Stress and the Brain

Why Do We Suffer From Stress?

Without learning about the problem of stress, a discussion about Yoga and Meditation will remain inadequate and incomplete. In order to understand stress, we have to explore our own evolution what makes us, humans, unique.

Humans have two unique features which set them apart from all other living beings on earth.

  1. Their brain is the largest and most complex in comparison to body weight and has a large memory capacity.
  2. They have the faculty of extended self-awareness, which makes them conscious of their memories.

Self-awareness in a human child starts around the age of three to four, which brings the consciousness of death and life and along with it, fear of death and life. In order to escape this fear, a child seeks protection from the family and culture, which condition the brain with rules, patterns and beliefs. This process forms a complex mind with a vast store of memories. Those memories are both negative and positive- happy and sad moments, love and abuse, gains and losses, and so on. These memories constantly affect the brain and body, causing low grade chronic stress. In fact, our normal state of living is of low grade chronic stress. This is a universal phenomenon, and generally we are able to cope with this ongoing stress and able to live life with reasonable comfort.  But a powerful and negative event in a person’s life may disturb the coping mechanism and that person will experience a full stress reaction.

The stress response is the part of the body’s survival response. The body’s stress mechanism was particularly useful in dealing with emergencies thousands of years ago when humans were surrounded by predators and natural disasters. But in modern times, when many of our lives are more safe and comfortable, the stress response is still active. The stress response is mainly  triggered by internal issues such as the burden of memories, which initiates the stress response.  We live in the state of chronic stress without many external dangers. Our own mind becomes the cause of stress.

Stress can be defined as the perception of threat to physical or mental well-being resulting in Fight, Flight, or Freeze response. Many think that stress is caused by external factors such as work, relationships or an important life transition. But the fact is that stress doesn’t come from outside. It emerges from within and external factors precipitate it.

During stress, the sympathetic nervous system in the body becomes hyperactive and causes a fight and flight response. The freeze response comes from an ancient part of the Vagus nerve, and is intended to help the animal hide and avoid danger. Relaxation is caused by the decreased tone of sympathetic nervous system and increased activity of parasympathetic system.  While this function of the parasympathetic system is helpful and adaptive for the human being, excessive stimulation of parasympathetic nervous system may be harmful, producing a depression-like state. 

It is worth mentioning at this point the two great researchers who brought the problem of stress to the limelight in the field of medicine. 

The first was Walter Cannon, a physiologist from Harvard university, USA, who introduced in 1915 the term “fight or flight” to describe an animal’s response to threats. He described the bodily changes that occur during states of pain, hunger, fear and rage. He also coined the term homeostasis.

The second great researcher was Hans Selye, who worked in the University of Montreal. In the 1940s, he coined the term “Stress”, which he defined as the non-specific response to many stressors which include – 

Physical – Excessive physical work

Emotional – Anger, fear, Guilt etc.

Cognitive – Automatic negative thoughts

Existential – Questions about life and death and the meaning of life. 

Another important researcher was the psychologist Suzanne Kobasa, who described disease- prone personalities as well as stress- hardy people. Stress- hardy people approach stressful situations using three key strategies -Commitment, Challenge and Control. They are able to make a firm commitment to a task, even when the going gets rough. They tend to interpret problems as challenges rather than disasters. Finally, they look for aspects of the problem that they can control – perhaps making a change in their lifestyle, learning more about a problem or taking a small step to resolving the issue. All of these three strategies help them to weather life’s storms in a more effective way.

It’s important to remember that stress is not always bad. Some stress is good for the body and mind and helps us in exploring new paths and different ways to live and create. Stress becomes a problem when it becomes persistent and chronic.

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