“It's not the load that breaks you down, it's the way you carry it.”- Lou Holtz
Stress (from external sources) is a natural part of life. In modern life we can encounter stress due to work pressure, examinations, psychosocial stress and physical stresses due to trauma, surgery and various medical disorders.
Luckily our bodies have their own intelligence and have a very clever way of coping with short term stress, this is called the 'Sympathetic nervous system' which triggers a release of many different hormones. It is the body's way of supplying the boost needed to get things done promptly.
So how do these hormones affect us?
Stress hormones (the dangers and benefits)
Adrenaline , Norepinephrine and Cortisol
Adrenaline, which is basically a 'fight or flight' response, is produced by the adrenal glands in response to a message from the brain about a stressful situation, it is fine in small doses, (especially if you are exercising and working it out of your system). However, it can become harmful if released regularly on a long term basis.
Adrenaline, and Norepinephrine (another stress hormone), are largely responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when we are stressed. Imagine you are driving and someone steps out unexpectedly in front of your car ,you have to slam on your breaks very suddenly. This will cause your heart to beat faster, your muscles to tense, you might sweat and you breath faster. This is the effect of adrenaline on your body.
Norepinephrine is secreted from the adrenal glands, but also from the brain. Like adrenaline it helps to make us more alert, it also takes more blood to the vital organs and muscles, which will help you to run faster away from the scene, if you need to move quickly.
Cortisol is another major stress hormone which takes a few more minutes to be released, it helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, (and so could potentially be life saving) it also regulates some body functions which are not essential in that moment, such as sex drive, immunity, digestion and growth, so that all your energy can be focused on surviving.
Problems start to arise when stress levels remain high over a long period of time and these functions remain suppressed.
Dr Hans Selye studied stress in the 1950s, he studied animals who had been injured or placed in extreme or unusual conditions. This is a quote by him on the subject.
“Significantly, an overwhelming stress (caused by prolonged starvation, worry, fatigue or cold) can break down the body's protective mechanisms. This is true both of adaptation which depends on chemical immunity and that due to inflammatory barricades. It is for this reason that so many maladies tend to became rampant during wars and famines. If a microbe is in or around us all the time and yet causes no disease until we are exposed to stress, what is the “cause” of our illness, the microbe or the stress? I think both are- and equally so. In most instances, disease is due neither to the germ as such, nor to our adaptive reactions as such, but to the inadequacy of our reactions against the germ.”
How mindfulness can help
“The capacity to respond mindfully develops every time we experience discomfort, pain, or strong emotions of any kind during formal meditation and we just observe them and work at just allowing them to simply be here as they are with out reacting.”-Jon Kabat-Zinn
If a person is feeling unable to cope with facing difficult, or traumatic memories, or emotions that they may not feel ready to face yet, it is best for them to focus on a stuctured kind of meditation such as guided meditation, or a kind of meditation that puts the focus on objects outside of the body, such as a walking meditation. This is usually easier to deal with, as it brings their attention away from themselves and can help to build a stronger connection with the world, as there is a tendancy to go inwards and to become disconnected from the world when one is feeling stressed.
Scientific studies have shown us that mindfulness can help to control and regulate the release of stress hormones and guide us more towards the 'Parasympathetic' nervous system, one of it's functions is to slow down reactions caused by the Sympathetic nervous system. It induces more of a relaxed state and enables it to carry out its normal functions more effectively, (for example to digest well).
The practice of mindfulness trains your mind to switch off the stress response at times when we have no use for the sympathetic nervous system and re activates the Parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us to relax.
There are many different neurotransmitters which are activated during meditation, of these the most dramatic areEndorphins. At high levels they can cause feelings of euphoria and ecstasy.
Meditation also causes the body to produce Serotonin which helps the body to balance moods, (a deficiency of Serotonin can cause depression). There are many more including GABA (Gamma amino butyric acid), DHEA(dehydroepiandrosterone) and Melatonin.
As well as meditation and exercise, the release of these hormones through the neurotransmitters can also be temporarily achieved through sugar release (carbohydrates release sugar too) and chocolate. Which is why many people binge on these foods when they are feeling depressed.
Scientific studies have demonstrated that mindfulness increases the size of the 'grey matter' in the hypothalamus area of the brain, which is the area which controls the release of cortisol. It appears that through mindfulness practice we can have more control over the release of cortisol, preventing us from experiencing the symptoms associated with long term stress.
Feelings of helplessness can lead to feeling stressed. Mindfulness helps us to feel more in control of our situation, because we become more in touch with our body and its reaction to potential stressors. With ongoing mindfulness practice, we can develop the ability to control stress at will, helping us to be calm in the moment of a potentially stressful situation. This can be beneficial for instance, during interviews, public performances and awkward or difficult social interaction.
Dr. Seligman (who studied optimism and health) said:
“It is not the potential stressor itself but how you perceive it and then how you handle it, that will determine whether or not it will lead to stress.”
So we can see from the evidence that through mindfulness we can improve our reactions to stress. As a result of this it is no longer necessary to live with stress. Mindfulness is our saviour, not only saving us from unnecessary stress, but also from the diseases caused or worsened by stress, ultimately leading us to have more control over our whole lives, and to be better company when amongst others.
Although we may still encounter stressful situations, we will know how to control our reaction to it and be able to take a step back from it a little, so that the stress response is no longer in the driving seat. This ultimately enables us to live a happier and more fulfilling life.