Updated: Jul 9, 2020
UNDERSTANDING OUR BODY'S RESPONSE TO STRESS
So, it seems we are faced with some difficult times ahead in the era of this Corona virus panic. What does Heart of the Matter have to say about the current climate of fear and turmoil?
That may feel easier said than done... I agree. We are collectively experiencing a great amount of fear, the likes of which most of us have never experienced before, and it seems to be unavoidable. Unfortunately, this anxiety is not always helping us to respond intelligently to the situation, nor is it helping us maintain a strong and robust immune system - which is something we need now more than ever.
Staying calm is often a matter of perspective. Understanding how our bodies are constantly supporting us and keeping us safe is one way to step back and see things more clearly.
While we subject our nervous systems to this anxiety overload, it is very easy to forget some important facts about our bodies. Although sometimes difficult to remember, we do always have a choice about what we focus our mind on. We can choose to allow the fear to dominate, or we can choose to focus our mind on what makes us feel good. If ever there was a good time to practice mindfulness it's now.
Below are some facts and resources I'd like to share, that help me maintain a sense of balance. Knowledge is power!
THE FACTS: STRESS impairs our digestion, inhibits our immune system and makes us less intelligent!
Our body is the most incredible biological machine, and in its response to a life-threatening situation it does everything possible to keep us safe: our SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM kicks in. While our fight, flight and freeze response is triggered 24/7 with Corona virus coverage, news and social media alongside often difficult living and working circumstances, our adrenal glands are flooding our bodies with cortisol. Although this would help us to flee a tiger or fight an intruder it does nothing to aid digestion, support immune function or help our ability to think of solutions with clarity. In fact, quite the opposite. When we are stressed our blood supply is diverted away from these biological functions in preference for supplying our neuro-muscular system with the much needed oxygen required for physical exertion. As a result, the blood supply to our digestion, immune function and frontal cerebral cortex is depleted.
What happens to brain function
Have you ever tried to think straight when highly stressed? It's impossible... We flap, turn in circles and make bad decisions. We suffer 'brain freeze' and often completely lose perspective and the ability to prioritise. That's because the frontal cerebral cortex - the intelligent, problem-solving part of our brain that can think creatively and find solutions - is not able to function properly without the usual blood supply that has been directed elsewhere in the body. This article tells us more: Stress makes us stupid
What happens to our Immune System
When we are faced with an emergency it is not our body's priority to fight microbial attack - the tiger takes precedence. Again, this priority diverts our physiological attention towards the systems that will get us away from the danger which, in turn depleting resources away from the process of fighting pathogens coming our way . Understanding how the immune system supports us is really important if we are to trust our bodies to keep us safe. I recommend taking the time to look at these two links to get a better understanding of how our immune system protects us and how stress undermines our natural ability to keep us well.
What happens to our digestion
This is a huge subject and one that I will surely write about in more depth in future.
Why is it that we aren't hungry when we're faced with a crisis? We can't face food, we find it difficult to digest if we do eat and we often need to take an urgent visit to the toilet. That's because under stress our digestive function slows down, or can even grind to a halt altogether. The stomach stops producing digestive juices and peristalsis is inhibited, leading to slow, difficult digestion. It can also often induce nausea, vomiting or bouts of diarrhoea as the body eliminates what it sees as a distraction from more important functions. Having a snack is not a priority with a tiger in the midst, so yet again, our body drains away the blood and energy supply from digestion to redirect it to more critical functions. The long-term consequences of enduring stress can therefore play havoc with our digestion, absorption and overall nutritional well being. We now know that the gut is home to our nervous system, and our emotional and mental well-being by way of the Vagus nerve and so long term stress can create severe imbalance to our entire physiology.
Our digestion is impaired, yet we still need to pull in the calories, and so we start to crave fast energy release foods with high sugar and salt content to provide us with energy - that's when we reach for the chocolate bars and crisps (which is another story for another day!).
How this detrimentally affects our Immune Systems
Why does this all matter so much to my immune function? It's not just that our fuel intake will be restricted providing fewer calories. But, without the full nutritional content of our food - important vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins and antioxidants - our body can not thrive. Under stress, the body's requirements for many of these nutrients are actually increased massively too. For example our adrenal glands utilise every last bit of vitamin C in our body in order to pump out stress hormones during a fight or flight response, leaving none for the many other important bodily processes. One such process is that of maintaining a robust immune function, as this article describes - Vitamin C & the immune system. Our body structure, hormone function, immune function and nervous system all depend on the consumption of these nutritional building blocks. Our nutrition is our biochemistry. Without these elements we cannot make the enzymes, proteins and co-factors that are required for basic metabolic functions which is why we can feel exhausted, confused, moody, sleep deprived and even depressed or anxious. One of the first systems in our body to suffer in the absence of these important nutrients is however, our all-important immune system.
Unfortunately, all this adds to the stress load and feeds the fear response further.
The PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM - So what happens when the tiger never actually shows up?
We can't run away from or fight the Corona virus with our fists, so all the adrenaline that has built up as our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated - raising our heart rate and pumping our muscles with blood - has nowhere to go. The fear response is therefore never resolved and we continue to pump out cortisol with no let up, in anticipation of the wild beast crossing our path. This leads to a chronic stress response and adrenal overdrive, an endocrine cycle that can be difficult to get out of. When we are in stress mode, our SYMPATHETIC nervous system, or fight-flight-freeze response, is activated. Once the danger has passed, our PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system, or rest & digest response, should take over. Our body naturally calms down, allowing all the other physiological functions that have been muted to be reinstated. Understanding the balance between these two responses helps us to appreciate what our bodies are actually doing for us at any given moment, and that we have the power to intervene to our advantage. This article gives more information about how the autonomic nervous system works.
Now that we understand more about the physiology of the stress response, and accept that it is our body's natural response to perceived danger, that is there to protect us, what can we do to control it and stop it from dominating our every breath? How can we live well in a world that is full of constant stress that stimulates adrenal overload? In Part 2 of my Don't Panic! article I'll be addressing what practical measures we can take to calm our stress response.