Using mindfulness to combat stress – a six-part series

Part Two: Stress and the Mind

Part One of this series (https://therapybliss.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/using-mindfulness-to-combat-stress-a-six-part-series/) looked at the detrimental effects of chronic stress on the body. Part Two will look at the impact of stress on the mind and brain function. In order to get an understanding of this aspect we need to first look at two important areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala. The PFC, which is the most evolved part of the brain, is responsible for higher order cognitive functions such as decision making, logical/reflective thinking, top-down regulation of thought, emotion and behavior, reality testing etc. The amygdala, among other things, is involved in memory; processing of emotions such as fear, anger, and joy; and processing automatic (primitive and reactive) responses associated with emotions.

When stress is caused by sudden physical danger (for eg. being on the path of an oncoming car), it is usually the amygdala that kicks into action giving us the ability to get out of the way. It scans the various senses for any signals of danger and instantly sends a message of crisis to all parts of the brain if it perceives a threat. In this sense, stress can be positive because it prepares the body for action. After the stressful situation is over, the amygdala has time to relax and recover. But if the stress is constant and long-term – something that a majority of us experience on a daily basis – it can be destructive because the amygdala is continuously activated. The chemicals and hormones that were intended to be released only for short periods of time are now being released continually into the bloodstream. When the body and mind are in a constant state of hyper arousal, the hormones that were meant to protect us end up over-secreting and eventually depleting. Unmanaged chronic stress also impairs the executive functioning of the PFC. When the amygdala is over-active, the PFC takes a back seat. That is why when we are overcome by stress we find it difficult to see logic. Rather we find ourselves agitated and emotionally reacting to situations – a clear indication that the amygdala has taken over and the PFC is unable to function efficiently. The brain’s response pattern switches from the PFC’s more reflective and logical regulation to the amygdala’s reflexive and emotional regulation.

This type of reflexive response, along with a misguided perception of various everyday situations, triggers chronic stress. Unlike less cognitively sophisticated species, human beings are capable of turning on the stress-response by simply thinking about stress-inducing situations or scenarios. We call this self-created stress – stress that we put on ourselves by overanalyzing, making assumptions, catastrophizing, jumping to conclusions, unnecessarily worrying and creating thought patterns that have no grounding in reality. For eg., simply thinking that the pain in your stomach is a symptom of stomach cancer could set you off on a downward spiral and cause considerable amount of stress even though in reality it may not be true. We are experts at creating stress out of ordinary life events and blowing things out of proportion in our head, thereby negatively impacting the quality of our life. It is often said that how we see things, how we handle them and the meaning we assign to them makes all the difference in terms of how much stress we experience. William James, who was an influential philosopher and widely known as the Father of American Psychology, once said, ‘Thinking is the grand originator of our experience.’ The way we think influences the way we feel; the way we feel influences the way we behave; the way we behave influences our experience of life. There may be numerous stressors in our everyday life over which we may not have immediate control, but if we are able to become aware of our automatic reactions to these stressors and are able to change the way we view ourselves in relationship to them we begin to alter the negative effects the stressors have on our overall well-being.

Join me next week as I talk about mindfulness and its role in reducing the negative impacts of stress.

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