Facts on stress and our bodies during the pandemic
Our bodies are made perfectly to handle and regulate stress. For example, our sympathetic nervous system turns up and our parasympathetic nervous system turns down. Our stress response hormones increase and cortisol and adrenaline become available. Adrenaline increases the heart rate and elevates the blood pressure ensuring we have the energy to fight predators. Cortisol alters our immune, digestive, and reproductive system ensuring all energy is preserved for our fight or flight needs shutting down everything immediately unnecessarily to preserve energy for survival. It's phenomenal, really what our bodies do. Soon after, we can return to baseline, and everything goes back to normal!
Imagine, though, that there are no real threats that we need to fight or flee from, but our mind is perceiving them daily, for years and years. Your boss is hassling you, your spouse and child are stressing you, you worry about paying your bills. Maybe you have some more significant stress such as you go through a divorce, you lose a loved one, or perhaps, you are highly self-critical ( this is a source of severe strain on our body). What if we engaged in the stress cycle every single day, many times a day and how taxing on your body this would be? This is chronic stress, and this is the kind of stress we are not made to endure. But we do. And we are right now. This can be low-level stress that you aren't very aware of, or it can be chronic high-level stress like the stress that someone in a violent relationship, or at war experiences.
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Stress is processed in our brain first in the base of our brain. This is our old brain and is mostly involved in processes that have to do with survival. This old brain is not skilled at problem-solving or sophisticated thinking. It didn't need to be. This brain is reactive in a lot of ways. Once this part of our brain becomes activated, it becomes more and more sensitive. It becomes more likely to perceive things as threats that are not threats. This might help explain why if you have met a person who has been hurt in relationships emotionally many times, they are likely to see emotional threats everywhere in relationships. It also might explain why when there is negative news we can start to get hooked into the news cycle and become more and more frightened, stressed, and unable to think clearly about how to function.
It's important to know that information doesn't get up to the thinking part of our brain, or the upper part of our brain, until the lower part of our brain, or the old brain, has been calmed down and knows there is no threat. It essentially renders us unable to use our thinking skills while it does it's thing, which is mobilize our body and help us fight, freeze, or flee. You may recognize you are in one of these states if your are stuck or panicking and feel crazy, depressed or ineffective right now at simple things you normally do.
Right now the pandemic we are currently experiencing is a chronic stressor. Some people have lost loved ones, and jobs or their homes. They may be battling financial problems and even experienced the illness themselves. Others may just be experiencing the daily stress of worry about the never-ending cycle of the uncertainty of what is happening.
If you fall into the category of the low-level chronic stress this information might be the most helpful for you. Understanding how the brain works to process stress, and how the body works might help explain some of the things you are going through.
Remembering that your stress response system is engaged regularly many times a day and your brain is processing danger through the lower level of the brain that processes threat NOT through the reasoning thinking part of the brain, can help you to make choices about how to manage your stress.
To feel better you will need to calm down the lower or reptilian part of your brain to get to the upper, problem solving part of your brain.
Bruce Perry who is an expert in regulating the impact of stress on individuals suggests we:
Remember, these intervals must be as frequent as possible to counteract the constant stress we are experiencing. When your body is extremely stressed you need physical activity or interactions with people you love to calm it down.
General ideas to decrease stress
Reference for facts on stress
Elissa Epel and Rick Hanson: Strengthening Your Body Against Stress https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOMIYLUSn6Q