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.
Do you find yourself going through life on auto-pilot mode, mechanically checking off your to-do list only to start all over again the next day? Or are you constantly stressed out, frantically trying to manage everyday struggles, worrying about the future and ruminating over the past while life passes you by? If your answer is ‘yes’, you are not alone. Join the millions that feel the same way. We, as a culture, have grown to accept stress as a part of everyday living. Some of us may be good at recognizing stress and the havoc it wreaks on our mind and body if it is not properly managed but, from what research shows, the majority of us seem to be oblivious to its negative impact. In order to combat and mitigate these negative impacts we need to first stop living in an auto-pilot mode – a mode in which we live mechanically, paying little or no attention to what is happening around and within us. We let old patterns of thinking and behavior take control while we sit in the back seat helplessly, often reacting to situations based on a perception that is habitual. Breaking from this mode involves us getting behind the wheels, enjoying the view as we drive, being aware of our responses to things we encounter along the way and understanding that we always have a choice on how we respond. This six-part series on stress and mindfulness is an attempt to help you get started on this process. We will try to understand stress; the impact stress has on our mind and body; mindfulness exercises that can help manage and reduce stress; ways to enhance our potential to be happy and to fully live in every moment of this beautiful journey we call life.
Part One: Stress and the body
Imagine for a few moments that you are lying down in bed after having spent a relaxing day at the beach or spa. Or you simply had one of those lazy, uneventful, and restful days. Your body and mind are relaxed and you are just about to slip into that peaceful state of slumber, when all of a sudden you hear your kitchen window breaking. Within a fraction of a second, your pupils dilate, your muscles tense, your mouth goes dry, your hands start to sweat, and your body starts to shake. Before you are even aware of it, your body is no longer in the relaxed state it was just a few seconds ago. This is because the body goes through tremendous turmoil when it experiences a stressful situation. Stress causes secretion of certain hormones (cortisol, adrenaline etc) and inhibition of others; our heart rate increases, blood pressure and breathing rate go up. Our body goes through all these changes within a few seconds of encountering a stressful situation, in an effort to provide nutrients, glucose and oxygen at a greater speed to those muscles that need it most. Long term bodily functions such as digestion, immunity, reproduction, and growth are inhibited. Since these functions require a lot of energy, the body slows them down in an effort to use this energy to mobilize the muscles and tissues needed to fight or flee the stressful situation. This stress response of the body helps us stay alive when our survival is threatened and it acts as a protective response of the body to keep us safe in an emergency. But when our body starts to respond to life’s everyday hurdles (being late to work, sitting in traffic, having an argument with a loved one, being worried about a future catastrophe) as if they were an emergency, stress can become chronic and that is bad news for our physical and psychological well-being. If the immune system is continuously suppressed for long periods of time we are likely to fall sick more often and our ability to fight off infectious diseases is negatively impacted. If our blood pressure is always high we are at risk for cardiovascular diseases. Our reproductive and sexual capacities are negatively impacted by chronic stress as well. More and more recent research shows that chronic stress is becoming an unpleasant fact of life and a huge health crisis in the US.
We now have a basic idea on how stress impacts our physical functioning. Stay tuned for next week’s blog on stress and its impact on the mind and our psychological well-being.
Mindfulness is the act of gently bringing your awareness to what is happening in the present moment every time you catch your mind drifting into its own version of reality. It is the act of acknowledging the thoughts and recognizing them for what they are – JUST thoughts. It is a state of being that is free from judgments and simply accepting what is.
A simple way to start the practice of mindfulness is finding five or ten minutes every day to do mindfulness meditation. Sitting in a comfortable position, with your back straight and eyes closed tune into the sensations of breathing. Focus on your in-breath as it enters your nose descending into the belly. Notice how the belly expands. Then notice how the belly contracts as the out-breath rises to be expelled through the nose. You can also imagine breathing in wellness and vitality and breathing out any sickness or negativity. Continue to focus on this cycle for five or ten minutes.
During this activity, your mind will get distracted with thoughts numerous times. The mind is a natural wanderer, so do not be disappointed or discouraged if you have to bring your mind back to your breath a hundred times. The key to being mindful is being aware that the mind has wandered away and non-judgmentally bringing it back by paying attention to your breathing. Tuning into the sensations of breathing even for a few minutes allows the mind to pause in its often convoluted journey. There is great value in being able to pause and have the presence of mind to be aware of thoughts and impulses before acting on them. Instead of blindly reacting to situations, developing the ability to respond with thoughtfulness adds immeasurable benefits, not only to our relationships but to our mental well-being. I have found that the simple, yet profound benefit of mindfulness is in helping us understand that thoughts are just thoughts and that it is our emotional attachments to these thoughts that is the root of suffering.
So friends, heres to a week filled with clarity, understanding, peace and mindful awareness. Happy Monday!
Talking to children about their day, spending quality time with them, reading to them etc are great ways to connect with your child and show them you care. Equally important is to show them how to be mindful – to be in the present moment and enjoy it, without worrying about what happened in school yesterday, anxious about the test tomorrow or sulking over why they did not get that extra cookie. Children have an innate quality to simply be present in the moment. Here are some ways to hone it.
- Take a walk with your child and talk about what you see. Talk about the changing colors of the leaves or the smell of the flowers. Pick up a leaf and examine the texture, the color, the sound it makes when it rustles in the wind. Hold the pine cones lying on the ground and notice how perfect each one is. Become curious and excited about nature and see how your child forgets about the worries in their little head and embraces the wonders around them.
- Choose a mindful activity that your child will be able to relate to and have fun doing it. The spider-man mindfulness activity is great for children. Link: http://kidsrelaxation.com/uncategorized/spider-man-practicing-mindfulness-and-increasing-focus/
- Set aside some time every day to give your undistracted attention to your child and immerse yourself in their play, letting them set the terms and rules of play. The key term to note here is ‘undistracted attention’.
- Mindfulness involves paying attention to breathing – the breath is used as the object of concentration. This simple discipline of bringing awareness to breathing helps our mind focus on the present moment. A fun way to teach children to bring their attention to their breath is by having them lie down and placing their favorite stuffed toy on their belly. Have them watch the toy go up and down as they breathe in and out.
- Introduce the habit of taking three mindful breaths (bringing attention to breathing in and breathing out – noticing how cold or warm the air feels, how the belly goes in and out) at least three times a day. Teach them they can always use this as a tool anytime they feel emotionally unsettled.
Studies have shown that doing these simple and fun mindfulness activities on a regular basis changes the structure of the brain improving the quality of thought and feeling. Children who practice mindfulness on a regular basis show increased patience and focus, higher tolerance for frustration, ability to stay calm amidst emotionally challenging situations, improved cognitive and performance skills and decreased worry and anxiety.
It is time for professional sports teams to go beyond training the players’ body and start training their mind to handle the mental stress that comes with being in high performance environments. The psychological stress that pro athletes experience has a negative impact not only on their personal life but on their athletic performance as well. Stress hormones like cortisol can disrupt cognitive processes such as memory, attention, and decision making abilities. Numerous research conducted in recent years has shown that practicing mindfulness on a regular basis helps reduce stress.
The responsibility of bringing mindfulness into mainstream professional sports may rest with the coaches and their commitment to making their players not just better sportsmen but better human beings. Recent NFL news has spurred a multitude of discussion around rules and laws surrounding off-the-field behavior of its players. Now might be the right time for people and organizations that pour millions into professional sports to start thinking about taking care of their stars from the inside out. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has already embraced this attitude, taking a holistic approach to training his players. Regular mindfulness meditation practice and yoga is incorporated into the team’s training routine. He realizes that taking care of the players’ mental well-being not only helps them stay relaxed and have clarity of mind on the field but off the field as well. As the players learn the art of accepting and letting go, of being relaxed and alert, they are able to focus fully on the present moment, not feeling frustrated at a botched play or thinking about winning or losing. They are able to just be…in the moment, without the constant mental chatter, without any distractions. This calm state of mind brings about increased focus and decreased physical and mental stress. Without the mental commentary and judgments that accompany every act, the mind is able to quiet down and with relaxed concentration the players are able to ‘be in the zone’.