Research shows how stress in the body is “totally automatic”

Not so long ago — and for a very long time — our bodies were programmed to “survive and advance” above all. We’re adaptive, incredibly complex organisms, and we are now the lone species to colonize the earth. (Ants are a close second but they haven’t yet reached Antarctica.)

Now, some 8 billion of us occupy the planet, the vast majority live in densely populated urban epicenters. While we’re highly adaptive, you could also say our bodies are prone to reactions that may be distortions to the “reality” surrounding us. It becomes hard not to “sweat the small stuff” because that “stuff” bombards us on many levels all the time.

We get stressed, and we don’t always know the source. If you don’t even know what you’re “so stressed about” how bad can it possibly be?

Well, as it turns out, there are “automatic” and completely normal and natural reasons for not having automatic awareness of where (or how) stress is manifesting. Stress is inevitable, and performs an inordinate number of responses within the body. The question isn’t how good or bad these responses are. Stress responses vary wildly from person to person (such as stress responses to the coronavirus), and in large part due to the duration and intensity of the stress. Yes, stress is “normal” and sometimes even a way of spurring us on to get something done. The problem for our culture today is chronic stress.

Not so long ago, I can now see how I had become chronically stressed at work. I would deal with it by going into autopilot. I found myself not taking as much initiative, letting others dictate the ideas and directions I was to follow, and then wade through the day slowly getting my tasks done. I was also on autopilot when I got home, vacantly managing the Slack channel or email for sudden bursts of feedback, all while numbing out with a few drinks, and maybe some Netflix binging. I was losing my identity, my sense of self, but I was barely aware of it in the blur of day-to-day routines.

Automation is nothing new to nature. Our reactions to the environment have already long since been run by a system way ahead of its time: the incredibly complex autonomic nervous system (ANS). It’s easy to remember. Just think: “It’s totally automatic.” It’s the part of your brain that’s also called the “reptilian.” What we call “higher” brain functions, the kind that lead to rational thought, scientists say is the “newer” part of the brain because it separates our cognitive abilities from that of most other life forms on the planet.

These autonomic systems adapted to environments for many thousands of years vastly different from today. Modern experiences can trigger stress reactions in the body many times throughout each and every day of even “ordinary” quarantined days. Our ancestors were wandering in the woods and/or tending crops. They were waiting for the rain to come or that deer to emerge from its hiding place. Our body’s reaction to something relatively small or “normal” may be a big deal to the automatic reactions of our nervous system.

I was losing my identity, my sense of self, but I was barely aware of it in the blur of day-to-day routines.

Stay with me here: there are a couple of branches of the ANS. There are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic part (SNS) is the one we think of when we talk about “fight or flight.” The parasympathetic part (PSNS) is responsible for these other “totally automatic” parts, such as rest and digestion, or “feed and breed” responses. In other words, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, these two parts of our nervous system are the first two levels of the foundation: the Basic Needs.

So, when the automatic part of the SNS kicks into gear, your senses become heightened and hyper-focused on the “threat,” or source of stress. Your heart rate rises and muscles tense. The part of the brain that requires a higher quality of rational thinking is diminished as the body leaps into protect mode. Survive and advance. Each and every day. Your own self-awareness also fades into the background as the SNS focuses more and more attention on the sources of the stress. In a lot of ways, it’s easy to let things remain on autopilot.

Autonomous systems that turn on (and stay on) without a user-guide are useful from an evolutionary perspective. The problem is the SNS doesn’t just turn off even when you want it to, and you could say it does require a user-guide to prevent it from “ruling over all.” If it does stay in charge you’ll find yourself anxious, hyper vigilant, suffering from insomnia, you get the picture.

It should come as no surprise that the result of all this leads to mental and physical health problems. Chronic stress shuts down the SNS on its own, and depression symptoms set in: low motivation, mood, sex drive, you name it. While this can occur from a single traumatic stress event, it probably even more often manifests from “a thousand little cuts” over time.

Modern experiences can trigger stress reactions in the body many times throughout each and every day of even “ordinary” quarantined days.

It is essential for basic functioning (much less high-level functioning) for you to be able to switch from the SNS to the PSNS. The PSNS allows for reflection, which ultimately leads to health and an authentic sense of well-being.

Literally, this is another dimension to self-awareness. Knowing how — and why — your body reacts to daily grinds. In the next article in this series, I’ll discuss how I stumbled into some surprisingly powerful approaches to finding my way back to myself, and emerging all the stronger. Meanwhile, for all our quarantining friends, I have two simple takeaways for you to consider to begin slowly giving your PSNS system a chance.

1. Create a screen-free space to be aware of your body.

The SNS system kicks in fast and in our hard-wired, 24-hour-news-cycle world, and it doesn’t want to let go easily. The SNS system makes you want to hold on. It keeps the light on, and even when the light is off it wants to keep one eye open. Image-driven devices are going to hit the SNS triggers. The blue light keeps your brain awake, and whatever content you’re consuming could well be adding to the unconscious stream of anxiety. The latest studies show that getting away from screens an hour before sleep leads to deeper and more consistent sleep patterns.

2. Create rituals to give your days continuity.

It could be anything, but build your day around one or two, however big or small. Regular yoga sessions? Breathing meditation? Journaling? Disconnecting from media — social and otherwise? You decide, but pick a time and place or it won’t take hold. Like anything worth doing and sustaining, it requires intention and follow through.

There are very real things happening in your body when it comes to your SNS and PSNS systems. How you want to meet and greet them is up to you. In our next article we will discuss evidence-based procedures to reduce stress and find your inner purpose — and how there’s a connection between the two.

The Big Self process is all about how to create practices and tools to reduce stress, help you flourish, and experience deep well-being. Join the Big Self tribe on Facebook and get connected.

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