Manage and Break the Stress Cycle: Deep Dive to Understand How Stress Affects the Body and Mind

Manage Stress by Understanding How It Affects the Body and Mind

Part I: What is Stress? An Experiential Example of Simple Stress
Part II: Allostasis: Chronic stress is heavy wear and tear that eventually leads to mental and physical illness
Part III: Stress to Breath: How Do you Break the Stress Cycle?

What is Stress? An Experiential Example of Simple Stress

Simply put, stress is a biological response to overload. Think of our bodies, our nervous systems, our physiologies as finely calibrated machines with multiple inputs, and extraordinarily complex mechanisms distributed throughout the machinery to process those inputs. The processors are interactive, intricately interconnected with constant response and feedback. My washing machine has one input and 2-3 processors. It is “smart,” so it responds by matching the quantity of laundry with the quantity of water. It isn’t smart enough to know how hot to make the water or how much detergent is needed – you have to tell it. My cell phone is more complex: it has 3 or 4 sources of input with mostly single-channel processing of those inputs. It can receive email, you can key instructions into it, and it has a microphone and a camera for visual and audio input. For the most part, each “app” processes the inputs separately, except for the overall resources it is drawing from the phone (battery, etc.).

By contrast, our human mechanism not only has numerous inputs from the outside through our senses, but a powerful central processor that simultaneously handles and processes all the inputs automatically AND processes the information through multiple interactive filters – some of which include consciousness and decisions.

The Job Interview – The Easy Part

Here’s an example. You are a serious contender for a job and they have taken you out to dinner. With your companions you order a nice meal and a glass of wine. Eating and drinking occur through habit – no need to tell your hands to move or your mouth to open. Chewing and swallowing involves more automatic physiological mechanisms, not to mention the events in your stomach and digestive organs. You are looking at, listening, and speaking to your companions. Actually, as far as you are aware, that is where the action is, where your consciousness is focused. You want to make a good impression and you believe you are listening and responding to the content – what the job will require and whether your qualifications are up to snuff. The various parts of your brain that process that type of [thinking and analyzing] content is busy and active, retrieving the appropriate information and formulating speech.

At the same time, a larger part of your brain is on high alert, processing something even more interesting to your organism. Your eyes, ears, skin, smell are taking in social and emotional cues from your interactions, processing non-verbal and non-cognitive information such as the body language, tone of voice, and the emotions and felt-presence of the people at your dinner table. You sip your wine and feel a buzz. Your brain tells your body to override the buzz and concentrate on saying the right things. As the dinner progresses, you sense there is good rapport between you and your prospective colleagues. Your body relaxes, and now you don’t mind letting your mind slow down a bit.

So far, so good. No stress.

The Job Interview — The Hard Part

Then a latecomer joins the dinner table, someone key to your hiring, like the department head. Everyone, including you, becomes subtly more alert and tense. At some point, she asks you a pointed question about your last job, the true answer to which is “it’s complicated.” You know that response won’t cut it, and you fumble your answer. It is complicated and you haven’t yet found a way to talk your way through this in previous job interviews. In fact, this is the 3rd or 4th time you’ve been in this position, and the comparing and assessing part of your brain tells you that you will not succeed in getting hired now, either. With this “input” from within your own mind, a cascade of mental events is released. Visual images of specific bills that need to be paid come to mind. Visual image of your spouse’s face being told you didn’t get the job. Your mind projects forward and decides you have failed, although you are actually still in the middle of the interview and there is no real failure yet. The idea of failure – another input – activates another cascade of mental and physiological events that feedback on one another. Your imagination creates a future filled with unsuccessful job interviews. A different part of your mind calls up other failed ventures in your past and stitches them together to create a concept, which your meaning-making mind summarizes as “you never have, and never will, succeed.” You are providing yourself, and busying yourself with, a bevy of internal inputs. No need for a camera or microphone for the machine that is you. You are quite busy enough.

Although you are not customarily so harsh with yourself, at the moment the emotional tone corresponding to your idea (failing now), concept (failing frequently), and meaning-making (someone who always fails), is painful and punitive. With such input from your psyche, the rest of your body responds by flooding your body with hormones designed to respond to danger. After all, being a failure now and forever is a serious threat. Emotions of anxiety and fear escalate. Your gut cooperates by clenching and sidelining digestive process, to get you ready to fight or run. Your heart, breathing, and muscles get ready to do the same. You try not to, but you can’t help showing your distress to your companions, and this upsets you further. You want to put up a front of someone who is confident and relaxed, not tense and fearful. You feel you can’t control your facial expression, your negative thoughts and feelings, or the outcome of the situation, and you feel overwhelmed by all the things you wish you could handle during this critical moment, but you can’t.

This is stress.

Allostasis: Chronic stress is heavy wear and tear that eventually leads to mental and physical breakdown

Now, imagine, contrary to your temporary expectations, you get hired. You’ve been on the job for a year and in fact have become a key contributor to the organization. However, it hasn’t been without cost. Let us say you are in a department where you and your team are required to produce fresh and creative output, constantly. At the same time, company cost-cutting has you putting out the same amount with a smaller team, all of whom are exhausted. You do your best to make up the difference by working longer hours, eating at your desk, forgoing exercise. Bad food and long hours at your computer have raised your blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced muscle tone, and made you sluggish. The inputs to the machine of your body have narrowed to mostly mental processes, with little time allowed for different kinds of stimulation. Your outputs have also streamlined as you do your best to focus on producing what will save your job and department. Input: No reading or movies, talks with your kids, delicious meals, plenty of oxygen. Output: No golf or tennis, talks with your kids, devising new recipes, planting your garden. Your organism — your body and mind – is treated to a steady bathe of stress hormones that keeps you breathing shallowly throughout the day, your muscles tense, your gut confused at having to digest when you are signaling it to be ready for a threat, and your physiology in a general high alert state. Long-term, your body succumbs to chronic hypertension, insomnia, reflux, indigestion and other gut problems, tension headaches, joint injuries, chronic depression, anxiety or other mood disorder, cardiovascular weakness, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, inflammation.

This is allostatic load, or chronic stress.

When stress becomes routine and is no longer perceived as stress, it means that the body is in a persistent overactivated state, prepared to deal with crisis. The brain, the endocrine system, the psycho-emotional and cardiovascular system all operate within a stress zone, with stress hormones more or less permanently circulating in the body and brain. Returning to our simple washing machine example, it is as if the water keeps running into the tub, and the machine never stops.

Stress to Breath: How do you break the stress cycle?

While stress is beating down the body, it is also beating up the mind. In the dinner interview example above, physical tension joined stressed-out thoughts to impede your ability to put your best foot forward – but it was the mind that took the lead in beating you up.
When stressed, the defenses you have against your own internal demons can be weakened, strengthened, or both. Under the threat of losing another job opportunity, your pessimism and self-judgment can come roaring in because your coping defenses have weakened. Alternatively, some people may redouble their defenses and become characteristically more defensive. You might get argumentative with your interviewer, get boastful, talk faster, raise your voice, etc. Another person might shut down their emotions under the stress of this situation, so that they hardly know what they are feeling; and for that matter nor are your interviewers able to read you.
There are no magic bullets to reverse the cycle of stress, particularly when it becomes chronic.

However, it is critical to interrupt stress as quickly as you can, as frequently as possible, until the small breaks turn into a continuous state of health. Think of it as shutting off the water flow to the washing machine, giving it enough time to drain out a little bit.

As it turns out, the lever that is the easiest to tweak in the messy ball of wax of tight mind, tense emotions, exhausted body, and overwhelming external pressure, is the breath. Breathing directly controls heart rhythm, which in turn moves lockstep with stress and relaxation states. A smooth heart rhythm with a regular interval between beats lowers stress and reduces long-term illness.

How do you get your breath and heart rhythm to relax?

Many people initially feel impatient with relaxation techniques. In a stressed condition, they have become accustomed to being addicted to overwork, chasing results, and seeking relief in action.

A Few Breathing Exercises to Reset the Stressed Body and Mind

Focus on Exhaling. Take a breath in, then slow down your exhale to a count of 4. Inhale, then repeat the outbreath to a count of 4. Do this for 6-8 breaths. Don’t worry about the length of your in-breath – that will come automatically. Making your outbreath even and smooth by counting it out can immediately reset the heart rhythm. Feel free to experiment by counting longer or shorter. You can also add a pause, either at the end of the out-breath or at the top of the in-breath.

Use Tension to Facilitate Relaxation. Clench and tense a group of muscles, then relax. Try it, for example, with your face, scrunching up your face very tight for about 8-10 seconds, before letting go. Release all the muscles you have tightened completely, taking a moment to enjoy the relaxation. Do this a couple of times. Move on to your upper body, tensing your shoulders, arms, back, hands, etc., then letting go. Next your abdomen, groin and pelvic floor. Finally, your legs, thighs, feet, toes. You can cap it off by tightening your entire body from head to toe before letting go completely. You will find that the breath instantly moves to a deeper place when you let go of the tension. You can do this at your desk, seated. Alternatively, if you have any trouble sleeping, it can be a good way to facilitate falling asleep.

Kapalabhati. This is one of the breathing exercises taught in yoga called Pranayama. There are a number of ancient practices of yogic breathing that can set your mental and physical space into an altered, usually healthier state. Kapalabhati is a Sanskrit word that means “shining skull” or “bright skull,” implying that the practice can clear your mind and bring energy up to the brain. In reality it engages your inner organs and muscles in a way to energize and relax the whole body at the same time as it is clearing your head.

Do this while sitting in a chair or floor with a straight spine. It’s really important not to hunch or have poor posture while doing this. Take a few neutral and relaxed breaths, then exhale sharply through the nose while simultaneously contracting the belly. Do this about 10 times, then reset and try again. It’s helpful to reset so that you give yourself time to regain the rhythm of it. Aim for about 100 breaths this way. While this takes more effort to learn than the first two exercises, it is a nice tool to balance the relaxation methods.

But relaxation, as it turns out, is associated with greater productivity and success. People who take naps during the day, who sleep longer nights, and who take the most weeks of vacation, are the most productive and successful by a variety of performance metrics including cognitive tests and the size of their bonuses.

So, while reverse engineering your way back from chronic stress may require lifestyle changes, coaching or therapy, and reviewing your priorities, you can see if some of the breathing exercises below will at least give you the breaks you need to begin the process of self-restoration.