Facing down a man-eating lion is not the same as facing down an Excel spreadsheet, but try explaining that to your body's stress receptors.
And good luck getting their attention above the din of your stalled commuter train, looming presentation at work, 14 unanswered LinkedIn requests and blink, blink, blinking BlackBerry.
“Our bodies have not adapted to the culture we’re living in now,” said Brian Luke Seaward, author of “Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Well-Being.” “Our response to every threat — whether it’s a saber-toothed tiger or a divorce or an approaching deadline — is fight or flight.”
“We see an increase in our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate — basically all the metabolic activities that get you to survive and run for the hills,” Seaward said.
It’s an incredibly efficient system. Except that it’s slowly killing us.
How’s that for irony?
“Once the lion is gone, your stress response subsides” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology instructor Thea Singer, author of “Stress Less: The New Science That Shows Women How to Rejuvenate the Body and the Mind.” “So much of what stresses us now, though, is perceived stress. And when you constantly perceive yourself as stressed, your stress hormones never get turned off and you bathe yourself in a toxic substance.”
This toxic substance is made up mostly of epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol — hormones produced by the adrenal cortex in response to stress. This is fantastic when you need to jump out of the path of a careening vehicle. Not so fantastic when a Twitter blackout sends you into apoplexy.
Which raises the question: Can we reset our body’s response to stress?
“Absolutely, unequivocally yes,” said J. David Forbes, director of Nashville Integrated Medicine.
And we should.
“Stress drives all kinds of biochemical changes in our bodies,” Forbes said. “It instantaneously increases our heart rate and blood pressure, makes our guts not function well and creates damage to our blood vessels and organs.”
Because we’re unlikely to avoid stressors altogether, “stress-proofing” your brain is a wise approach to our 24-hour brand of anxiety, Singer says.
“There are things you can do so you will be less reactive to a stressor when one hits,” she says. “It’s really important to be proactive.”
Break a sweat
Exercise, widely touted as a healthy outlet after stress hits, also protects the body from flying unnecessarily into crisis mode at the first sign of trouble.
“Exercise is a good stressor,” Singer said. “It gives your neurons a tiny little assault and they thicken in response, so they can better withstand a bigger assault.”
So hitting the treadmill will make life’s unexpected traffic jams less taxing on your brain and organs.
It also trains your brain to relax, Seaward said.
“When athletes engage in exercise, they have a parasympathetic rebound,” he said. “When they stop, their bodies say, ‘It’s time for relaxation’ and they kick in a chemical called acetylcholine, also known as a relaxation hormone. If you look at our culture, we’re not exercising regularly. We’re training ourselves for stress, but we’re not training ourselves for relaxation.”
“Scientific studies have shown that those who have greater social support are less reactive to stressors than those who have less support,” Singer said. “When we experience emotional pleasure, our reward circuitry kicks in. When we experience emotional pain, a different part of the brain kicks in. In those who exhibit more social support, the part of the brain that experiences pain is less reactive during stress” than in those with less support.
And the benefits apply whether you’re giving or receiving social support, Singer said. “Studies looking at volunteering and our ability to withstand stressors found that it’s a two-way street.”
Call a pal. Join a book club. Get thee some support — ideally, before you need it.
Skip Ben & Jerry’s
Stress-eating makes us feel temporarily better, but over time it wears down our ability to keep anxiety at bay.
“When we reach for the fatty, salty, sweet stuff, it does momentarily have a tranquilizing effect,” Singer said. “It kicks off a pleasure center, the same way drugs of abuse do. But once that wears off, the cycle starts over, and we crave the same food to kick off the center again. This actually raises our stress levels and increases our cortisol levels.”
A stalk of celery is not necessarily your answer, however.
“I recommend to people, ‘Think of something else that brings you satisfaction that will also kick off that reward center, but that won’t get you into that whole cycle again,’” Singer said. “Carrots are not necessarily pleasurable. Do something you enjoy: Take a mindful walk, read a book, jump rope.”
“We’ve seen a lot of research on neuroplasticity that shows people who meditate can begin to change not just the physiology of the brain, but the structure of the brain,” Seaward said. “The brain waves are very different from someone who meditates than someone who doesn’t.”
That’s because meditation (also known as mindfulness-based stress reduction) actually creates new neural pathways between the brain’s right and left hemispheres, he says, which offers coherence between our brain’s analytical, time-conscious, logical left side and the intuitive, accepting, creative right side.
Seaward cites a recent study in the journal Psychiatry Research that used magnetic resonance to analyze the brains of participants in an eight-week meditation program.
The study concludes:
“Participation in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective taking.”
Compassion meditation, a technique aimed at creating more empathy and acceptance of others, is particularly helpful in warding off stress, Singer said.
“The goal is to alter your perceptions of situations outside of yourself,” she said. “It’s not about wearing rose-colored glasses, but finding ways to counter negativity.”
Notice something good that happened to you today and tell someone about it. Do something nice for another person. Volunteer your time.
“People say, ‘Oh, this is so touchy-feely,’ but there is scientific evidence to back it up,” Singer said. “I’m as skeptical as the next guy. But when you look at the science behind it, it’s really inspiring.”
Indeed, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, found that compassion meditation affected the brain regions that make people more empathetic to other peoples’ mental states, according to a 2008 Science Daily report.
“Even taking five minutes a day to sit in quiet ambiance will help,” Seaward said. “Our culture is in sensory overload and that creates a training effect for our brains to release an avalanche of stress hormones.
“It all comes down to balance,” he said. “Psychological, physiological, emotional balance. Our culture has a lot to do with that. But so do we.”