Breathe Away That Anxiety!
How does Chronic Stress affect you? Why is it that some people tend to be more resilient to the effects of stress? And how is that meditation, something so holistic and intangible, proves to be equally therapeutic as an anxiolytic drug?
It all begins in our amygdala: A collection of neurons in the medial temporal part of our brain that is centered around the sympathetic (flight or fight) responses of our body. It’s the center of Anxiety, Fear and “Stress”.
According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) published by the American Psychiatric Association, Disorders like PTSD and Generalized Anxiety Disorders have increased synaptic branches in the amygdala leading to increased responses to regular stressors. They also tend to have decreased synaptic branches in the pre-frontal cortex (center for higher thinking) thereby losing the logical and rational view of situations and decreasing the ability of coping with seemingly ordinary stressors.
But how do stressors affect people who don’t have a diagnosed PTSD? Well according to the General Adaptation Syndrome proposed by Hans Seyle, there are three documented stages that reflect our body’s response to chronic stress.
1. The Alarm stage: This stage lasts for a few minutes where your body faces a threat. Your heart rate rises, your respiration rate increases and you start to sweat. This is all due to the surge of the stress hormones, cortisol and Norepinephrine.
2. The Resistance stage: Now this is the make or break stage. This stage lasts from a few days, depending on the nature of the stressor, to a few months. In this stage, our body tries to cope up with the stress, it tries to come back to equilibrium and also tries to drown the stress hormones. Maybe it’s just your 10thclass boards, or maybe something more serious like a death in the family. It can also be a prolonged chronic sickness. But, how we all deal with these stressors and how strongly they impact us depends on genetic, environmental factors and most importantly on how we approach the stressors. I will get back to this in a second.
3. Exhaustion: If stress continues over a prolonged period, the body becomes exhausted. This is when High blood pressure, heart disease tends to develop. Body is no longer able to cope up with the stressors with the same resistance.
In Sociology, Thomas Theorem predicts that the individual’s response or reaction to a situation is based on the person’s interpretation of the situation. This fantastic revelation is arguably the basis for the highly effective Cognitive based Therapy (CBT), developed further by Dr. David Burns, which is used in the treatment of various mental disorders. So if we interpret the situation as something of an extreme stressor, our body will believe it to be disturbingly daunting, and react by activating the sympathetic stress response reaction. Now it’s a perfectly sane thing to do if a tiger is approaching you, but a low score on a Math test shouldn’t induce the same response. But Alas, our mind (amygdala) sometimes has a mind of its own. But this also answers a question, as to why some people tend to deal with stress in a more effective way. It’s probably simply because they don’t interpret it to be a truly petrifying thing.
But what if we are someone who doesn’t have that onerous control over our amygdala? What if anxiety and stress is something that crops up so often that we’ve started accepting it as part of our life? Well in that case, it’s time we train and tame that amygdala of ours. We can always refer to the exceedingly popular and exceptionally powerful CBT and self talk therapy but there’s something else that we can do too, in our own front porch.
Meditation. Pranayama. Yoga.
It’s so simple that it seems impossible. What happens when you breathe systematically and deeply, every now and then? What happens when you let every possible thought flow into your mind, without judging it, without critiquing it? You enter a state where you and your mind are at the most relaxed. You enter the Parasympathetic stage. And when your mind is relaxed, your body follows. Your heart rate slows down, your lungs extract more Oxygen and your muscles relax. This can only be a good thing.
But what’s extremely interesting is that it’s been proven that simply by deep and conscious, programmed breathing (Pranayama) your amygdala starts to become smaller in volume! You can basically alter the structure of your brain! Think about it, when you will be in a sustained parasympathetic state most of the times, your mind will have no choice but to raise the threshold for the stressors. In other words, your stressors will need to really man up to be able to get to you. And if the stressors won’t get to you easily, then the need for amygdala’s firing of hormones will decrease drastically too!
Lastly, chronic stress is unavoidable. We live in the 21st century, where the world is too complicated and we might not have control over everything. But what we can control, however, is the way we interpret situations and the way we elevate our minds to such a level of Parasympathetic bliss that every time we encounter a stressful affair, we power through it!
And we can reach that level, one deep breath at a time.
In the meantime, tell your friends!