Look the two words up and note that their definitions utilize no physiological underpinnings in their descriptions. Yet they are both based in the body.
Approaching stress and anxiety without a physiological understanding would be like trying to drive a car without understanding how the car requires gas and oil - good luck!
But that's what's currently happening. And instead of understanding how our nervous system works we're medicating the shit out of it.
Since stress and anxiety are a universal human experience isn't it time we came to understand their physiological properties so we can navigate them and live in peace?
That's what this guide is for. To change the way you look at stress, how you react to your body’s stress signals, and ultimately turn stress into an asset.
Stress is neither good nor bad. It is a signal from your body to alert you that something needs your attention, a message from your nervous system to make some adjustments to get you to a better place.
Your body is an incredibly sophisticated machine that evolved over thousands of years and continues to evolve, with the goal of keeping you alive and thriving.
Please note that the other 90% of the brain is in the body...
If thoughts are the language of the mind, feelings are the language of the body. When you understand your body’s signals, you will be able to improve your well-being and find the right balance in your body. Rather than get stressed-out, let’s get stressed-in to being more connected to how we are truly feeling.
As a starting point to decoding stress, it helps to understand the neurophysiology that can influence stress in the body.
1. Hydration 2. Fatigue 3. Thoughts (negative/positive affect) 4. Overstimulation 5. Poor nutrition 6. Too much sugar or caffeine 7. Emotional trauma 8. Environment (internal and external)
Being properly hydrated is essential to the most basic functions of being a human, including cognitive functioning. This is because water is essential to the proper functioning of neurons. A dehydrated nervous system will not be able to send signals effectively throughout the body as the electrical currents are disrupted and signals cannot make it to their destinations.
Studies have shown that even mild dehydration can “induce adverse changes in vigilance and working memory” and lead to increased levels of “tension, anxiety, and fatigue.”1 Another showed dehydration leads to “decreases of cortical thickness and volumes of the whole brain, cortex, white matter, and hypothalamus/thalamus.”2
The Sensie stress meter, in our clinical trials, has shown that users who were in a stressed state could move to a state of no stress simply by hydrating their body, controlling for other factors.
When you are dehydrated, your brain literally shrinks and your nerves cannot communicate with each other as well. Think about it, your body is thirsty and it is yelling for help, in the form of stress. So go ahead and fill up that water bottle, your brain and body will thank you. (Takes long, a contemplative sip of water... I got you body)
We all know what’s it like when we don’t get enough sleep, we are not much fun to be around. Lack of sleep leads to irritability, tiredness, and slower brain functioning, all signs of stress from our body. This is because your brain uses sleep as a time to flush out the toxins and waste that it produces throughout the day.3 One of these toxins is amyloid-beta, a peptide that causes plaque buildup and has been linked to Alzheimer's disease.
Your brain consumes more energy by weight than any other organ in your body it also generates a lot of waste. Without the ability to clean the built-up waste during sleep, your brain accumulates plaque-like build ups that negatively affect its proper functioning.
Fatigue also hurts your work. A 2016 study by the RAND research group estimated that between lost work and poor performance due to lack of sleep, the U.S. alone loses $411 billion each year in productivity.4
The same report also showed that a person who sleeps on average less than six hours per night has a ten per cent higher mortality risk than someone sleeping between seven and nine hours.5 Yes, getting more sleep helps you live longer.
Fatigue also harms your ability to pick up on complex social cues,6 so getting enough sleep might just help you advance in your social life and career.
How much sleep is right for you? A good test is to take a few days, or a few weeks if you can, and allow yourself to fall asleep and wake up based on your natural rhythm, without the use of an alarm clock. Disconnect from electronics a couple hours before you get tired, reduce exposure to digital screens and artificial light, and maybe even, wait for it... turn off your cell phone. This will create the space your body needs to naturally wind down for sleeping and allow your body’s alert system to function effectively and help manage your levels of stress.
Your thoughts affect your body and your body affects your thoughts. This is what is commonly referred to as the Mind-Body connection. Your mood and feelings are constantly looking to your body for input and vis-versa.
If your mind is sending signals to your muscles that everything is great and there are no dangers, then your body will relax. However, persistent and prolonged negative thoughts and emotional distress result in muscle tension, even if you are not doing any actual work with your body. When you are in a distressed state you are sending signals to your muscles to contract. Long durations of this stress-related tension can slowly deteriorate the structure of the muscle tissue.
This is all a result of what is called the “gamma loop” which comprises alpha and gamma motor neurons, sensory neurons, muscle spindles, and skeletal muscle and regulates the level of tension in our muscles a process initiated by your thoughts.
Thoughts and related psychological stress (your fight or flight reaction) can also affect levels of dopamine, cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, which help prepare the body to deal with perceived danger, but chronic elevations in these bodily chemicals can suppresses the immune system and lead to illness.7
Your thoughts can be very powerful indeed and getting control over them can take a lifetime of practice through mindfulness and meditation. But as a first step, just be aware of the thoughts you are having when you feel stressed. Does actively changing these thoughts to focus on joy and love change the way your body feels? Try it out.
Overstimulation is a common problem in the “attention economy” most of us find ourselves living and working in. Our attention and focus is pulled across a range of platforms and devices. While our digital devices certainly enable us to be more productive than we otherwise would be, there is a downside to spending too much time looking at a screen. This is because visual inputs have a direct effect on our body’s hardwiring in the limbic system which controls your mood and thus can initiate states of fear and anxiety.8 If you see visuals of situations that induce fear or resemble a perceived threat, your body will react automatically with a stress response. Your body does not differentiate between screens and real life.
Studies have shown links between the increased use of digital media at night and difficulty sleeping, resulting in depression symptoms.9 There has also been evidence that children who had two hours a day of screen time or more got lower scores on thinking and language tests.10
We are not telling you to throw away your phone and computer, but it is useful to be intentional about how much time you are spending on screen and how much of this is occurring in the hours leading up to sleep.
Without constant stimulation we may end up feeling “bored” but this space of stillness is what allows creativity and imagination to rise up from your subconscious, which might ultimately make you much more productive.
“You are what you eat.” “Garbage in, garbage out.” These phrases are an oversimplification of things but there is truth in them. Your body is an incredibly complex machine with thousands of processes happening all of the time. These processes, especially those happening in your brain and nervous system, require certain proteins, vitamins, and minerals to be carried out and if your diet is not supplying your body with these nutrients, you will feel it.
Without the right diet, your body will not be able to perform all of its proper functions because it does not have all the ingredients to carry out the chemical processes. This lack of supplies what causes the stress response.
Research has shown that a nutritious diet has stress-reducing benefits that improve brain functioning, assist immune functioning, and remove toxins from the body. Some specific nutrients including complex carbohydrates, proteins (tryptophan, phenylalanine and tyrosine, theanine) Vitamin C, Vitamin B, and Magnesium help the body manage stress by reducing the chemicals that activate fight and flight response.11
Another study showed that nutrients taken in through whole foods and dietary supplements can reduce the consequences of neural damage and help counteract neurologic and cognitive disorders.12
Stress signals will be generated by your body as a call for you to eat more nutrients, (think leafy greens, fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants and vitamins) and to limit the amount of processed foods and sugars you are consuming. Next time you reach for that candy bar, think about how it will really make you feel.
Too much sugar or caffeine
Sugar, in the form of glucose, is the primary energy source for your brain. However, too much sugar can cause a sugar “high” and subsequent crash and this roller-coaster effect can lead you to feel depleted and cause your body to generate stress signals. Studies have shown that excess glucose consumption can lead to memory and cognitive deficiencies13 and can impair memory by inflaming certain parts of the brain and nervous system.14
Caffeine has a similar effect by stimulating your nervous system and increasing your heart rate, which can disrupt your body’s circadian rhythms and sleep patterns and lead to stress responses. Studies have shown that caffeine increases energy metabolism throughout the brain but decreases cerebral blood flow while activating noradrenaline neurons and has been shown to affect the local release of dopamine.15 With all this chemical activity that gets initiated, it is easy to see how too much caffeine can throw off your neurological balance and disturb the body’s stress management functions.
Sugar and caffeine affect your stress levels because they overstimulate your body and work against some of the natural processes that your body uses to regulate its homeostasis, so keeping intake in check can help you maintain inner-balance.
These two substances are incredibly tough to give up from your diet, we hear ya, especially if you have a daily habit of consuming them. So start slow, cut back on a few cups of coffee a week and limit the amount of processed or refined sugars you eat. If you want something sweet, go for natural sugars. If you need some energy, take a walk outside or a quick power nap. Your body will thank you.
Trauma in Greek means “wound” and emotional wounds that are not dealt with properly can cause persistent stress and depression by pushing the nervous system beyond its ability to self-regulate. Your body cannot tell the difference between physical danger and emotional trauma, which means you go through the same fight or flight response to stimuli, regardless of whether it is emotional or physical.16
Traumatized people basically feel unsafe in their bodies. As Bessel A. van der Kolk points out “the past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort” and “in an attempt to control these processes, a person often becomes an expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside.”17
Emotional trauma is also associated with long-term physical health problems, with studies showing trauma survivors are about three times more likely to deal with irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome.18
The stress you are feeling from this emotional trauma is a signal to you to search within yourself to find where emotional disturbances and trauma lie. Find a place where you feel safe, maybe with a person you truly trust and ask your body what it is trying to tell you.
Sensie along with the HeartSpeak program seeks to detect, identify, and address these types of traumas. And of course, if you are feeling severe stress as a result of emotional trauma, please seek the help of a licensed therapist for more focused attention.
Environment (Internal and External)
Your environment has a big impact on your body. The way your body detects your physical position and movement in the environment is called “proprioception,” which is dependent on the proper functioning of sensory neurons located within muscles, tendons, and joints.
The way your body monitors your internal state is called “interoception” which can be both conscious and non-conscious and enables you to feel what's going on inside your body, such as know if you are hot, cold, hungry, and thirsty. So if your interoception is impeded by stress, you will have a difficult time self-regulating and knowing when to eat, sleep, cool down, etc.
Keeping tabs on the first seven items listed above will help your internal and external perception of your environment remain clear. When things get out of balance your neurons sensing your environment may send inaccurate signals and cause undue stress.
Stressed or anxious? Take a deep breath on a count of 5 and exhale nice and slow on a count of 10. A breath pattern where the exhale is twice as long as the inhale will activate your parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the relaxation response of the body). While dampening the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight/stress response).
Breath is a powerful way to shift your state immediately.
If there is a pattern in your life where stress, irritability, frustration, pain, or stuckness is occurring and you'd like to shift the pattern for good our emotional clearing programs are designed to shift those patterns in as short as 10-15mins.
Interested in learning more? Drop Mike a note: Mike@sensieapp.com
1 Ganio, M., Armstrong, L., Casa, D., McDermott, B., Lee, E., Yamamoto, L., . . . Lieberman, H. (2011). Mild dehydration impairs cognitive performance and mood of men. British Journal of Nutrition, 106(10), 1535-1543. doi:10.1017/S0007114511002005
2 Biller A, Reuter M, Patenaude B, et al. Responses of the Human Brain to Mild Dehydration and Rehydration Explored In Vivo by 1H-MR Imaging and Spectroscopy. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2015;36(12):2277–2284. doi:10.3174/ajnr.A4508