The image of the peaceful yogi on a hilltop, unburdened by any of life's stresses, sitting comfortably in meditation, may seem foreign -- a man from another world, another time, a place without incessant emails, three children, high unemployment rates or a war in Afghanistan. But even that man, however distant he may seem, has one thing in common with you: stress.
All living creatures are under stress; the stress response is designed to help us survive in a time of crisis. But this basic need for stress, the way our bodies learn to either perform super human feats or completely shut down, is meant to be temporary. When the stressor disappears, the stress response will also calm. How often does your email box disappear? Your nine to five? Traffic in LA? If you cannot turn off the stress, then it is important to turn off the stress response.
Stress impacts the body in two key ways: first, by creating a reaction in our nervous system. This results in a rapid heart beat, sweating, heightened awareness or even anxiousness, but this nervous response only lasts about twenty to thirty seconds. If this were all we faced, only these immediate, temporary consequences of our brain firing up neurons in our muscles and organs, we may be A-OK.
However, there is a second stress response, one that takes minutes to initiate but can last for weeks, compromising the immune system, raising our blood pressure and breaking down the very nutrients and vitamins we need to repair ourselves. This reaction, controlled by the endocrine system, is far more damaging.
In a time of stress, the pituitary gland sends little messengers out to all the glands of the body. These glands, most notably the adrenal glands and the thyroid, go to work shutting down our body’s systems, preparing for a long-term battle with deadly enemy. This would be fine if we were actually experiencing a long-term battle with a deadly enemy, but we may just be having a bad day at the office, fighting with a spouse, or asking too much of our schedules.
This is where the mind comes in – the all-powerful mind – with the ability to tell our bodies, “Everything’s okay here, back to business as usual.” This happens at the cortex of the brain. The cortex is the highest part of the brain, and humans have one of the most developed in the animal kingdom (second only to dolphins and whales, which really makes you wonder …) Whenever the body senses a stressor, it sends the signal first to the cortex for analysis. The cortex then relates the message through a tiny electrical link called the hypohypophyseal. If you’re looking for the “Mind-Body Link,” you’ve found it.
If the hypohypophyseal portal system receives the stressful information, it begins to take the body through the stress response. First, activating the nervous system for the temporary reaction. Then, it contacts the adrenal glands, which send catecholamines – a fancy word for adrenaline - to the body. This reaction can last up to three hours, causing anxiety, muscle tremors and elevated blood pressure. Again, if the body stopped here, we may just be okay. But it doesn’t.
Next, the thyroid goes to work. It can release up to three damaging hormones in the body: first, cortisol, which causes sodium retention, breaks down proteins and essential amino acids to use them as fuel, and prevents the body from rebuilding its immune system; next, thyroxine enters the body, increasing the metabolism, increasing respiration rates, and decreasing the strength of the heart, and making our brains extremely anxious; finally, vasopressin is released, causing the veins to constrict, elevating blood pressure even further.
The release of these hormones can last from three weeks to several months; in that time, the likelihood a human being in modern society will encounter another stressful situation is nearly 100 percent. There is no break.
Each of these hormones has a function that is necessary, but that function is rarely necessary in our everyday stress response to spilt milk, traffic, or an annual review at the office. Only by training the mind to deal with our current lifestyles can we begin to stop the stress response from being overactive, taking us from “survival mode” to “vacation mode.”
This means the simple key to relax more is … to start relaxing more. Be the man on the mountain, quietly talking to your mind, telling it everything is going to be just fine. Use the cortex you have been given – the most powerful part of the brain, capable of overriding the instinctual response to any situation – to be your own guru. Taking time to relax, to allow the body to recover, will elevate your body to a higher state.