Un­der­stand­ing causes, re­ac­tions to life stres­sors

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

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.

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