Relationship and Mind Killer: Stress and How to MASTER IT
Its 2016 and our world is moving fast, technology and economy are changing and our landscapes are heating up and competition can sometimes be felt coming from all angles.
We are inherently social creatures, fuelled by relationships and healed by love — the interesting thing is that in todays age, where theres a prescription medication for almost everything, we seem to get stuck in negative loops and disconnect, succumbed to stress and anxiety.
So what the hell is it?
Stress can be defined as a state of real or perceived threat to self or others.
Lets look a little deeper and get a real understanding of how it occurs, whats happening inside our bodies and how its affecting all areas of our lives.
The Mind and Relationship Killer
“No matter how civilised we are and how much society has curbed violent behaviour. Human beings still have the same genes they had 10,000 years ago. Our bodies are designed to have a certain amount of physical stress and violence in them. We’re designed to run from jaguars and fight to defend our territory.” — Joe Rogan
So lets first look at how stress can happen, to do this we will take an overview look as there are many ways it can happen.
Stress is our bodies reaction to changes in our environment and the interesting thing is that the way stress affects us is heavily reliant on how we perceive events taking place — am I trapped? Is there an escape? Do I have control?
An example of this could be riding a rollercoaster…
If you love the idea of riding a rollercoaster because it excites you and is deemed, in your mind, as exhilarating, then your body will respond by turning the experience into “Used/positive stress” this is where the tension that builds in your body doesn’t feel bad, in fact it feels good because you also have endorphins and dopamine being produced that makes your body feel as if it is on a bit of a high. ** Our bodies produce dopamine as we anticipate some gain or reward**
Now take the same experience and relate it to somebody that is terrified at the thought of being on this ride… How they react to the event will be starkly different. They will begin to have all the same symptoms of the person that enjoys it… The speeding up of breathing, the adrenaline dump occurring, the blood flowing to their outta extremities in anticipation…
Yet the issue is they are anticipating something entirely different than the person who loves thrill rides, therefore its a different chemical reaction inside.
They are experiencing that surge in adrenaline and a spike in cortisol which primes the body for action and effectively shuts down higher level thought processes and only allows the reptilian part of our brains to be engaged… The sole outcome? ESCAPE!!
The reptilian part (which we can just call the croc brain from here on in) of our brains which evolved millions of years ago, has a few core areas of focus…
Is this a danger to me?
How can I escape if so?
It is primal and only cares about being entertained and keeping you safe… It is driven by emotion and instincts — which as you think about it, can explain why when we’re in high states of negative stress, it can be so hard to think clearly and get to a solution — it is almost impossible because the very part of your brain which has evolved over the last couple of millions years to be the problem solver, the higher level, logical thought processing part of you, the part of you that needs to be engaged to think your way out of troublesome situations, has effectively shut down!
“You can not have hot cognitions and cold cold cognitions at the same time, it is one or the other — logic or emotion”
So we act on instincts… and its fight or flight.
Positive stress is great for us because it promotes action, increases focus and can move us forward.
Negative stress on the other hand is an entirely different kettle of fish and what we are looking at in this article.
To add more fuel to the fire burning inside this person that is getting stressed at the thought of the rollercoaster, lets imagine they actually are forced onto it — now they are trapped and can’t do anything about it!
“This is the real metaphor for how stress really builds up… Trapped, no control and no clear path of escape.”
Negative stress occurs when we feel like things are outside of our control. It occurs when things happen around us that we don’t want or like.
A lot of people run about, day to day, in a state of negative stress that is killing their bodies… I mean their croc brains are engaged, looking for a way to fight or escape… But from what?
Most situations these days don’t require us to fight our way out of them and most corners we go around don’t hide some unseen predator, BUT our bodies still treat it this way — especially with chronic stress.
It’s the law of momentum, these loops build momentum which sometimes make them difficult to break and the issue with negative stress is our hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis (HPA) is active, which makes our bodies produce all this cortisol and large amounts of cortisol over time devastates our bodies — a real mind killer!
As we do chronic stress, the number of neural connections to your Amygdala (fear and pleasure centre of the brain) increase, towards fear, and as the cortisol levels continue to increase, your Hippocampus (associated to learning, memory, stress control and also an inhibitor of the HPA) begins to be heavily affected in a bad way which makes it even harder to control this stress.
If things weren’t already bad, next to be hit is your prefrontal cortex (attention, concentration, decision making skills and social interaction skills) which essentially makes out-thinking the problems void, we instead are left like a soldier in battle with no weapons or game plan.
Negative stress is a killer of our mind, body and emotions. It shuts down the part of our minds that lets us have good ideas, creativity and allows us to communicate and relate to others properly — a real relationship killer.
“Our relationships are heavily affected by negative stress because we switch off, we lose the urge and desire to connect, and beyond that, when its becomes all about survival at a deep level — how can we really expect to be able to connect and maintain quality relationships? Relationships are a higher level concept and that part of our brains gets shut down.”
Now to summarise that:
When we enter states of prolonged negative stress, our bodies shut down and it becomes all about survival. Everything from our higher level thought processes down to our digestion and immune system gets put in the backseat whilst our croc brain tries to find a way to escape.
With this in mind it ain’t hard to connect the dots and see how we can feel tired, run down and overwhelmed when we are in these states too often.
It ain’t hard to see how we can become irritable and snappy at people we care about, its because we are functioning at a fraction of our normal resources and capacities — a ghost of who we really are.
Four pillars to master stress
Thats a semi high level look at how stress occurs in essence and whats happening inside our bodies, now lets turn our attention to four pillars of living a life that negative stress is no longer a long term tenant.
Mindfulness meditation, originally an ancient Buddhist meditation technique, has many benefits and there has been a lot of research go into its effectiveness in helping with everything from stress to depression and anxiety.
Mindfulness is the act of slowing down, taking some time to just stop and become aware of your environment, internal and external. It is about being present in the moment and just letting your mind rest on bodily sensations like breathing or the beating of your heart for example — notice thoughts and feelings as they come and go.
This slowing down, in truth, will create a trance like state in which your brain can go about fundamentally changing.
Brain imaging shows that regular mindfulness practice, reduces the grey matter volume in the amygdala (decreasing fear responses) and as the Amygdala shrinks, the Prefrontal Cortex becomes thicker — this allows you to remain in higher thought processes instead of sinking into primal emotional responses in tense situations.
Beyond that, also become aware of the fact that resistance to change will increase your response to stressful situations. Often the feeling of not having control of things can leave us drained and strained — the fact we must become aware of is that there are things in life we can control and things we can not — sometimes absolutely horrible shit can occur and we have to be mindful of how we are interpreting it, how we are letting it affect us and what we are letting it mean.
Give up trying to ‘control’ everything and more importantly, learn how to control the one thing that you truly are in control of… YOU… This will give you immense leverage on stress and practicing this idea during mindfulness will build up this resource of ‘letting go of control’ and adapting to situations, as they occur, to find the best solutions.
Recent studies show that gratitude has many health benefits — ranging from better sleep to decreased depression and anxiety.
Even the simple act of finding something to be thankful for makes the body produce Dopamine, which is a pre-cursor to action quite often and also is involved with desire and makes you feel good.
The benefits of spending a few minutes each day simply being grateful for all the things you actually do have in your life will increase dopamine, your feelings of satisfaction and also increase your likeliness of taking action and getting things done (related to dopamine production).
“Mixing this in with your mindfulness and then directionalising it to future goals will condition your brain to be more positive, enjoy life and lay foundations for more easily taking needed action to achieve goals.”
Have a read of this: Gratitude Article
The next pillar is keeping yourself fit by exercising.
I wont go into great detail on this point because most people are very aware of the fact that regular exercise is instrumental to living a good life.
Particularly in relation to stress, physical exercise for more than 30 min per day will decrease your stress by burning through tension and also release them feel good hormones like endorphins.
Beyond that, it will increase your energy, is an easy way to breath well (oxygenating the body has many health benefits), help you sleep better and provide a nice and rewarding distraction from the craziness of life.
I wont dig too much into this pillar either, instead I will touch briefly on two points that made me feel real good when I focused on them.
- Water intake
Our bodies are made of over 80% water and we must hydrate because if we don’t all the toxins and chemicals build up, acid levels rise which negatively affects our cell health and we feel tired and run down.
When you wake up, get in the habit of having 2 cups full of water 20 min before you have brekky and also have at least 3L of water through out the day — you will thank me for it later if you stick to this.
2. Decrease sugars
Put simply. sugar is a f*cking poison that you want to limit as much as possible.
This is a tricky task because so many foods these days are loaded with apparent sugars and also hidden sugars. The problem with this is that when we ingest sugars, our body breaks it down and it becomes an acid.
Now acid build up in the body is linked to health issues and the mixture of high acid and stress is a killer — in fact, it becomes a negative feedback loop.
Decreasing sugars and increasing alkalising foods is a goal everybody should look at making part of their lifestyle because theres a high chance that it will make you feel much better, now and way into the future.
Have a read of this short article: Acid VS Alkaline
Bringing it all together
So thats the 4 pillars, now lets look at bringing it all together.
I personally have a morning PPL (Positive Power Loop) that i do each day to centre myself, produce all the feel good chemicals and get my mind focused and stress free.
I wake up, get a big drink of water and have a light stretch.
I then sit down and plug ear phones in and put a 15 min theta binaural beat audio on and do mindfulness, gratitude and goal setting during the 15 min program. ( 5 min of each)
Then I eat some food and go to the gym or go for a run.
This sets my day up for success and makes me feel REAL good, and more importantly, in a state that I can easily deal with whatever stresses may occur during the day.
Learn this stuff. Understand it. Use it.
Because we are inherently social creatures with a need for love and connection and so often, beautiful relationships can be broken and ruined by stress and not having strategies to overcome it.
Summary of the 4 pillars
Exercise — burns through excess tension, increases energy, burns fat and floods the body with endorphins and other feel good chemicals.
Mindfulness — increases hippocampus size and reduces stress.
Gratitude — dopamine production and serotonin.
Nutrition — building blocks of good biochemistry.