Stress is here, there, and everywhere. The person who sits at the green light, the next person who cuts you off in traffic or even your own child not listening to your request can cause stress each day; those are honestly minor examples of stress. Some of us encounter more significant stressors throughout our days such as triggers from a previous trauma, discrimination, a cheating spouse, or a bully at school or work. Researchers have found that we have begun using the word 'stress' way too often to describe our circumstances. Stress actually has a deeper affect on our bodies and the way our brains work.
Taking on a new challenge such as going to college, meeting new people, or asking someone on a date - these can all be deemed stressful but can also provide positive consequences in the end making the initial 'stress' cost effective. We also can experience what researchers deem 'tolerable stress' - events like losing a loved one after a lengthy illness, having a pet die or even losing a job. We are able to move on from these events and most of the time continue our normal lives. However, when we experience what researchers call 'toxic stress' this is when our body really is deeply affected.
Toxic stress is often defined as an event so devastating that we often don't have the resources (think family support or community resources) to deal with the incident. Events like these could be an assault, an unexpected and difficult death of a loved one, losing your home in a fire, or being a victim of abuse or another's violence. Our brain is so overwhelmed by the event that it actually changes in how it begins processing information and perceiving our environment. Here's a detailed explanation of how our brains perceive threats and what changes occur in our bodies:
"When we encounter an acute perceived threat – a large, menacing dog, for example – the hypothalamus, at the base of our brain, sets off an alarm system in our body, sending chemical signals to the pituitary gland. The pituitary, in turn, releases ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic hormone) that activates our adrenal glands, next to our kidneys, to release adrenalin and the primary stress hormone, cortisol. Adrenalin increases heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies; cortisol increases glucose in the blood stream and has many beneficial effects on the immune system and brain, among other organs. In a fight-or-flight situation cortisol moderates immune-system responses, and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes, as well as signalling brain regions that control cognitive function, mood, motivation and fear." -Bruce McEwen, aeon magazine (citation at end of post)
When we are triggered or experience toxic stress on a regular basis, basically, the hormones in our body work overtime and have trouble returning to normal functioning. Even long term stress, the tolerable stress, can eventually begin to wear and tear on our bodies and functioning. If our hormones are on overdrive then this can cause a sense of hypervigilance or "buzzing" as some clients often report.
So what do we do with this information? Education is great but how we do ensure we don't overload our brains or even recover from toxic stress we have already experienced? Here are a few steps:
1) Self care is at the basis of good physical and mental health. We must work hard and prioritize getting enough sleep, moving our bodies everyday, making healthy food choices, and staying away from drugs.
2) Brain Hygiene is another way to ward off the negative effects of stress. We care for our teeth each day by brushing and flossing, so why don't we do something daily for our brain health? Meditation, mindfulness, quiet time are all ways to ensure we are taking care of the control center of our bodies.
3) Therapy is of course a great way to ensure we are processing old events that may affects us. traumatic events we have experienced, and even daily events that we need to learn to manage more effectively.
4) Doing things we love at least a few times a week can help us find joy in each day - this could mean playing with your child, kissing your partner, having a coffee with a friend, or even going for a walk.
5) Practicing gratitude daily has shown to change the landscape of our brain to be more positive focused. Having a gratitude journal can help you to find peace and splendor in the most mundane things. Sometimes we forget how much we love something until we sit back and reflect on them. You can even throw a gratitude practice into your daily meditation practice or recount your blessings on the drive to work, no paper necessary.
6) Meditation is one of my favorite ways to balance the effects of my tolerable stress. Sitting and quieting my mind to only feel and hear my breath is such a refreshing way to begin my day or even change the pace of how things are going.
Incorporating even ONE of these activities into your daily routine can be of benefit. I believe that even the basic awareness of the toll that stress can take on our bodies can be a huge step in being accountable to ourselves.