My last blog entry talked about how suffering is inevitable and even small grievances can give us a lot of unwanted anxiety. Let’s dig a little deeper into what is actually going on in the brain.
If you find yourself consistently sweating the small stuff, then you should consider the physiological effects stress has on you. I’m sure all of you are somewhat familiar with the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight response. I won’t bore you with too many scientific details, but, in a nutshell, stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which then soaks our system with a cascade of stress hormones, including cortisol. Stress hormones are important for us and can be beneficial in the short run, but chronic exposure to stress hormones is actually detrimental to our health. For example, too much cortisol, even by way of low-level stress responses, can shrink the hippocampus, the part of our brain that is responsible for thinking and remembering.
When you’re under stress and your SNS is activated, your brain is focused on getting you out of the stressful situation and nothing else. We often times can't think straight when we're stressed out because our brains are much too busy avoiding danger to be stringing together a coherent sentence. That's why it is common to say or do dumb things in a moment of high stress. Hear that? There is actually a scientific reason why you sound like a bumbling idiot when you're arguing with your spouse!
The biological system of fight or flight has significant evolutionary advantages; it kept us alive by allowing us to either fight the sabre-toothed tiger or run for our lives. But ongoing, unmanageable stress is not something we are meant to experience on a consistent level, and suffering from stress has serious consequences. Here are some of the side effects stress can cause (do any sound familiar?).
- Low energy
- Digestive problems
- Muscle pain
- Low immune system
- Inability to regulate emotions
- Self-esteem issues
- Lack of social skills
- Constant worrying
- Inability to focus
- Poor judgement
It’s easy to see how low-level or high-level stress is in fact physical and emotional suffering when you read through this list. The good news is that there are ways to regulate it and to take back control.
In the third part of this blog series, I will reveal tools and techniques that can help you conquer stress from the inside out!