Stress: Physics and Physiology
Stress is being increasingly recognized as a cause of poor performance and health. Since Linus Pauling and colleagues formed the American Institute of Stress in 1978, studies have shown how stress impacts us, and how to effectively manage stress.
There are two kinds of stress. One is a positive motivator. Much like the absence of rain causes a plant to grow taller, positive stress increases strength, resilience, and health. For example, loading muscles with physical weight causes mechanical stress, which grows the muscle and also improves emotional and mental health, promoting self esteem. Mental stress can increase memory, especially when learning new things or how to navigate in a new environment.
Negative stress is detrimental. Negative stress leads to a cascade of physiological adverse events. Sleep is disturbed, emotions less stable, and inflammation increases. Cortisol increases which means that other hormones become depleted due to precursors for hormones going into making cortisol, instead of building other hormones, such as testosterone and progesterone. Weight gain around the waist occurs, with associated risks of illness such a diabetes and heart disease and elevated cholesterol. Fear increases on the emotional level, and worry on the mental level, and both of these contribute to anxiety and depression, as well as to physical illness.
With negative stress, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate increase. This can become so extreme that panic attacks happen to you. Also, your gut and digestion functions decrease, and your immune system loses some of its ability to respond appropriately. Muscles tense. Increased levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, neurochemicals that are part of the sympathetic nervous system, contribute to poor sleep and a higher level of vigilance. You may understand the sympathetic nervous system better, as the “fight or flight” response system. So, feeling more frequently that you need to be wary, as you may need to fight or flee, can be exhausting and yet reduce sleep.
A key difference between positive and negative stress, is that you believe you can handle the positive stress. You see how you are effective when you respond to the stress. This produces reward, which increases self esteem, self confidence, a feeling you can handle more things, and a positive outlook and enterprising attitude. When the stress is such that you can’t get ahead of it, you start to believe that you can’t handle it. This leads to feelings of being ineffective, defeat, hopelessness, helplessness, and these feelings further reduce the ability for you to respond, thus creating a vicious cycle in which there is increasingly a sense of defeat, rather than “I can handle it”.
The physics of stress are only touched on in recent research. We know that the brain loses its ability to problem solve effectively when spending too much time in beta brain wave rhythms, or your Alert Brain state. Too long in Alert Brain can be caused by any of the following: having to make too many decisions in a short amount of time, extended time in front of a blue screen such as the computer or television or mobile phone, being immersed in light from fluorescent lights, or being in a high alert state. You may recognize this in yourself when you get “decision fatigue”, which is feeling like it takes too much effort to make small decisions.
Brain waves are created by the way the neurons in your brain fire. The pattern in which your neurons fire their electrical signals, is a pattern that both influences, and is influenced by, the electromagentic field of your brain. This is why rTMS, a way to shift the electromagnetic field of the brain, can be helpful in depression, or change the urge to gamble in pathological gambling disorder. The electromagnetic field applied to the brain, actually shifts the way the neurons fire, and thus shifts the way a person thinks.
The brain’s electromagnetic field, is changed by the heart’s electromagnetic field. Your heart’s energy field, is sixty times stronger than your brain’s field. Researchers are now beginning to discover, that changing your heart field, can impact the kind of thoughts you experience. Buddhism, Yoga, and other ancient practices, have emphasized the need to develop a kind and compassionate heart. There is now a science to this. When your heart is in a place of kindness and compassion, which needs to extend to your self as well as to others, then the electromagnetic field is more balanced. The thoughts associated are of a more positive nature.
When the heart’s field is in a more negative state, such as that of anxiety, fear, worry, or anger, then the rhythm is more scattered. The brain state of anxiety and depression, is also one where the EEG readings, ie the brain waves readings, are more scattered. Potentially, this is related to the heart’s field. We sense other people’s heart fields, because we actually are in them, when we are close enough to another person. The heart’s field extends at least 8 feet beyond the body. Thus there is a physics that describes how the people around you affect your heart field, and how you affect their heart fields. So, if you are stressed, you may change your field, and this may cause others around you to feel agitated. Similarly if others are stressed, they can agitate your field. So this is a source of potential negative stress. And, as we only have limited control as to how other people feel and think, this can be a area in which you can feel that you can’t handle the stress, because you can’t change the fields of those around you, who are stressed.
Signs of Stress
What are the signs of negative stress? There are many. When you catch the signs earlier rather than later, you can get a handle on the stress. Identify your key signs from the full list located on the American Institute for Stress website. The AIS also has self tests you can try to see how your stress levels are currently. Some common ones to identify include the following: headache, stomach ache, impaired digestion, poor sleep or quality of sleep, muscle tension, increased irritability, more quick to become emotional, difficulty concentrating, thinking about work while you are at home or with loved ones, taking a long time to relax, problems with short term memory, and less feelings of enjoyment or pleasure. You may also notice weight gain around the waist that is difficult to burn off despite diet and exercise changes, swelling due to inflammation, or increased symptoms from a medical illness that you have. You may have worse allergies. Your tolerance of various things from food to relationships to socializing to reduced sleep to negative thoughts to feeling uncomfortable with your self, may occur.
With chronic stress, defined as more than 21 days of stress, your brain molecules of norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin get depleted. This happens as a response to the increased cortisol and glucocorticoids. When these brain chemicals get more scarce, you get more exhausted. Activity observed in the brain changes also after 21 days. On functional imaging scans of the brain which allow us to see the brain being active from moment to moment, there is less activity in the mPFC. The mPFC is the the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the middle front part of the brain, and a problem solving area of the brain. This means you are less able to solve problems when chronically stressed. Also, your amygdala is more active when chronically stressed, thus fear and aggression can happen more quickly, leading to irritability.
The adrenal glands are more active when stress occurs. These are two organs that sit on top of your kidneys, and produce chemicals that give you that "get up and go", sort of like an internal espresso machine. When the adrenals get more active over a long period of time, your body and brain are bathed in more glucocorticoids than normal. A similar state happens in PTSD. Unfortunately, this impacts the only area of the brain where new neurons grow for your entire life, the hippocampus. The hippocampi - plural for hippocampus - are two little organs curled up like seahorses, for which they are named, that sit in the lower part of the brain, and are part of the emotion and memory circuits in the brain. With the increase glucocorticoids, your hippocampi "atrophy", or shrink. So, with longer term stress, you have less ability to learn, retain, and create new memories.
When stress becomes more negative, it can lead to a state of burn out. Burn out is described as a state in which personal efficacy is no longer felt. This means that you have less meaning in your work, you don’t easily see the point of what you are doing, and the enjoyment of what you do is significantly diminished. Burn out rates are increasing in several different job sectors. For example, physicians described feeling burned out in about 17% of doctors in 1973, versus 50% now. Burnout is different than anxiety or depression, in that it does not meet criteria for these disorders, and does not lead to impaired function. However, the person who feels burned out has impaired quality of his or her work life.
Burn out and stress are associated with changes to the neurons. Every neuron is like a long skinny tree, with multiple branches in several directions. Just like a tree, each branch has more branches. The end of each branch connects to another neuron. The connection is called a synapse. We are always creating new synapses and weakening then letting go of old synapses. Other cells in our brain, called the “white matter”, support synapses by metaphorically holding out hands that support the joining together of two neuron connecting ends. The white matter cells fire more slowly, using clacium and other molecules to signal to each other. They support new connections, which support new patterns of thinking and thus new patterns of behavior. So, they help re-design the brain. Like the interior designers, or architects, of the habits of thinking that you have.
With stress, the neurons branch less. When sleep lessens in response to stress, then deep sleep time decreases. Deep sleep is when all the brain cells, both white and grey matter cells, “clean out” or “detox”. Literally, the left over products from the day time of firing, need to be removed from the brain, and this is done by cells called astrocytes, during deep sleep. So, when deep sleep is lost, the brain has more left over stuff in the brain, and this may be what contributes to the tangles and plaques found in the brains of people with dementia. Interestingly, more doctors are noticing early onset dementia, in people in who are in their later 30’s or in their 40s. The pattern of early onset dementia is especially seen in those who have been driven in their careers to the point of losing sleep and working with high intensity for long hours, like CEO’s of their own companies.
Sleep is also when we consolidate information. As we learn new things, we initially use a lot of area, or real estate, in our brain. As we practice this area of skill or knowledge, we start to use less and less real estate, and the brain becomes more efficient for the skill or knowledge. Part of the increase in efficiency occurs during sleep. So, we need enough sleep time to improve the efficiency of our brains. So, when we get stressed, and sleep less, or have poorer quality of sleep, then we get the felt experience of less efficiency in our thinking.
Recovering from Stress
Our brains and bodies constantly change. Within that constant change, exists the constant opportunity to shift to a better state of being. With the experience of stress, how do we shift our response to stress, to one that creates a more positive state?
Designing your brain, being the architect of your perception, is one approach. Neurons take about three weeks to grow back their branches. Commit to 21 days, or 3 weeks, of a brain re-design. Include the following:
1/ Do things that increase your brain’s growth factor. Called BDNF, this molecule helps neurons grow. BDNF is increased by exercise, intermittent fasting, and supplements like turmeric and DHA. Studies show that low dose lithium, in 5 to 15 mg doses daily, can dramatically increase BDNF - by 80% versus by 20% with exercise - but this is not yet approved in Canada. However, lithium exists in tiny doses in mineral water so you could try drinking mineral water that has lithium.
2/ Activate your "Nerf Two" pathway, a pathway that helps to reduce inflammation and detoxify the brain. Nerf Two is a simple way to remember - the actual name of the pathway is the Nrf2 pathway. The Nerf Two pathway: (1) reduces inflammation, (2) stimulates production of antioxidants from your body to reduce the effects of free radicals, (3) detoxifies the brain, and (4) stimulates production of glutathione within the body. Glutathione is used by astrocytes in the brain to remove waste products. Glutathione is low in the diets of people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia. Activate the Nerf Two pathway and increase your glutathione by adding green tea or green tea extract, curcumin from turmeric, and eating more blueberries and broccoli. Foods rich in glutathione include avocados and eggs, parsley and spinach. It used to be thought that glutathione could not be absorbed by the body but researchers discovered that glutathione is taken up so quickly by the body’s cells, that it does not remain in the blood long enough to be measured, even when blood is measured soon after consuming glutathione. However, this remains controversial. Glutathione can also be increased by meditating, exercising, and reducing toxic load.
3/ Reduce noxious stimulation. The brain can get overloaded by too much sensory input. Reduce noise, take a break from television and movies which have many “shocks per second”. Read books and paper material instead of going on the internet. Go for walks along the beach or in the forest or in parks, as the moving patterns in nature have been shown to relax the brain. Avoid intense emotional environments. Plan your finances and bills and obligations before your three week brain re-design, and put these on auto-pilot so that you can coast mentally as much as possible.
4/ Meditate at least once a day, or three small meditations for three minutes each, throughout the day. Use a guided meditation if needed to help motivate you. Try inhaling a relaxing aromatherapy oil if getting your self to focus for three minutes is challenging. Or try colouring as this has similar effects on the brain as meditation. Meditation has been proven to tone and soothe the autonomic nervous system, reset an imbalanced endocrine system, reduce systemic inflammation, among other physiological benefits. Also, your brain rhythms rebalance when meditating, increasing the amount of alpha rhythm, or your day dreaming rhythm, and decreasing the amount of beta rhythm, which is the Alert State that can be over-active in chronic stress.
5/ Sleep or rest for at least 8 hours. Read about sleep hygiene, and sleep stimulus control, and practice these behaviors. Try online guided meditations that help you understand the different rhythms of your brain, and if you can’t get a deep sleep, try to get your brain into a slower deeper rhythm.
6/ Neuron re-branching. Studies have shown that neurons lose branches in response to chronic stress - stress that lasts for 21 days. Branching is also lost in response to corticosterone, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Dr. Cara Wellman, who researches stress, has found that rest, exercise, reading crossword puzzles, and writing, help neurons grow back.
7/ Consider reducing the adrenal over-activity. If you reduce adrenal over-activity, you will reduce the amount of cortisol and glucocorticoids being created. In addition to the above active things that you can do, you may want to consider cutting back on stimulants like coffee or tea. Adding in more foods or herbal teas that support relaxation may help. Alternative medicine such as naturopathy or functional medicine may have suggestions for supplements as well as ways to measure the efficacy of the supplements in decreasing stress hormones. However, it is most important to reduce the cause of the over-activity, as that will lead to long term health. Seeing a counselor, psychologist, psychotherapist, or psychiatrist, may also help you respond to potentially stressful situations with less stimulation of your adrenal glands. Also, learning to shift your heart field may help reduce the activity of the adrenal glands.
The Art of the Heart
Curate a gorgeous heart field. Like a curator in a museum, or a fashion house, or a gardener deciding how to cultivate your garden, curate a beautiful and enriched heart electromagnetic field for your heart and body and mind.
1/ Measurements of the heart’s field have shown that spending time experiencing compassion, kindness, or a state of unconditional love, bring the heart’s field into a coherent, or harmonious, state. Take a moment each day, to feel one of these emotions. Feel this in the center of your heart. You may access this through a memory of feeling loved, or feeling unconditional love, for another. For many people, experiencing the love of an animal can be a powerful reset for the heart. You may choose a metaphor, a color, or remember a peaceful location that you have enjoyed. Keep bringing your mind and your heart to the place of this feeling. When you can sustain attention in this feeling, notice how calm you feel. Notice how this changes the thoughts that you select.
2/ Accept negative emotions with patience and perseverance. Negative emotions often exist for a reason. If you can, when these occur, take a moment to your self, to pay attention to the feeling. Notice the physical, emotional, mental, and belief system components that accompany the negative emotion. Try to find a place of neutrality to look on them, as if you are on a mountain top, or flying overhead, looking down below on these four aspects of self. Accept that these four areas are happening in the way that they are happening. See if you can find a calm place to view them from. Next, notice the sense of your self as a person of deep intrinsic value. Honor your core self. From this place of deep self value and deep honoring of self, then see the negative emotion and associated experiences. See if wisdom occurs, as you hold both of these places in a place of co-existence. How can you accept the negative emotion, use it as information to more deeply understand your self, and then shift into acting from a good place to transform your experience, and transform the place you are in to a place of opportunity? From this pause, choose the action that makes you able to put into place the opportunity that helps you live in a way that you find meaningful, in harmony with others, and the planet.
Other aspects to consider:
1/ Mood is better with a good gut microbiome. Consider probiotics. BioK can be a fast way to improve your gut flora, and thus your mood. Intermittent fasting or a focus on fruits and vegetables and whole foods only, can be helpful. If the fiber in fresh fruits and vegetables makes you feel worse, soups are a supportive option. Or juicing, if the weather is hot.
2/ Happiness. Happiness tends to de-stress. Enjoy shared happy memories or shared interests with friends or colleagues or families. Read a funny book. Hug an animal or a person that you love. Read on happiness, by the Dalai Lama, or The Happiness Advantage by Shaun Achor. Let your mind rest on the focus of something that makes you feel happy, and savor that happiness, as if sipping slowly a cup of fine wine, or exotic fesh pressed juice.
3/ Appreciation. Appreciate, feel thankful for, or feel gratitude for, the things in life currently, in your past, and potentially in your future, that you enjoy. Appreciate the unique lessons of your life. Appreciate the people in your life, whether they are alive or dead today, that have given you a deep love or deep respect, and know that the feeling of that is always available for you.
4/ Be good enough. Many high performance people seek perfection. Try instead to find excellence, which is a way of being, instead of being outcome based. Try being good enough in all that you do, instead of trying to be perfect.
5/ Outdoors. Many studies show the benefit of being outdoors - in a park, in nature, gardening, or being in a forest or wilderness. Find a way to make this a part of your life on a weekly basis. Consider spending time near water, which can induce positive brain rhythms through the pattern of the water’s movement. Get a small fountain for your home, or play the noise of a babbling brook, which has been shown to soothe the nervous system and settle the cerebellum which gives us balance, memory, and the ability to learn new things.
6/ If you are finding it difficult to have a positive outcome with the above approaches, find a coach or doctor to support your progress of recovering from your stress or burn out. If money is an issue and you can’t afford a coach, perhaps team up with a friend to be accountable to each other. If it is a more serious situation, like an anxiety disorder or depression, seek professional help.
Meditate Your Weight by Tiffany Cruikshank
The Happiness Advantage by Shaun Achor
Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols