The Physiology of Stress

Clare Myatt, somatic, coaching, somatic coaching, psychotherapy, embodied, Strozzi, London, addiction, highly sensitive person

We’ve all heard – perhaps ad nauseam – that stress is *bad* for us. Have you ever wondered exactly WHY stress can be detrimental*? I will try to simplify what is a complex internal physiological mechanism to illustrate why it is so important for us to pay attention to the level of stress we endure.

The human body evolved to originally manage a hunter-gatherer type lifestyle where life was relatively simple, especially compared to today’s fast pace. The body has a sympathetic nervous system and a parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for propelling us into action when we are in danger in a classic “fight or flight” response – imagine this as the ON switch. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for calming us down, restoring balance after a major stressor is over – imagine this as the OFF switch. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was such that it was fairly clear when the switch should be on or off. For example, when a tiger appeared, the switch would automatically go ON. After the danger of the tiger had passed, the switch would go to off.

When the sympathetic nervous system switches on, a flood of hormones such as cortisol are released (to increase blood flow, mobilise energy, reduce allergic reaction and inflammation, etc.) all in preparation for survival. However, when the switch stays on for longer than is necessary and cortisol remains in the blood stream it not only suppresses the immune system but can also lead to hypertension. Conversely, when the switch is successfully switched off and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, the feel-good brain chemicals like GABA, serotonin and dopamine are released. These three neurotransmitters are exactly the ones targeted by mood medications like anti-depressants.

So it’s pretty crucial to find ways to switch off, literally, from the fast-pace we are pressured into with the demands of today’s business world and technology. Some hints and suggestions:

  • use an alarm clock NOT your iPhone or Android (much too tempting to take a quick look at texts or emails if you can’t sleep and glance at the time)
  • park the car away from, not close to, the door to work so you can walk a few more steps
  • if you’re commuting to work, get off the bus or tube one stop ahead so you can walk a bit further
  • pack some healthy snacks in resealable bags so you’re less tempted by sugary goodies at the office
  • find a buddy who also wants to make a commitment to regular exercise or working out – you’re much more likely to make it to the gym or for a lunch-time walk if you have promised someone else
  • same goes for hiring a personal trainer – you’re more likely to show up and participate
  • download one or more of the many apps available to help you pay attention to deepening your breath, remembering to relax (email me for suggestions if you want to save time!)
  • listen to music you love – have a playlist to boost you when you need more energy; have a playlist for rest and relaxation as well
  • make time for fun, play and laughter – anything you can download and listen to en route to appointments can help to supplement fun time with friends, comedy movies and activities you enjoy
  • actually talking to friends and loved ones face to face is different than communicating with them on Facebook, by text or even on the phone – make time to connect in person

Familiar? Like some help? To find out more, get your questions answered contact Claire today!

Clare Myatt, somatic, coaching, somatic coaching, psychotherapy, embodied, Strozzi, London, addiction, highly sensitive person

For a full explanation of the stress response, take a look at the Centre for Stress Management’s article

If you are curious about the benefits of aerobic and endurance exercise, meditation and breathing for managing stress, take a look at this article from Harvard.

If you are interested in the benefits of yoga in particular for managing stress, take a look at this article in Forbes magazine.

*If you are curious about the benefits of stress, Kelly McGonigal gives a fascinating TED talk on the subject.

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