Are You Roadkill On The Highway Of Stress? Then Listen To Your Body

stress.pngHere’s a magic wand that can improve your health dramatically. Now, with one wave, eliminate your stress response. After all, stress contributes to heart disease, weight gain, a weakened immune system, inflammation, cancer and other things that fall into the “things-that-scare-you” (more stress!) category.

Yet, at the same time, humans evolved and prospered by learning to run from danger, fear slithery snakes, and stay away from the edges of high cliffs. The hormone response that happens because of stress isn’t all bad. 

But watch out when stress persists. Researchers from UC San Diego (and others) recently looked at why some people are better (and faster) at recovering from stress than others—a trait they call resiliency. Body awareness is part of the answer.

The study scanned the brains of two different groups of participants wearing face masks. The masks periodically shut off oxygen (an inherently stressful situation), after giving a warning signal.

As reported by Gretchen Reynolds of The New York Times, one group, whose individuals self-reported low levels of emotional and physical resilience, showed little activity in brain regions that govern body signals. In other words, their brains did very little prep work for the impending stress, but then showed a high level of activity in the brain regions that govern physiological arousal and distress—essentially, they over-reacted.

In contrast, the group of individuals who self-reported a high or normal level of resilience showed strong activity in regions of the brain that control body processes prior to the loss of oxygen, but little activity in the brain’s physical arousal regions after the masks closed. Reynolds interpreted the results for those participants with low resiliency 

In effect, they paid little attention to what was happening inside their bodies as they waited for breathing to become difficult — and then overreacted when the threat occurred.

These study results point to the root of why preparation is important for resilience on a physiological level.  Reynolds quotes one of the study authors, Dr. Martin Paulus, to illustrate:

To me, this study says that resilience is largely about body awareness and not rational thinking.

So, if we take these results as fact, we can take this study to say, the more aware we are of our bodies, the  more resilient to stress we will become.

We know that a scientific study can hardly prove a “fact,” particularly in the case of this one that had 48 people who self-reported their tendencies, but don’t these results still resonate with personal experience? Haven’t we all had a time when we were able to access a state of calm by looking inward?

The trick, then, to avoiding an overreaction to stress is to cultivate a practice through which body awareness flourishes. Luckily, there are many different ways to do this.

Meditation made headlines this week through a study out of the Medical College of Georgia showing how transcendental meditation helping  lower or in some cases eliminate the need to use psychotropic drugs as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans. Science Daily explains ::

Transcendental Meditation takes users from a level of active thinking to a state of inner quietness that reduces levels of stress hormones and activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which drives the so-called fight-or-flight response by increasing heart rate and blood pressure…”

Meditation is a broad field with many philosophies and paths to learning your own practice. A recent guided meditation given by Deepak Chopra through ABC News is a good introduction.  

Stress relief is a main selling point at any yoga studio. In fact, in a recent survey of U.S. practitioners, 56 percent of respondents indicated that they started yoga to relieve stress and 86 percent reported achieving a strong sense of mental clarity. Arguably, part of the stress-relief benefits of yoga comes through mind-body awareness.

Tai Chi
Similar to yoga, the slow and measured movements of tai chi require considerable body-awareness and concentration. The Mayo Clinic promotes Tai Chi for its health benefits, including stress reduction (as does Harvard Health and many others) and lowering the risk of heart disease.

So get your mind, body and spirit involved in your stress-reduction efforts. The body, especially, will reward you with a healthier response the next time a shark swims up to you, or the boss leans her head out the door and says, “[your name]. Come in here now! 


Read all stories by Damon Cory-Watson

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