Mental Health, Psychotherapy

From the day we emerge kicking and screaming we are in a mode that will last for our entire lives, a powerful mode of assimilation and acquisition that governs our perspective and our relationship with the material world and the conceptual society that surrounds us – that mode is – LEARNING MODE. We are always learning.

We learn how to eat, we learn how to walk, we learn language and as we evolve and mature, we can learn mastery of the body enabling us to achieve great heights of athleticism and mental acuity. And prior to those peaks which we may or may not hit, we will learn about Geography, History (or a version of it), The sciences including Biology – which might cover this topic somewhat, but certainly falls short in having a lasting positive impact on our lives, hell – we can even be put through a bit of French literature for sport! These are all great!

BUT – by the time we have been put through our paces in the halls of education and get into the work force, with our abilities to walk, talk, eat and rattle off facts about U-shaped valleys and price elasticity of demand, we are all facing down something that is out of conscious awareness for the most part but has a massively debilitating effect on a large proportion of the population. Stress.

Sweating palms, racing heart, tight shoulders and neck, irritability, stomach cramps, that sinking feeling, intense anxiety, constricted breathing, appetite loss, skin inflammation…… – some (but just a minute fraction) of the symptoms of stress. They stain your shirt, leave you needing to attend the physio or the toilet frequently, and pretty much ruin the day, and generally effect our lives negatively.

Stress comes on thick and fast with the increased responsibility of adulthood, and independence, the gravity we assign to our responsibilities and our “role”, and the consequences and implications of our performance in work and in life generally. And, at an optimum level it can help us stay on the tramlines of normal demands and succeed, which is a good thing – right? Yes, it is. A level of it is required and there is no escaping that. However, when it tips over into behavioural changes, acting out, anger or rage, substance and alcohol abuse, being fed up, avoiding or just general fatigue and unhappiness, we need to know what is happening, we need to understand the mechanism of this ancient psychological and physiological instrument, we need to be educated about Stress. We need this so we can counteract as best as possible and keep this stuff from ratcheting up and having a needless compounding negative effect on daily life. We need to deploy our ability to learn to be body and mind aware. So, I propose a crash course in Stress, Stress 101 and implore you to study your body and mind around this topic and make it a learning priority – as someone should have taught us this stuff much earlier on!

So what is The Stress Response?

  • It is an unconscious interaction between our reptilian brain (The Amygdala) and our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS – A somatic / body response) – Better known as the Fight / Flight or Freeze Response.

Why do we have this going on?

  • It is the oldest part of the current evolution of the human brain – “The Reptilian Brain” (Think lizards you’ve seen on holidays, and how quickly they react to your presence or even movement – we share that response)

  • It has remained untouched through our evolution.

  • It is a survival tool, that acts on impulse to threats to our safety and life in the world to get our body into a state of preparedness to fight, to fly (run) or to play possum and hope the sabretooth tiger will simply step over us and ship on.

  • It is unconscious for us to have the best chance of survival, i.e. no time to critique our chances in a fight with a legitimate risk to our lives – just an immediate reflexive response. No time to think: “It’s a snake, is it staring at me, what is it thinking, am I afraid of snakes….” Just be on your way!

  • It is a tool primarily for life and death situations.

Surely this is a good thing?

  • Of course, we need this. We can still encounter these life or death situations – but just how often do we?

  • As previously mentioned, an appropriate of stress level drives us to work / earn / contribute etc. as a part of society and to survive the modern jungle.

Its place in the modern world, the bad news:

  • Cars, phones, laptops, emails, bills, insurance, child-care, money, work, competition (keeping up with the jones’), social expectations, social media, annual reviews, deadlines, interviews, presentations, bus lanes and the gardai, the fashion police…. Today’s perma-present new “threats”.

  • We live in a world of stimulus that fires our Amygdala, not for real life and death threats, but for PERCEPTUAL threats. And yes, there is an argument that not earning money / working will have serious detrimental effects, but you have to really skin this back to will it immediately kill you or seriously injure you – NO. That is why The Stress Response works in a maladaptive way in our modern world – it is in a semi triggered state, until we learn how to address it.

  • We are the only mammals with this system that can spur it on by interacting with the symptoms in our cognitive brain, i.e. we can fuel the fires of stress by telling ourselves that being 15 mins late for the meeting is literally the end of days. It’s not. People can survive our tardiness, as can we – just don’t make a habit of it.

So what can we do?

  • SLOW DOWN – this is a piece of work all in itself. Take the speed out of life. 10 – 15 mins a day to settle into a quiet space and pay attention to you.

  • So, Mindfulness? You can call it what ever you want, but the flip side of the Stress Response is the Relaxation Response – the good news story. And this can be tapped into, using the right conditions and getting attuned to your body and consciously attending to your current state. Conditions such as peace and quiet, breathing exercises, meditations, mindfulness exercises and pretty much anything that makes you concentrate on your body and breathing and how you are feeling.

  • It takes between 10-20 mins to engage the parasympathetic system (you’ll understand this if you think of that feeling just before you fall asleep – dead weight, comfortable, mind drifting, happy out!) This is as good as parasympathetic gets, and we are just looking to make that (to a degree) more available in our daily lives.

Is this possible?

  • 100% – and it’ll help you unravel unconscious tension that has built up and release negative thinking etc. as long as you practice – 10-15 mins a day is not a lot to ask.

  • You will begin to make a distinction between the two states, and can with practice tap into relaxation response activation, without falling asleep mid conversation – we are only looking for an antidote to high stress and tension, something to counteract and get us back to homeostasis.

So, there it is – a crash course in the stress response and the antidote, the relaxation response. The best part is that the relaxation response is within our control and can be deployed as we learn to engage with it more actively and more frequently. Check for guided breathing exercises online or relaxation visualisations, anything that focuses your attention away from the drama and story of our lives and plonks you back into your body and into the present space you occupy. Keep doing these exercises, which ever ones suit you without much questioning or judgement and see how you feel as you learn to pay attention to your body over a period of time. Tap into your innate ability to activate your relaxation response and reap the benefits.

For more detailed information, or for a concentrated course of stress response work – contact Remedy Clinic and get a consultation with one of our many skilled stress and relaxation experts.

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