Stress is primarily about our “fight or flight” reaction to real or perceived threats. When our ancestors were being chased by lions in Africa, the same things happened to them that happens to us when we’re feeling stressed: hearts pound, breathing escalates, eyes dilate and digestive systems shut down.
During acute stress, the brain releases an amazing mixture of hormones and chemicals including cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine.
This biological soup of chemicals is a hangover from our ancient ancestors even though we’re no longer fleeing from lions. When we experience acute stress that becomes chronic, for whatever reason, several things happen: the immune system is undermined, blood pressure increases and the heart is weakened.
When I was a young mother, years ago, my infant son almost died from spinal meningitis, and became profoundly deaf. That acute trauma turned into chronic stress because I was driven by my lions of self-blame and grief: should I have sought help sooner? Would that have saved his hearing?
Cortisol: the “stress” hormone
When cortisol—a steroid hormone made in the adrenal glands—continually streams through our blood during chronic stress, the adrenal glands become fatigued. (See Adrenal Fatigue for more info).
I frantically sought help after my son’s diagnosis—we had a closing window of time to make profound life changing decisions: should he get a cochlear implant, should we use American Sign Language, should we use voice? The cortisol coursed through my system over these few years and eventually, I became exhausted.
Although there are many solutions to managing stress, perceived or real, when I stumbled on meditation and yoga I began a life long learning journey. Travel writer Pico Iyer (in his Ted Talks The Art of Stillness) says that we need to take conscious measures to open up a space inside of our lives. We yearn for the depth of intimacy and connectedness that such stillness gives us.
Being overwhelmed by the busyness or the weight of the world disconnects us from ourselves and each other.
Connecting to Others
Psychologist and stress researcher Kelly McGonigal says that connecting to others is a biological need that solves stress (Make Stress Your Friend). She says that oxytocin—the “cuddle” hormone – is a neurohormone that fine tunes your brain’s social instincts when you’re connected with others. So you strengthen your social connections and enhance empathy, and the pituitary gland pumps out oxytocin.
Oxytocin also protects your cardiovascular system and helps the blood vessels stay relaxed. These benefits are enhanced by social supports, surprisingly whether you are getting from or giving to another.
When I connected with a group for parents whose children had become deaf, I found they all blamed themselves. I began to meet and find out that deaf people had interesting and joyful lives. My brain began to pump out oxytocin instead of cortisol.
The courage to change
I let go of self-blame and moved through grief by connecting with others and also mindfully meditating.
Each of us on our journey, whatever the path, can build our courage to increase inner stillness and connect more externally.
At this moment, as you are reading, pause and close your eyes. Take one full deep diaphragmatic breath. Allow the body and mind to become deeply still.
Do this every hour for the next four weeks and your life will change.
The courage to change comes from within. Choosing stillness and connecting with others can support all of us to deep changes.
Susan Young, M.Ad.Ed., RYT, is a Life Coach in private practice in Kingston, Ont. She facilitates Mindfulness Programs and teaches yoga at Janati Yoga School.