Understanding stress and its antidote - meditation
By Kathleen O’Brien
Everyone experiences stress - It is estimated that 75-90% of visits to primary care physicians are due to acute or chronic stress (1).
In our busy modern world, stress is seemingly unavoidable; the deleterious health effects of stress, however, are avoidable. We have the capacity to change our perception of the stressful event and our reaction to it.
We all have relationships, families, deadlines, responsibilities, study. We all experience life events such as births, deaths, marriage, divorce, moving house, changing jobs. Many of us are also managing health issues such as anxiety, depression, digestive issues, autoimmune conditions and many other stresses on the body.
All of this combined with poor lifestyle choices such as lack of sleep, poor diet, overconsumption of stimulants and excessive screen time cause a disruption to our normal bodily functioning. Stress of any sort triggers the activation of our Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). These systems release hormones and neurotransmitters to help us cope with a stressful event. The stress response begins in the brain, with the hypothalamus activating the SNS. Upon activation, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream causing an increase in heart rate, blood flow and blood pressure, and the release of glucose and fats into the bloodstream. This is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
The stress response has also been described using a model known as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). It is broken down in 3 stages:
1. Alarm phase (fight or flight response
This is the initial response we have all experienced where the body rapidly mobilizes its resources to deal with an incoming threat.
Huge amounts of glucose and oxygen are sent to the organs that are most active in warding off danger: the brain, which must become highly alert; the skeletal muscles, which may have to fight off an attacker or flee; and the heart, which must work vigorously to pump enough blood to the brain and muscles. We have all experienced this reaction. Heart rate and breathing increase and we may get dry mouth, tunnel vision and shaking. During the fight-or-flight response, nonessential body functions such as digestive, urinary, immune and reproductive activities are inhibited.
The resistance stage helps the body continue fighting a stressor long after the fight-or-flight response dissipates with the release of other hormones. This is why your heart continues to pound for several minutes even after the stress- or is removed. Generally, it is successful in seeing us through a stressful episode, and our bodies then return to normal. Occasion- ally, however, the resistance stage fails to combat the stressor, and the body moves into the state of exhaustion.
The resources of the body may eventually become so depleted that they cannot sustain the resistance stage, and exhaustion ensues. Prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol and other hormones involved in the resistance reaction causes suppression of the immune system, digestive system, reproductive system and wasting of muscles.
When kept in check, these response systems are extremely effective and do not cause us any long-term harm. However, if the stress continues for a prolonged period of time, moving into the resistance phase or exhaustion our HPA axis and SNS begin to function inappropriately. In our modern lifestyle, chronic stress is extremely common and dysfunctional HPA axis and SNS responses are often underlying causes of other disorders.
Levels of stress among Australians appear to be increasing, with younger adults reporting the highest levels of stress (2). The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing found almost half of Australian adults met the criteria for the diagnosis of a mental health disorder at some stage of their lives. Of these mental health disorders, anxiety disorders were the most common (3).
When this SNS dominant state becomes our norm we are more reactive, fatigued, we reach for external sources to stimulate or calm us down and our capacity to be creative, generous, kind and present in our daily interactions is affected. This is not our natural state and it’s having a huge effect on us as individuals and our entire collective. We need to find some balance. If our current state has come from controlling, focusing and doing, then what would life look like when we let go and allow?
In naturopathy we have a basic set of principles of healing, one of which is to stimulate the body’s natural healing capacity. Our body’s know how to self- heal when given the right conditions to do so but stress reduces our capacity to do this. So if we want to allow the body to self-heal and really solve the root cause of disease and illness we need to first dissolve stress in the body. Through a daily practise of meditation we can begin to reduce the stress and fatigue that’s preventing us from accessing what we refer to as our natural state. In this natural state we operate from our parasympathetic nervous system also known as ‘rest and digest’. All our vital body systems such as digestion, immune and reproduction systems all come back online and can perform their proper functions.
When we reduce stress and learn ways to better cope with stress we can upgrade to a state of being that is calm, confident, compassionate, loving, energetic, capable and thriving!
1. Head KA, Kelly GS. Nutrients and botanicals for treatment of stress: adrenal fatigue, neurotransmitter imbalance, anxiety, and restless sleep. Altern Med Rev 2009;14(2):114-140.
2. Casey L. Stress and wellbeing in Australia survey 2013. Australian Psychological Society: Melbourne, 2013.
3. Australian Bureau of Statistics. National survey of mental health and wellbeing: summary