Breathing and stress

What is stress, and how does it affect the body’s nervous and hormone systems? The famous stress researcher Hans Seyle defined stress as “everything that forces an organism to adapt to new conditions.”

  • Stress is when your ambition is at level five while your resources and knowledge are only at level four
  • Stress is when you have breathing habits that do not reflect your body’s needs
  • Stress is when you do something under time pressure
  • Stress is when you do something scary, something you’re afraid of, which takes you outside your comfort zone
  • Stress is unprocessed feelings like sadness, fear, and anger
  • Stress is imbalance between activity and recovery
  • Stress is when you are sedentary, have poor posture and immobile, stiff, tense muscles
  • Stress is internal conflicts where you think one thing, say another thing, and feel a third while your body takes you in a fourth direction

Our ability to handle stress is unique

Stress can be compared to having an income that is too low and costs that are too high, where you end up taking out more money from your bank account than you put in; over-drafted, overwhelmed. But stress in itself, is not bad. On the contrary, it is necessary as it forces you to think in new ways, develop, learn and gain new insights.

Man’s ability to handle stress and adaptation is unique. Therefore, we have been able to spread throughout the planet and live and evolve under widely different conditions; like Eskimos in extreme cold, desert nomads in extreme heat and mountain people at several thousand meters altitude.

However, if stress becomes too much and lasts for too long, it breaks down your resources and your ability to adapt decreases. You become vulnerable and your risk of disease increases.

What happens when we activate the stress response?

Your body has two different protection systems, both of which are equally important for survival. One is the immune system, which protects you from threats that occur inside, such as bacteria and viruses. The second system mobilizes your defense against external threats via the HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary gland-Adrenal glands).

When the hypothalamus in your brain perceives a threat from the outside world, the HPA axis is activated by sending a signal to your pituitary gland, which in turn sends a signal to your adrenal glands, telling your body to activate the fight/flight/freeze response.

This stress response increases your pulse and redirects blood from the organs in your midriff to muscles in your arms and legs so that you can fight or flee from the perceived danger. Stress impacts other functions of your body as well: 

  • The immune system is worsened: external threats have higher priority compared to internal threats, which causes the stress response to put the immune system on the back burner.
  • Stress increases sugar cravings: the stress response requires a lot of ‘quick’ energy in the form of glucose (produced by the liver) and signals the brain a need for sugar, resulting in sugar cravings. As this is not an efficient source of energy (also see my blog about energy here), it causes a negative spiral of increased sugar cravings with decreased stamina.
  • Stress activates survival functions: in particular the sympathetic part (activating part) of the nervous system that prepares your body for increased activity and is active in the fight/flight response. The parasympathetic (calming) part influencing rest, recovery and the conserving of energy is being suppressed.
  • Stress causes tunnel vision and autopilot: if we in our daily lives operate primarily from sympathetic stimulation, we will tend to react in the same way, instinctively, to different situations. When these reactions are repeated, they eventually create profound habits. Stress becomes our habitual way of managing life’s events over time.

High stress over a long period of time means that the stress becomes chronic and it leads to diseases, injuries and low energy. At times of stress, you automatically begin breathing more. Chronic stress causes a poor breathing pattern to become permanent, and make it even harder to relax.

We simply need to upgrade our inherited stress response so that it is adapted to today’s society. Learn more about the close connection between breathing, stress and difficult emotions (in my other blogs and our program) and thereafter how you can upgrade your stress response and thereby calm down a racing mind.

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