Settling Your Mind's Response to Stress

This time of year can be a lot to handle. It is often a time when our slower pace of summer fades away, we often have additional commitments and obligations and for many of us that can mean more stress.

What if I told you that you can influence how your mind and body perceives these possible stressors?

Situations themselves are inherently stressful, it’s how we perceive the situation. We have the ability to positively impact how our brain assesses possible stressful situations, which in turn influences whether or not our body’s stress response is turned on.

It all starts with our amygdala, which is the part of a brain that is constantly scanning our surroundings to identify potential threats, whether it be a physical or emotional threat. It is a very reactive, primitive part of our brain. When your amygdala is triggered, our stress response is automatically turned on, and information on the identified threat is sent to our prefrontal cortex to better assess the situation. The prefrontal cortex is a much less responsive, more rational part of our brain that assesses the situation to see if the threat is something to be truly concerned about. The prefrontal cortex can override the amygdala’s decision and shut down our stress response.

Our brain is going through this process constantly and we likely aren’t even aware of it. We experience countless mini-stressors throughout the day that set off the amygdala alarm. Whether it is your alarm clock going off in the morning, alerts popping up on your phone, walking past someone with a less than friendly face, talking to someone with a grumpy tone in their voice, scrolling through social media or watching the news, the possible threats to our amygdala are endless.

Not surprisingly, the more stressors we experience, the more overactive our amygdala will be. This creates a vicious cycle, the more hectic our lifestyles are, the more over reactive our brain will be, identifying more and more possible threats, sending our body into a state of stress.

Thankfully there are things we can do to calm this amygdala down so we are no longer in this hyper alert state where we are constantly setting off unnecessary alarms. There are a few simple strategies you can incorporate into your day to day to improve the way your brain responds to your environment and settle your stress response.

Practise Meditation and Mindfulness Based Activities. Meditation and other mindfulness based activities have been shown to have a huge impact on the amygdala. After 8 weeks of consistent practice, the amygdala has not only been shown to shrink, but also to be less active. In addition to this, research has shown that other meditation and mindfulness activities slow the response of the amygdala, allowing our more rational prefrontal cortex to assess the situation better.

Activate Your Vagus Nerve. Your vagus nerve, which runs from your brain stem to your stomach, is responsible for turning on and off our stress response. Our stress response can be turned off by activating our vagus nerve and our vagus nerve can be activated through our vocal chords, since the vagus nerve runs alongside our vocal chords. It might sound complicated, but it is as simple as singing, humming, laughing or gargling to produce the vibrations needed to activate the vagus nerve. There is not much research around the amount of time needed to achieve the desired outcome, but 2-3 minutes is a good start.

Do Some Deep Breathing. Similar to activating our vagus nerve, deep breathing is a powerful way of moderating our stress response. Deep breathing can be particularly effective at turning off our stress response when you hold your breath between the inhale and exhale and when you have a longer exhale than inhale. A good technique to try is 3-4-5 breathing where you inhale for 3 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and exhale for 5 seconds.

Try to incorporate these techniques into your day to day, especially when you are feeling a little tense and on edge and see how your mind takes on a more calm, less reactive state.

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