deep belly breathing with a longer exhale is the most recommended way to calm the stress response. Likewise, the exercises focusing on bodily sensations, bringing us back to our body like yoga, tai chi, certain dance modalities are some of the ways for nervous system regulation. 

But these are not the only ones. Breathing exercises are just the easiest and the most cost effective. Normally, the nervous system has the capacity to regulate itself and return to rest and digest and/or social engagement state. That's to say, it knows how to turn it off by using what we call resources - the things calm us down- going to gym, spending time with friends, playing and cuddling with our kids and pets, cooking, doing yoga, meditation, dancing, journaling - anything that feels good to our heart, makes us feel the present moment, lose time etc. you got the idea. 

Take care!

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