Stress, Mindfulness and Mind-Full-Ness

HPA axis

Stress. Define it any way you wish but simply put, stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The unstressed state of the mind is called “Homeostasis.” Homeostasis is the tendency of a system, for example, the human body, to maintain balance or equilibrium when faced with external changes. An example of homeostasis is the body’s ability to maintain an internal temperature around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of the temperature outside the body. Anything that threatens this homeostasis is known as a stressor. But when we talk about stress we’re talking about the psychological impact on our ability to remain calm. This presupposes that remaining calm is our natural state which is, for some people not accurate. Regardless, even the highest strung among us seems to be able to maintain some form of normalcy in their day-to-day lives. We may consider this a form of homeostasis as well, and it is when psychological stress impacts our daily lives that we say we are stressed.

Stress, at least the stress we’re going to discuss, begins in the neurochemistry of the brain. While this is not a neurology blog (that is next month) we will need to touch upon some basic neurochemistry to move forward with our discussion. Stress is, from a psychological standpoint it, purely perception. The reason that something drives us crazy that doesn’t seem to bother others is not that we are not all perceiving the event, but rather that we perceive this event differently. As I said, all of this perception begins in the brain but how? For that, we have to examine what the brain does.

The brain as we all know is an organ comprised of specialized cells and tissues that form a sort of living computer. This living computer keeps us functioning from moment to moment and over the course of 70+ years. Other then this basic understanding, the average person has little idea what the brain does or, it is unlikely that they give their brain much thought at all. But what does the brain do? Ask the average person what a heart does and they will tell you that it pumps blood. Ask them what a stomach does, and they will say that it helps to digest foods and extraction nutrients. Ask them what a brain does however, and you will probably get a puzzled look. Like the heart pumps, the brain “minds.” It is the mind that governs our perceptions; beauty is said to be in the mind of the beholder not the brain of the beholder.

Your favorite color, your favorite vacation spot, your favorite picture or photograph, even your preference in blonde or brunette is based purely on your individual perception. What stresses you out is also undoubtedly perceptual. This is how psychologists explain why some people run away from burning buildings while others run toward them. Why some situations drive you crazy yet do not seem to bother your friend at all and vice versa; he is clenching his fists when you are totally relaxed. It’s all based in perception, and that’s when this whole stress thing gets tricky.

The neurological question might be which comes first the perception or the stress? In other words, does your perception of any situation create the stress or, does your neurological chemistry make the situation stressful? The best answer may be both. As a Zen Buddhist, I acknowledge that any situation is entirely neutral. It is how I look at that situation that ultimately causes my stress. However, I must also accept that previous experiences that have been stressful have in many ways trained my brain to react to these situations. While on the surface this may appear to be an endless feedback cycle, it isn’t; you control, to a large extent, your perception of every single situation. Let me give an example I often give to my friends who question if experience is actually dependent on perception:

“You are on a trip to Ireland. During that journey, let us say on the day your plane lands in Dublin; back home in Iowa your beloved dog “Lucky” dies. No one bothers you with the news because, let’s face it, there is nothing you can do and it would ruin much of your trip. So a week later you land, you make the trip home, and in the car you learned about Lucky, you are devastated. But wait. Lucky has been dead for a week. It was not his passing that has upset you but the perception of it. He was just as dead yesterday when you were enjoying drinks at the Pub. So far as Lucky is concerned, nothing has changed.”

Substitute lucky for “Kitty” and you have the same construct; the event is neutral, our perceptions are not. Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress, and seventy-five percent of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety.

As stress is largely a neurological phenomenon, we now know that chronic, untreated stress reactions increases lifetime prevalence of emotional disorders to over 50%.

When someone is under chronic stress, it begins to affect his or her physical and mental health. Everyone is familiar with the term “Fight or Flight” but did you know the human body’s stress response has a third option? “Freeze” is the response when fight is unwise, and flight is impossible. This system is controlled by three Hormonal Glands of the body that work together to create this “fight, flight, or freeze” response to overwhelming stress- hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenals. Together they form the foundation of the mammalian stress reaction system or “Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA.

The HPA system is designed to be used only in matters of survival, and then only for brief periods of time. The effect of using the HPA system, even for brief moments has major physiological effects including the slowing of digestion, increased oxygen saturation, increased pulse rate, vasoconstriction and increased blood pressure. When used for escapes or defense, the HPA axis and the inflammatory response it creates is not damaging; however, continual or “chronic” activation of the HPA axis, even at relatively low levels, has detrimental effects on both the physiology and the psychology of the individual. The hormones released during stress activation, adrenaline, norepinephrine, and especially cortisol, have inflammatory and possibly detrimental consequences. While prolonged release of adrenalin can be unhealthy, the primary concern with chronic stress is cortisol.

Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands. It is involved in several bodily functions including proper glucose metabolism, the regulation of blood pressure, the release of insulin, the immune function, and inflammatory response (the system that makes your tissues and organs swell when damaged). Inflammatory response can be caused by anything from a mosquito bite, a virus infection, a bruise, or a broken leg. The inflammation is caused by the release of specialized cells and proteins to the injury site to fix the damage. Inflammation is crucial to our body’s ability to defend itself. But when the HPA system is chronically activated (always on) even at low levels, the same protective inflammatory response soon begins to cause damage.

Long-term activation of the HPA axis impedes the functioning of other systems required to remain healthy, resulting in impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, hyperglycemia, decreased bone density, decrease muscle tone, increase in blood pressure, lowered immunity to infections, slowed wound healing, increased abdominal fat (which more than fat deposited in other areas is associated with a host of health problems including heart attacks, strokes, and metabolic syndrome). Chronic stress has also been associated with psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress. So if we suspect that stress is becoming an issue, what can we do?

American John Muir suggested that we take a walk in the forest to soothe a troubled mind. Canadian psychologist J.O. Quantz found after careful study that a deep connection with nature is beneficial not only for those who were feeling stressed, but for anyone, including children. It was Quantz who formulated the hypothesis that being too far removed from natural surroundings could lead to what he termed “Dendrospychosis.” For many, just the sound of running water, waves crashing against the shore, or a babbling brook can refocus a disquiet mind.

 Quantz surmised this was the reason that humans have such an affinity for trees; we climb them as children, plant them as adults, and sit under them as couples in love. As a society we plant parks, squares and arboretums so that even in the midst of the city we can maintain our connection to nature. And if we can’t get to a forest or park? Well, there is another way to reduce, and in many cases eliminate the stress that is so detrimental to our health; mindfulness meditation. Perhaps it sounds complicated, too “eastern” for many people to consider, but countless studies here in the US have shown that being mindful of the present moment reduces, and in many cases, eliminates chronic stress.

Many have heard about mindfulness practice, but few may understand it. Essentially it is the practice of becoming more fully aware of the present moment, rather than dwelling on the past or future. If you stop at any moment during your day and think about the conversation going on in your head you will often find it is negative; second guessing a past decision or overly focused on a possible future one. You are not being mindful of what is happening now.

Mindfulness helps us to develop a heightened awareness of what is happening in our bodies and our surroundings. We come to focus our breathing; feeling the sensations of our body. We learn to expand that to our surroundings. What is happening around us? In the space of several weeks, we learned to feel perfectly relaxed under the most stressful situations. We are said to be “mindful.” While most people who practice mindfulness do so when meditating, it is not necessary, and one can also practice mindfulness through daily living, by simply stopping and focusing on your breath. This focus allows us to concentrate on the present moment and quiet the conversations that go on in our heads. The benefits are directly related to stress-reduction and lowering the level of cortisol in our blood, which further relaxes and de-stresses. So effective is mindfulness that it has been paired with some forms of psychotherapy to treat depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) have been shown to be highly effective in treating a number of stress-related psychological disorders. Therapists who have incorporated mindfulness practice with cognitive therapy report a significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression after as little as four weeks of therapy. Family therapists are also using mindfulness practices with couples to achieve greater satisfaction in relationships and to improve how couples deal with relationship stress more beneficially. There are also studies showing that people who routinely practice mindfulness were better able to communicate effectively during personal conflicts. Studies have shown a significant reduction in sleep disturbance after undergoing MBSR among cancer patients. It is not only psychological issues that respond positively to mindfulness practices.

The practice of mindfulness has been shown to have lasting, positive effects; benefits that increase with practice. Recent studies using cutting edge technology, including Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), have shown that mindfulness meditation actually changes regions of the brain associated with memory, awareness of self, and compassion, according to an imaging study at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. Other studies show actual physical differences in the brains of experienced meditators compared with non-meditators in a study designed to investigate brain changes occurring over time in people learning how to meditate mindfully.

So what’s the bottom line on mindfulness stress reduction? If you feel stressed out, or even if you don’t, MBSR has many positive benefits beyond simple stress reduction. From improving your cardiovascular, immune, and endocrine systems, to better sleep, better relaxation, and improved mental clarity, MBSR may hold the key to physical and psychological improvement. Many cities have at least a few MBSR practitioners, and many areas offer 8-week MBSR classes. Or, as John Muir and J. O. Quantz suggested, take a walk in the woods or on a beach, sit in a garden or on a park bench, and just breath.

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