Stress: In The Eye Of The Beholder


Amazingly, the term stress has taken on so many meanings it can be used as a noun, adjective, or a verb. At the end of the day, though, what is stress? In the simplest terms, stress is any real or perceived threat to your well-being and survival. The stress response, on the other hand, is how your body copes with stress. When we perceive something as stressful, our body releases our two primary stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. These increase the body’s fuel and enhance its delivery to our muscles and brains, by increasing blood sugar and blood pressure. This ensures we have the fuel we need to “fight-or-flight” our way out of any situation that could cause us harm. For example, if you were hiking and suddenly stumbled across a bear, you’d need to rev up your fuel to  get out of there in order to avoid becoming the bear’s next meal. Evolution has obviously favoured the development of the stress response, and almost every mammal launches the same biological response to stress as we do! Presumably any organisms which did not launch an appropriate stress response would have not survived the dog-eat-dog world we all live in.

This then begs the question, when did stress become the bad guy? Stress is a leading factor in many diseases, so why is something so evolutionarily advantageous also responsible for so much grief? The answer lies in our brains—where stress is in the eye of the beholder. Whereas animals experience stress when they encounter a predator and the stress response ensures their survival, we humans think and worry too much about perceived stressors. The average person is likely to get stressed over financial strains or relationship problems, and once the brain determines that something is stressful it launches the same biological response used to outrun that bear. If we’re sitting in our office having increases in blood pressure and blood sugar levels it doesn’t benefit us—and in this sense, it seems we have out-evolved our own biology! The system our body has so carefully crafted over millennia to ensure we survive predatorial attacks is now engaged by watching stock drop on a computer screen or a size 2 model walking a runway on TV. It’s no surprise that chronic stress is a big predictor of diseases like type II diabetes (a disease of dysregulated blood sugar) and heart attacks (often driven by chronically elevated blood pressure).

Research is suggesting that simple things you can incorporate into your day can really influence how our brain perceives stress and can even dampen our biological responses to stress.

The silver lining here is that since our brains decide what is stressful, we can actually train ourselves to not get stressed out about these things. Research is suggesting that simple things you can incorporate into your day can really influence how our brain perceives stress and can even dampen our biological responses to stress. So do yourself a favour and reassess real and perceived stressors. Your brain and body will thank you for it.

Make This Science Work For You

By Orsha Magyar

Mindfulness, yoga and meditation training are being increasingly found in scientific studies to essentially re-wire our brains by building neural pathways that increase stress resilience. Over time (but not as long as you’d think, it only takes a few weeks), they can help us think through a stressful situation by engaging our rational prefrontal cortex, rather than reacting immediately (and often defensively or aggressively) by side-stepping the cortex and simply activating the fearful part of our brain, our amygdala. Super cool neuroscience—but how do we do it? Here are three simple tools to let the re-wiring begin.

1. Mindfulness

Before you start eating, make sure you are comfortable how you are sitting, and make any final adjustments before becoming still. Then, set an intention for your meal and take ten slow, deep breaths. This will slow your heart rate, reduce blood pressure and counter the effects of stress during your meal (where it can slow digestion and absorption).

2. Yoga

Healthy, regular elimination is shown to be crucial for a healthy nervous system that can cope with stress. So get things moving by performing yoga postures geared at improving the gut-brain axis in the morning and evening. Our favourites are: Anjaneyasana Twist (Crescent Lunge Twist), Apanasana (Wind Relieving Pose; alternating leg variation) and Malsana (Garland Pose/Yogi Squat).

3. Meditation

Just a few minutes of practice per day can help ease stress, so don't think you need to get hardcore. Simply sit up straight with both feet on the floor, close your eyes and focus your attention on reciting (out loud or silently) a positive mantra such as “I feel at peace” or “I love myself.” Place one hand on your belly to sync the mantra with your breaths, and let any distracting thoughts float by like clouds.

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