Understanding causes, reactions to life stressors
Modern science tells us that stress is the single most important factor in our health and well-being. The stress response was evolved by our physiology into a negative bias so we could survive the harsh conditions that we experienced in pre-history. We needed a strategy that would keep us safe from daily life threatening events. By assuming there was a tiger behind every tree and an enemy behind every bush we were prepared for the worst and managed to survive as a species. To this day the negative bias still operates as if we were living in the wild and overreacts to most events as if they were life threatening.
Our physiology sees the rude clerk as a threat and perhaps even a life threat. Its response to the clerk’s behavior is well outside of a rational and reasonable reaction to the actual threat represented by the clerk. Our stress response, “fight or flight,” floods the blood stream with cortisol (the stress hormone) which raises our heart rate and blood pressure, slows or stops digestion, depresses the immune system, and dumps sugar and steroids into our blood. We are being ramped up to be the best possible escape mechanism in order to avoid any danger.
Unfortunately, the stress response does something that literally makes us stupid and unable to operate at our highest and best. The stress response drains blood away from the pre-frontal cortex (the area of the brain behind your forehead) and makes that blood available to our large skeletal muscles so we can run fast and escape a life threat.
The prefrontal cortex is the center of our highest brain functions. It is the core of strategic thought and cognitive reasoning, and it is our spiritual center. Less blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex prevents us from thinking clearly and causes us to feel disconnected and isolated from others.
Our physiology’s negative bias that favors triggering the stress response in order to “keep us safe” holds us in a constant state of stress. Psychologists refer to this constant state as the “chronic runaway stress response.” We stay stressed as our “normal” state of mind.
When the stress hormone cortisol is constantly present in our blood, it destroys brain cells in the area of the brain that neutralizes the overreaction of the stress response. It is a vicious cycle that supports the chronic stress that fosters depression.
Because chronic stress is now so prevalent in modern society, depression is epidemic.
Understanding that untreated depression is the primary source of suicidal thinking is key to the motivation to address the challenge of chronic runaway stress. We need a way to avoid depression and the associated suicidal thoughts. We need a way to manage our stress and prevent the chronic runaway stress response from being our norm, causing us to suffer from depression.
In my next letter to the editor, we will examine more about stress and our physiology and explore newly discovered characteristics of the brain that can help us prevent chronic stress from damaging our health and denying us the joy of total well-being.
John Staples, Bryans Road The writer is the program manager for War On Stress, a project of United Charitable, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.