We live it every day, to the point of being considered the disease of our era, but exactly what do we mean when we talk about stress?
Stress is a set of neuroendocrine, immunological, emotional, and behavioral processes and responses that occur in situations that demand greater adaptability than usual for the body and mind. This mechanism is triggered when changes that occur are perceived by the individual as threat or danger, for their biological or psychological integrity (stress factors).
The activation of this mechanism is generated in our brain by interactions of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, which stimulate the adrenal pituitary hypothalamic axis. These structures are in charge of regulating the fight or flight response in case we feel threatened, which stimulates the release of a set of hormones that cause physiological arousal. This includes increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased muscle tone, and increased blood flow to the extremities, preparing the body to fight or run.
This mechanism evolved in our ancient history when the stress response was triggered occasionally and as a result of threats that required significant physical action, such as predators. However, today the stress response is triggered several times a day, constantly keeping us in a state of survival. This chronic state generates an enormous amount of physical diseases such as gastrointestinal, immunological, musculoskeletal, and neurological mental disorders, as well as cardiovascular diseases.
There is a lot of scientific evidence that stress, together with genetic traits, has a primary role in the triggering and evolution of mental health disorders and substance dependence. Epidemiological studies have repeatedly shown that stress associated with adverse conditions is closely related to increased morbidity and mortality.
The counterpart of the fight or flight response is the relaxation response. This occurs when we perceive that the danger has passed, and the autonomic nervous system can return to normal. During this state, the body can go from arousal to physiological relaxation in which blood pressure, heart rate, digestive function, and hormone levels return to their regular state.
The physiological relaxation response even has documented therapeutic effects on various health problems. Literature reviews agree that techniques that stimulate the relaxation response result in reduced stress hormones and measurable central nervous system activity in brain waves and cortical arousal.
Physiological relaxation has been shown to be effective in treating many health problems, including musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular disorders. It has also been observed to have stabilizing effects in diabetics, reduction of chemotherapy side effects, reduction in the severity of arthritis, insomnia, and anxiety.
As we have said, the relaxation response triggers naturally once the stress-causing stimulus is gone. The problem occurs when we perceive that the threats do not stop or we constantly feel unable to deal with them. Chronic stress keeps the body in a constant state of survival, and the relaxation response doesn't always have time to kick in before the next stressor hits.
The key piece to triggering stress and relaxation responses is subjective and based entirely on what the mind believes it perceives, based, in turn, on beliefs prior to the stimulus.
Our brain is the organ responsible for processing the sensory information we receive. However, having no direct contact with the external world, it cannot know exactly what it perceives, so the best thing it can do is try to guess. During this process the mind and brain work together, comparing the perceived object with the database that lives in our memory. When the process ends, a response is generated according to what is believed to be perceived, and other responses such as thoughts, emotions, and actions follow from this.
It is the way we perceive the world that keeps us in constant stress, and not necessarily the world itself. When threatening stimuli are not felt to cease, relaxation is impossible and this is where our beliefs come into play.
Derived from these beliefs is that the vicious circle of stress occurs, do you want to know more? continue reading our Blog.