Learning how to handle mental and emotional stress is of utmost importance. Our central nervous system, as well as our adrenal glands, can be pushed into overload by difficult life events. Mental and emotional stress can put us into a fight or flight response from which it may be difficult to recover. Fight or flight responses are generated by our sympathetic nervous system. An example of fight or flight response would be your automatic, uncontrollable response to an automobile accident.
A chronic over-stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system can lead to suppressed immunity and adrenal exhaustion. We’ll describe some of the physiological effects of mental and emotional stress and provides a few techniques for managing difficult situations.
Chronic Stress: A Daily Event
Chronic sympathetic nervous system overload is a common experience for many of us. Running out the door in the morning without eating, coffee cup in hand, getting stuck in rush hour traffic and having too much work to possibly accomplish in one day creates chronic sympathetic overload, thereby lowering our immunity. A single parent trying to juggle raising children, maintaining a home, keeping a full-time job, as well as taking care of themselves can result in sympathetic overload. We all experience these mental and emotional stressors. Are they preventable? Is there a way to get away from all significant sources of stress? Absolutely not. Our lives generate unavoidable stresses.
Responding to Stress
What we do have control over is how we respond to stress. With mental and emotional stress there is a sequence of events that determines how we will respond physiologically. It is within our conscious control to determine how these unavoidable stresses effect us on a biochemical/hormonal level. We all need to have effective means for stress reduction. It could be meditation, exercise, yoga or tai chi.
Perception, Response, Internalization
Perception, response and internalization come together to form the body’s physiological reaction to an event. First, we perceive an event. Second, we respond to that event in a positive or negative fashion. And third, we internalize the event. Internalization is where we can get stuck. If the response is negative, we may internalize the experience negatively. If our perception of the event is negative and we begin to internalize the event in a negative fashion, this internalization process can damage our nervous system and hormonal system.
As an example, imagine you are driving on the freeway and are suddenly forced off the road by a car that swerves into your lane. You barely miss being in a major accident. Typically you may have one of two responses. You may swear and curse and feel angry towards the driver who put your life in danger. In fact, you may internalize the event and be upset and angry for the rest of the day. Another possible response is to feel relief that you didn’t get hit and that no one was injured. You may suspect the other driver simply didn’t see your car or perhaps was forced to turn to avoid an obstacle on the roadway.
It’s easy to see which example would have a potential negative effect on your health. Remaining angry for a whole day doesn’t hurt anyone other than the person holding on to the anger. With a negative perception and internalization of events the physiological reaction in the body can be long lasting. The healthier psychological response carries with it fewer long-term physiological effects. The event itself will cause a stress response involving the stress hormones adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol. A scare like this will also put your sympathetic nervous system into a fight or flight response. These responses will last only a matter of a few seconds or minutes if we don’t internalize the event negatively. After these initial responses the body will reset and normalize.
Our individual perception and internalization of life events determines the positive or negative effects they will have on our health.
Another significant mental strain on cortisol and the sympathetic nervous system is concept shifting. Concept shifting occurs when we have to change our focus or shift our attention too frequently. This can occur in a busy workplace when you are trying to complete a complicated task and you are distracted by phone calls and other interruptions. Forcing the brain to constantly shift from one subject to the next can be stressful and have a negative impact on cortisol.
Whether at work or at school, constant concept shifting will increasingly stress your cortisol levels and sympathetic nervous system. There are some positive things to be said about flexibility in thinking and being able to shift one’s attention to meet different demands. Nevertheless, your body perceives constant concept shifting as a negative stress. To the extent possible, it will benefit you to organize your schedule so that concept shifting is kept to a minimum. Since we can’t change many of the situations that require concept shifting we can counter balance the negative effects by other behaviors that improve cortisol levels and reverse sympathetic overload. This includes exercise and relaxation techniques like gentle stretching, yoga, meditation, and of course keeping our blood sugar stable!