By: Dr. Michael Olson, LMFT
As we begin the New Year, many of us stop to consider the stress and challenges in our lives and how we might better handle them. Since we all deal with stress at some point, it is important to know the good, bad, and ugly facts.
We often think of stress as a bad thing, something that we must eradicate from our lives. Yet, without it, we would not be able to survive a single day. There is, deep within our brains, an amazing little factory called the hypothalamus that produces/secretes very powerful and potent chemicals called neuropeptides and neuro-hormones. The hypothalamus works with the pituitary and adrenal glands to secrete these hormones, which include cortisol and epinephrine or adrenalin. The levels of these neuro-hormones naturally rise and fall on a daily basis and help us to wake up in the morning, focus and deal with the challenges of each day, and finally, allow us to drop off into sleep at night.
The problem that most of us have is not the presence of stress or the stress hormones that flow through our bloodstream each day. It is, however, the excess of these hormones as they build up in the body without release. Take a car engine, for example. The engine revs and shifts as the gas pedal is pressed. The RPMs continue to climb as the demands rise on the engine. If the pedal remains pressed down without release, the RPMs will reach a critical level and eventually the engine will overheat and break down. The brain and body work in a similar way. When the stressors of life place demand on us, our brain produces the chemicals necessary to deal with that stress. The branch of the central nervous system (CNS) called the autonomic nervous system controls the “gas pedal” and the “braking system” of the body, called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The beauty of these systems is that they are self-regulatory and will if left alone, rebalance.
The problem is that with repeated stressors (worries, financial stress, work and family problems, etc.) these systems fail to rebalance and keep the “gas pedal” pressed. Chronic elevation of stress hormones has been shown to lead to a host of health problems, including auto-immune-disorders, skin problems, musculoskeletal pain, arterial/heart disease, inflammation, and the list goes on. The relationship between stress and performance is not linear, meaning that an increase in stress will lead to an increase in performance or functioning only to a point and then it deteriorates, leading us to function less and less effective.
Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiovascular surgeon, and researcher from Harvard and founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine has spent the last 30+ years studying what he calls the “relaxation response.” His work has shown that with a few simple steps, entirely within our control, we can activate this relaxation response or brake system in the body.
The first step is diaphragmatic breathing (slowly inhaling through the nose, slowly exhaling through the mouth with pursed lips to slow the flow of air). Deep and slow breathing increases and decreases pressure on the vagal nerves and flow of blood from the heart to the brain. The rhythm of the heart is affected (more variability or change in the rhythm), which is connected to the brake system of the body, as well.
The second step is to focus on a word, a number or a short phrase that is repeated in the mind as you take deep breaths. As other distracting thoughts come into your mind, passively disregard or let these thoughts flow through your mind and then return to your repetition (word, phrase, number). Dr. Benson has shown that within 3-5 minutes of following these steps, measurable reductions in cortisol, epinephrine, increased oxygen in the blood, increased delta/theta waves in the brain (slow, undulating, relaxed brain frequencies), are present. Finding the place/time to practice this basic skill on a daily basis can have measurable positive effects on health by significantly reducing stress in the body.