Bear with me, I’m going to get a little scientific, but I promise it’s important. The nervous system is a complex universe of interconnected systems that we are only beginning to comprehend. Today I want to chat about a fairly well-understood area -- the stress response system. Otherwise known as the fight or flight response, this is a core danger-alert process that readies our bodies to protect itself -- whether to fight an enemy or to retreat to safety. It is known formally as the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis (HPA axis) based on the anatomic brain regions involved in its activation. We often hear about the toll that chronic stress can have on the body. Having a basic grasp of how this stress response system works will help you understand why.
The stress response involves a cascade of neurochemical reactions that begin in the hypothalamus when we are alerted to danger. The hypothalamus releases hormones to stimulate the pituitary gland, which in turn sends chemical messages down to the adrenal glands near our kidneys. The adrenal system releases cortisol and adrenaline to increase heart rate, breathing rate, and blood flow to the arms and legs -- all very helpful changes to enable rapid action! Simultaneously, digestion is slowed so that energy resources can be used for physical response to the threat. Once the danger has past, signals to the HPA axis diminish, cuing the body to gradually return to its baseline function.
What fascinated me most about the stress response system is that all organisms have a built-in biological instinct and need to maintain balance. The fight or flight response is critical to survival for most animals, but this must be accompanied by downtime to conserve body functions and re-establish overall equilibrium. For us humans, our unique capacity for sustained higher level thinking (including worrying) can result in chronic stimulation of the HPA axis. Research has found that even a low-level of chronic HPA axis stimulation can result in digestive, endocrine, cardiovascular, and immune problems. Stress can worsen symptoms of other chronic health conditions, and chronic nervous system stimulation following a traumatic experience can result in chronic pain, fatigue, memory issues, and difficulty regulating emotions.
When I began learning this material about 20 years ago, I did what many people do -- worry! I felt overwhelmed by guilt that I was ruining my body by not coping well with my stress and anxiety. I imagine that this kind of negative self-talk sounds familiar to many of you. For those who live with similar fears similar thoughts, I want to leave you with a sense of hope. Over the past several years there has been robust high-quality research proving that mind-body techniques can have a positive impact on improving our mental and physical wellbeing. Scientists have found that within us, we have the power to rewire our brains and heal our bodies. How amazing is that?! So please take a few deep soothing breaths, and when we next connect, we will move forward on a healing journey together...