You’re going to have some stress in your life — we all do, and it’s unavoidable. Here at Nightlight Chiropractic, I often speak with my patients about how they can improve their health by managing that stress, even if you can’t control the source of it. Let’s talk about stress, how it’s affecting you, what maybe you’re not understanding or thinking about it, and then what are we going to do to try and combat this issue and take care of it.
How Stress Impacts Your Health
We have to start today’s conversation with a basic premise and that premise is this: stress, when it’s too much for too long, severely impacts your health in a variety of different ways. There’s a list I put together here: headaches, muscle pain, insomnia, frequent viral infections, hypertension, obesity, acne, psoriasis, alopecia, GERD, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and gastritis. Stress affects pathology, stress affects health, and it’s important that we understand that upfront. I don’t want to belabor the point, but it’s a very bad thing when you have too much stress for too long.
Your Brain on Stress
We’re going to talk about structures in your brain first. I bet you’ve never heard stress talked about this way, but this is the way I want you to think about it. You’ve got two almond-sized areas of your brain called your amygdalae, one on the right, one on the left. What these little amygdalae do is interpret emotion in your brain. The one on the right side is associated with negative emotions, like fear, stress, anger, and anxiety. The one on the left is more like feel good amygdala and reward system amygdala, not necessarily good or bad. They’re called amygdala because that relates to the Latin word for almond, so they’re each about the size and shape of an almond.
They are actually what’s driving any kind of stress that you’re feeling. All of your stress is being processed in these tiny little almond-shaped areas of your brain that work completely outside the scope of your forebrain. Your forebrain is trying to tell you to make logical decisions, to think positively, to change how you’re thinking. This little almond-sized thing does not listen to any of that. This is an older part of your brain, this is a deeper part of your brain, and it doesn’t even care what the front part of your brain is thinking or saying. It does have some connections there, but it does not have to comply with what you logically want to happen with stress.
You’ve got these two amygdalae and they’re communicating with all the other parts of your brain. They’re not operating in your conscious control, but these tiny little almond-shaped things are basically able to talk with your hypothalamus, which is going to increase your respirations, dilate your pupils, and make your muscles really tight so that you’re ready to fight a tiger or run away from a tiger. It communicates with your hippocampus, which is remembering old memories. It’s one of the reasons why you can actually hear a creepy sound and you’ll start to get goosebumps before you’ve even put together where that creepy sound is from or why it would have creeped you out because this little amygdala area has different memory to it than your forebrain. When you’re thinking about the stress that you’re feeling, when you start to feel stressed, I want you to think back to these little almond-shaped things in your head.
When we talk about how we’re going to change the amount of stress or anxiety that we’re feeling, everyone wants to use the word hack: we’re going to hack or hijack our own brains. Well, that’s terrible, that’s not what we want to do. This is like a clickbait buzzword that we don’t even want to think about. We’re not hijacking our own brains; we’re actually using some of the tools that we already have available to us to navigate our brainscape a little bit so that we can make these little almond-sized things settle down a little bit, allow us to get back into a parasympathetic relaxed state. I’m going to share how you can break free of this amygdala control of how you’re feeling.
The number one thing that comes across again and again in stress reduction is mindfulness. Mindfulness is basically understanding that there is something that’s triggering this amygdala to fire. It’s really important that you start with that. If you don’t understand that your emotions are being hijacked by some external force, then you are already losing the battle. You have to be aware that if you’re on high-stress alert if you are having high anxiety, it has a lot to do with the fact that your brain is basically taking control outside of your conscious thought.
The right amygdala is basically getting some sort of stimuli coming through that is making you on high alert. Your respiration is increased, you’re perspiring a little bit, maybe your muscles are a little bit too tight. Everyone complains about their upper trap muscles being too tight when they’ve been stressed for too long. Understanding that this situation is going on is the first step to taking control of it.
Once you understand what’s going on, it’s easier to just take a step back to say the situation isn’t necessarily good or bad. I don’t need to put a label on the situation, just to understand how it’s affecting my brain. It doesn’t need to be the end of the world, it doesn’t need to be the best thing ever, it just needs to be my mind is taking this in a different way.
What I want you to do is also to start to be in the moment. Mindfulness is being in the present moment. You don’t want to go to your happy place and remove yourself from the situation. What you really want to do is embrace the fact that the situation is there, not put a good or bad connotation on it, just accept that the situation is what it is, your brain is responding to it one way and you’re going to embrace the fact that you’re in that situation. I know it’s not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to make sure that you’re not letting stress run rampant with your brain.
Second, let’s talk about breathing. If you have the opportunity in a lot of these situations, you want to make sure that you’re focusing on your breathing because it’s free, it’s quick, and it’s easy. Focusing on that breathing helps to get your body back into the parasympathetic state.
Just take five minutes and set a timer. All we’re going to be doing is paying attention to our breathing. We’re going to count five seconds in, hold for three, breathe out for seven. Breathe in through your nose, breathe out through your mouth.
The third thing is music because it actually plays directly into your limbic system. Music starts to affect your left amygdala and tells it it’s okay, we’re in a good place. We are going to shut down the sympathetic over-reactive stress response and just be in a good place. Now, here’s the interesting part. They used to think it was just soothing music or classical music, but there are a lot of things that can get that left amygdala firing, and get you into a better, happier place. It’s not always just soothing music, rather they’ve used some really hard-hitting, upbeat type music. What they found was anything that makes you sing actually starts to activate that left amygdala.
Everyone talks about the endorphins from a runner’s high, everyone talks about high-octane, long-distance cardio. It doesn’t take any of that, folks. Set that aside. What I’m hearing a lot from people now is that walking is not enough: if you’re only walking, you’re not getting enough exercise. I’ve got to tell you nothing could be further from the truth. Walking is a fantastic exercise. Walking to get your heart rate up just a little bit is enough to get some of your endorphins going, it’s enough to your breathing going at a different cadence, it’s probably enough to get you into a mindfulness state. Any exercise wins here, it doesn’t need to be high-octane anything. Any exercise that gets you moving is going to be really important for what you’re doing there.
There’s one more thing that I’ve been studying a lot more, it kind of plays into this and so I wanted to introduce it to you guys. There’s a book that I came across called The Daily Stoic. Stoicism is interesting because it touches on all of these different topics. A lot of people think that stoicism is not feeling any emotion or something like that. It’s not really that. If you did a little homework on it, you’d understand that it’s more about not putting a connotation on an event. If you didn’t have control over the event, then your control is gone. You CAN however control over your response to events, and suddenly you have control again and that can eliminate the stress response. Learning about stoicism or applying some of those principles will also help you to break free of that stress response.
It’s my hope that these tried and true ideas will help my patients to not be overwhelmed by stress, so you can enjoy a happy and healthy life. Make sure to tell me if these things are working for you, next time you come and see me in the Nightlight Chiropractic office!