Text: Jerry Brownstein
Most people are aware that having too much stress is not good for their health, and research has shown that stress is a major factor in heart disease, digestive problems, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, and many forms of cancer. Emotional stress raises blood pressure, weakens the immune system, and speeds up the aging process. But how is it that feelings which arise only in the brain can cause physical problems in the rest of the body? Actually, this is one aspect of the Mind/Body Connection that is easy to understand, because it makes so much sense. Putting too much stress on anything makes it weaker, so it is logical to assume that stress will weaken your body and thus make it more susceptible to illness. Let’s have a look at how this actually works and why it has become such a big problem in today’s world.
The origins of stress go back deeply into our evolutionary past and are firmly linked to the most basic of all instincts: Survival. Like every other animal, human beings are programmed to respond to life threatening situations with an emergency response system called Fight or Flight. This automatic reaction prepares our bodies to either fight a threatened danger with full strength, or to run away from it at full speed. When your brain senses danger it releases a flood of adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, and these chemicals cause a powerful physical response: blood pressure rises; muscles tense; breathing becomes shallow and rapid; digestion stops; the immune system is repressed; and all senses go on full alert. This completely reverses the regular rhythm of your body which normally keeps you healthy by using 90% of its energy for growth and renewal. Fight or Flight shuts down these vital functions and diverts almost all of your energy toward facing the perceived emergency. This temporary defense mechanism is crucial for survival in a dangerous environment, but if it is not quickly terminated it causes massive physical stress that leads to chronic disease in the body… and that is the problem in modern society.
Fight or flight worked perfectly well for our ancient ancestors when they had to run away from a sabre-toothed tiger. In those days, once the tiger had gone away the primitive man relaxed… the stress response stopped… and the body returned to its normal state of growth and renewal. The difference in modern society is that we constantly feel as if we are being threatened, so our bodies are continually going in and out of fight or flight mode. Why is this so? One reason is that our evolution has not been symmetrical. The complexity of our minds and our capacity to visualize thoughts have evolved rapidly, while our system for facing danger has hardly changed at all. Our advanced minds are able to create mental pictures that seem totally real to the brain, and these trigger the primitive survival response which was only intended for actual physical dangers. That is why having fearful or nervous thoughts causes your body to react as if you are being physically threatened.
As an example, suppose that you have someone in your life who is verbally abusive towards you. Every time you think about that person your brain interprets that thought as a threat – it cannot tell the difference between a real threat (a sabre-toothed tiger), and something that is just in your mind (the thought of being yelled at). As a result your body goes into the stress response over and over, and this is disastrous for your health – both physical and mental. The same thing happens whenever you worry. Your thoughts about a situation turning out badly feel like reality to your brain – it reacts as if the negative outcome has actually happened – and this causes stress. In addition, there are lifestyle factors in contemporary society that also keep us in a state of perpetual stress. The modern city is essentially a “stress machine” with its fast pace, crowding, noise and pollution. On top of that we are constantly exposed to “news” from the mainstream media that is almost entirely based on keeping us in a state of fear… and fear triggers the stress response.
The good news is that there are many proven ways to reduce stress and lessen its effects. Perhaps the easiest thing to do is to simply stay away from people and places that you find stressful. Set your intention to become aware of what makes you feel nervous or upset (traffic, crowds, negative news, rude people, etc.), and then make a conscious effort to avoid those things as much as possible. That said, there will always be some stressful moments in your life, but there are simple tools that will help you to handle them gracefully. Regular exercise is an excellent way to reduce the body’s stress response. Anything physical that you do on a consistent basis will work – Yoga, Qi Gong, going to the gym or just walking in Nature – whatever fits you and your lifestyle. Another powerful tool to release deeply held stress is Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). This is one of several tapping methods which help us to let go of the emotional triggers that we carry around from our past experiences. Finally, and most important of all, is meditation – a powerful practice that you can easily incorporate into your daily life. Numerous studies have proven that meditation is an excellent way to reduce stress and improve both physical and mental health. Meditating for as little as five minutes each day is enough to calm the mind, relax the body, and reverse the process of stress… and it is also the pathway toward finding a deeper level of inner peace and wisdom. •