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It's All In Your Head

I love a cliche. There. I admit it. I've been told a good writer will stear clear of them. But sometimes, a cliche is the only thing that fits. For instance, the ones that come to my mind about the topic I will introduce are "mind over matter," or "fake it 'til you make it." Well, maybe the second one isn't really a good cliche example, but you get the idea. I am referring to the power of the almight brain.

A few weeks ago, John Arden, Ph.D. came to Huntsville to speak about The Habits of Stress-Resilient People, sponsored by the Institute for Brain Potential. I needed some continuing ed credit hours and thought I would give it a shot. Man!! I was blown away by the information he presented. So over the next few blogs, I will break it down and share it with you. This is information that applies across the board, we can all benefit.

The course objectives in the lecture included how to understand the toxic effects of stress and cortisol and how to protect the brain from them. We covered the management of stress cravings and behavior modifications to overcome fears, anxiety, and panic disorder. As the day progressed, Dr. Arden covered ways to produce positive moods as well as how to experience calm, practicing mindfulness (yoga anyone?), and creating meaning and happiness. So lots of ground was covered. Can we say overwhelming? But, in a good way. I left energized, excited, and bursting with ways to extend this knowledge to my clients and yogis.

So let's talk about stress. Our brains and bodies are designed to manage stressful situations in life. Unlike our ancient ancestors who risked their lives daily just to find food and shelter, our modern lives still produce the protective biological response when we encounter events that trigger the stress response system in our bodies. It may not be the saber-toothed tiger we meet on the way to the grocery store but maybe a possible collision with another vehicle that elevates our heart rate and makes us break out in a sweat. What makes this happen?

Our physical body is constantly trying to maintain a state of homeostasis or balance. It's a constant process of checks and balance. When we experience a stressor, the Amygdala-Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenocortical Axis kicks into gear. For more information about this process, check out this link: al As a result, we produce cortisol, which is not a bad thing.

What is really the issue with cortisol is when we are under chronic stress. Stress that endures over time. The kind we cannot seem to run from. Caregivers, nightshift workers, college students, just to name a few examples, are under chronic stress. And over time, excessive cortisol is produced. And over time, this elevated cortisol creates a laundry list of problems: thinning the mucosal lining of the stomach increasing the risk for gastric ulcers, thinning bones leading to osteoporosis/bone fractures, cardiovascular issues such as increased heart rate, vasoconstriction, tissue damage in the lining of the heart, and increased risk of myocardial infarction or heart attack. We can also suffer sufficient memory loss. Some people rely on caffeine or alcohol to help in dealing with day to day demands, coffee to keep up and a cocktail to slow down; however, this merely exacerbates the stress response, leading to even more cortisol production.

Now we can't really have a no-stress life. If we did, we'd be dead. Seriously. It is a reality. But we can learn to respond to it differently. We can retrain the brain. We can begin with eating a healthy diet, avoiding alcohol use, getting daily exercise, and sleeping. We can have a social life and surround ourselves with supportive relationships. As I continue this series on the effects of stress and how we can manage it in a healthy manner, I will touch on various topics and offer helpful solutions. Take the time to check out the link I included above to gain a deeper understanding of the anatomy and physiology of our response system. Knowledge is power when it comes to understanding our health and wellness.

In the meantime, remember this: Zen is not like chopping wood, it is chopping wood. Laugh, be happy in the moment, spend time to take it in, exhale fully and let the body naturally draw the breath back in. Don't think about it - DO IT!


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