Intro to the Anatomy of Stress

- What's the brains role in stress

The upper and outer parts of the brain are known as cortices e.g. the prefrontal cortex and somatosensory cortex. Dr. Dan Siegal calls this the "upstairs brain" - where "our higher self" resides. Think of everything that makes us unique as humans, all that separates us from other animals. rationality, art, music, communication etc... our highest potential as a species.

In the middle is the "limbic system" (aka the mammalian brain). Home to our raw emotions: excitement, surprise, anger, lust and envy. We all know what it feels like to be overcome by emotion, unable to stop feeling something, or to be subject to uncontrollable urges, to protect our children for example.

The lower tree trunk is known as the "brain stem" (a.k.a. the reptilian brain). It regulates our energy levels, in accordance to the situations we face. It responds to stress by producing an excess of physical and emotional energy, that either needs to be channeled into something or metabolised / processed by intensive activity.

Stress severs the connection between the upstairs and downstairs brains. It reduces blood supply and neuronal activity in the upstairs brain and moves us downstairs:
The mammalian and reptilian brains are very old part of our nervous system, imbibed with millions of years of "animal instinct".  When they're activated our unconscious programming takes over and react from "survival strategies". 

With self-compassion we can com ourselves (in the upstairs brain) to give a hug to the parts of us in the downstairs brain. This can help our bodies to recover from stress, rather than keep fanning the flames.

Brain stress cortisol sympathetic parasympathetic nervous system

HPA axis impact stress on the body, affects coffee body

- How does coffee affect cortisol?

Although it's known as the “stress hormone” cortisol has a lot to do with regulating our circadian rhythm (the cycle of wake up - get going / wind down - go to sleep). Coffee interferes with this natural cycle by stimulating us to wake up and stopping us from feeling sleepy. It increases the baseline of cortisol levels in the body, making s more prone to stress. It also exaggerates cortisol release in response to threats, making us feel a little edgy.

Cortisol levels spike in the morning, naturally, just before we normally wake up. Then get lower throughout the day. In the evening melatonin levels start to rise and stay high while we sleep. Personally I love a coffee in the morning, and try to keep it down one cup early on. A coffee any later than midday makes it difficult to sleep at night. Taking occasional breaks from coffee is a good idea for the body to reset, it makes you more sensitive so you need less.

Cortisol levels naturally have little spikes throughout the day as our blood sugar level drops - nature's way of getting us to find food. When we find ourselves in difficult situations the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to flush the body with cortisol (see diagram) this is known as the HPA axis. It is the hormonal pathway that activates the sympathetic nervous system. Bear in mind that it takes 60-90 minutes for the body to metabolise cortisol. So if you only have one or two stressful moments in the day cortisol levels can stay within the normal curve. But if its full on, all day long, there's no margin for the body to go into parasympathetic mode and do vital repair and regulation work.

- How do our bodies respond to stress?

Stress releases cortisol into the body,
causing a biochemical cascade that affects
blood vessels, muscles and the major organs:

cortisol affects on the body. -impact of stress chronic stress
Stressed out people - twice as likely to have tinnitus, (ringing in the ear)
↑heart rate
↑blood pressure
↑risk of cardiovascular disease
Makes Pupils dilate - light sensitivity and blurred vision when anxious
↓absorption of nutrients
↑leaky gut↑diarreah and nausea
↓ability to filter out toxins
Faster, and more shallow breathing. 
Long, slow breaths ↓cortisol
↓Flow of blood and oxygen,
↑tension and stomach cramps

- How stress makes our bodies go into "survival mode"
and why we need to balance it out a time out

Physiologically, our bodies respond to stress by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. These changes are designed by nature; to speed up metabolism and get more energy into the muscles - to get us out of danger.

Our bodies don't know the difference between a "real threat" to our survival and the threats to our "sense of self" - from deadlines, running late, the judgements of others and even self-criticism. They react the same way - with a rush of adrenaline, followed by a wave of cortisol and an excess of bio-electrical energy running through our nervous system that puts our emotions on overdrive. It feels like a rush and can be addictive.

We call this process mobilisation of the sympathetic nervous system, aka "fight or flight mode" to rise to the occasion. But what goes up, must come down.
The measures the body takes for self-defence repress other vital functions. They suppress the immune system, deactivate digestion, put off vital cell repair and homeostasis. Our long term survival and health depends on the body going into "maintenance mode"

The sympathetic nervous system gives us the "get up and go" energy to go on the hunt and find food. Then after preparing a meal, our nervous system shifts into a different mode, when nature invites us to take a time out. Blood goes down into your belly, you start to feel drowsy, what do you do? Have a coffee and crack on? Or have a siesta and give your body the chance to go into "rest and digest mode"

These important vital functions are regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve.

Is the ability of the nervous system
to come back into balance

Get to know your stress apparatus

sympathetic-and-parasympathetic nervous systems role in stress burnout

The Sympathetic
Nervous System

Each of our vertebrae is connected to different organs, these spinal nerves from the backbone of the sympathetic nervous system. What call stress is the activation - or mobilisation - of the sympathetic nervous system. It prepares the body for intense physical activity as you can see on the left side of the above diagram. Causing among other things:

Pupil dilation, inhibition of the salivary glands, relaxation of the crunch to let in more air, increases our heartbeat, decreases glycogenesis in the liver, slows digestion, the adrenal glands release norepinephrine, inhibits the movement in the intestines and stops us from urinating.

The Parasympathetic
Nervous System

Imagine you are diving a car, if you had your foot pressed hard on the accelerator without hitting the brakes you’d lose control of the car and smash into a brick wall. The parasympathetic nervous system puts the brakes on sympathetic mobilisation. As you see on the right of the diagram, the parasympathetic nervous system activates:

Pupil constriction, stimulates saliva production to aid digestion, constricts the bronchi, slows down heart beat, increases bile secretion, stimulates digestion, increases movement in the intestines to aid absorption of nutrients, and contracts the bladder.

- Why is the vagus nerve so important?

The vagus nerve is unlike any other, it wonders around the inside of our body, making profound changes on all it touches. Vagus comes from the same Latin route as vagabond - the wanderer. It is wired up directly the brain stem, the trunk of the tree that reaches up into our brains.

80% of the information that passes through the vagus nerve flows from the insides of our body to the brain. This information tells the brain what is going on in our inner worlds. It gives us such an intimate feeling about reality that the brain then projects out and maps on to the "real world". That explains how two different people can have very different interpretations of the same thing. The vagus nerve is literally the filter through which we see the world.

The 20% of information that flows down from the brain to the body puts the brakes on the stress apparatus. "Vagal tone" is a way of measuring our  resilience - how adept our vagus nerve is at de-stressing us. Like anything else in life it is a latent ability inside us that can be trained and improved.

Stress management meets personal development 

We provide education on the inner workings of the nervous system so you can map out the places where your nervous system takes you and how it drives your emotions and moods. 

Armed with self-knowledge we are better able to navigate these stressful times
and listen to our body wisdom. Knowing when its time to stop, to take a break
 or to give it your all, you can stay productive and stay healthy at the same time.
Take back the reigns
of your stress apparatus
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