February 9, 2011

Letting Stress Go to Voicemail.

Photo: Iain Watson

How Cell Phones Can Save Your Life.

The other day I received a call on my cell phone. It was from my ex husband. I looked at that name on my little iphone screen and suddenly realized something had changed. For the better part of 2.5 years, seeing his name on that little screen ignited an instant feeling of dread and panic. Otherwise known as the stress response. No need to go into the details of my relationship with this man, I’ll suffice to say that for the last 20 years I simply did not see that I had any choice. If he wanted to talk we talked, if he wanted answers I gave them and if he called I picked up. I did not see that I was choosing this behavior.

All of this came at a heavy physiological price (never mind the mental/emotional one). On this day when the phone rang, I calmly and confidently chose to let the call go to voicemail. It felt healthy. It felt empowering and it felt liberating. I wasn’t ignoring him; I was simply putting some space and time in between the incoming call and the answer. I chose this. Where once I had felt trapped, I was suddenly free and my liberation was in the acknowledgment that I had a choice. How did I arrive at this day? Practice.

Though my case may be extreme, it is certainly not unusual. Essentially we all need practice in saying no, but saying no in and of itself is not enough. We need to learn to say no and to feel perfectly fine about it. Instead, we all too often say yes when we want to say no, or say no and feel consumed by guilt and self-judgment. Finding ourselves wrapped up in conflict or self-sabotaging emotions not only feels uncomfortable, it puts us in a state of stress.

The old-timey definition of stress is: “The effect of a force acting against resistance.” In some ways, that is exactly what is happening in our bodies when we say yes and actually want to say no, or say no and feel guilty. It seems a simple enough problem to fix and yet time and time again I cross paths with people who “feel bad” about something, or feel trapped, or are resentful of all of the things that they have to do. How does this happen? Why are we a generation of adults who continuously go against our own gut instincts? The reason is simply that we have lost touch with our internal sense. Most of the time we are not even aware of our internal sense, we just know we don’t like the way we feel. We are so accustomed to doing things because we should do them that what we feel in our bodies ends up being ignored. This becomes our way of being, and our minds do not even register this conflict as stress. This ends up feeling normal to us. As Dr. Gabor Maté M.D. states in his book When the Body Says No: The Hidden Cost of Stress, “…we have lost touch with the gut feelings designed to be our warning system. The body mounts a stress response but the mind is unaware of the threat.”

Let’s look at a simple example. You’ve over-scheduled yourself for a particular day of the week and the day draws near. In the week leading up to this day you’ve had several nights of poor sleep due to a sick child. Perhaps a few other unexpected things have demanded attention and that culminates into a generally overwhelmed feeling. You’ve decided to keep all of your appointments that day knowing that you will be completely drained of energy at the end of the day (mostly because you should). Twenty-four hours before your marathon day begins, you receive a phone call from an old and dear friend saying that they are in town just for the night, can you meet them for dinner and can they possibly stay at your house for the evening? It is quite possible that you say yes to this person, telling yourself that you really have to because (fill in the blank). Or, it’s possible that you say no but you are consumed with guilt and self-judgment over turning your long-lost friend away. Either way, your body is now mounting a full-scale internal attack because either way there is a sense of resistance.

There are three universal factors that have been identified as leading to stress: uncertainty, the lack of information and loss of control. Different circumstances are going to register differently to different people depending on the individual. One person may be perfectly fine planning a trip with little or no agenda, and the next person may feel a great deal of anxiety around not knowing exactly what the trip will look like (to use one common example). Coping mechanisms like controlled or compulsive eating, substance use, obsessive compulsive behaviors and the like may give the illusion of control over these three stress factors but the relief is just temporary and in the end there is no resolution.

(Photo: Becky Wetherington)

Of these consistently triggered stress responses Dr. Maté states, “[without resolution these responses] produce harm and even permanent damage.” This damage is caused because, in the absence of resolution in the nervous system, the adrenal system and immune system (otherwise known as the HPA axis) is still kicked into high gear and floods us with hormones and biochemicals that can eventually destroy tissue, raise blood pressure, damage the heart and suppress the immune system. This constant kick-up of hormones has been found to be a leading component in the development of life threatening diseases such as ALS and Multiple Sclerosis, as well as other unexplained ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, Crohn’s Disease, irritable bowel syndrome and others.

The HPA axis is the hub of the stress response, ingeniously designed to save our lives (believe me, if you ever find yourself face to face with a hungry lion you’ll be glad you have it!). Unfortunately it does not operate alone. There is a section of the brain stem called the hypothalamus that acts as a sort of “air traffic control” in your stress response mechanism. Given the green light, or clearance, the hypothalamus releases the corticotropin-releasing hormone which sets of a chain reaction of other hormone releasing glands. Chief among these hormones is cortisol, which acts on almost every tissue in the body–one way or another. Among other things, this hormone has powerful bone-thinning actions (yikes!).

In addition, studies show that stress hormones have an affect on cytokine production. Cytokines are proteins produced by white blood cells that act as messengers between the cells and the brain to alert the body of certain disturbances, which may call for an immune response.

So where does the hypothalamus get the clearance to turbo-charge the HPA axis? From the emotional center of the brain, known as the amygdala. To put it simply: emotions of fear and anxiety are registered through the amygdala. The amygdala sends the clearance code to the hypothalamus and the hypothalamus initiates the stress response. Suddenly your body is responding as if a sub-surface World War III has been declared, when all you’re trying to do is feel okay about saying no to your friend who wants to see you for dinner on a day where you’ve already over-committed yourself.

By regulating the emotional reaction, we can head-off the stress response and save ourselves from possible long-term, and even deadly, illness; but how do we do that? The answer is practice. This practice is not as simple as learning how to say no. This is the practice of mindfulness. To practice mindfulness is to cultivate an awareness of your inner experience, or your inner sense. Only by noticing, acknowledging and suspending judgment of your inner experience can you choose what is right for you. Mindfulness practice allows the mind and body to integrate so that your decisions are no longer coming from the sense of should, but from knowing on an intuitive level what is right for you. Research has shown that Integrated Mindfulness Training affects the area of the brain in charge of emotional regulation, empathy, decision-making and executive attention. Mindfulness allows you to know you have a choice, and to make that choice with no guilt or self-judgment.

In the age of cell phones, you have the opportunity to practice choice every time the phone rings. By mindfully choosing to answer or not to answer a call, you are moving one step closer to emotional health and one step away from stress. The example of cell phones to you may seem simple and silly. I on the other hand, agree that it is simple, but I hardly think silly. If your emotions can signal your brain to wage a full-scale stress response toward the simplest of human interactions (think road rage), then perhaps it is in this that mindfulness can have its greatest effect.

Otherwise, try yoga (wink wink).

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