Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Stress ... Immune System ... Meditation ... Renewal.

As I make progress with Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence, the course I am taking through Coursera, I feel a renewed drive to continue meditating and to make concrete progress with quieting the noise of my mind and the physical stress disquiet results in.

There are some interesting things that happen in the body during stress. Some I have known for a while. Some I have developed a brand new appreciation and understanding of. We all know that stress is a life saving human reaction that releases epinephrine and norephinrine neurotransmitters. This vital chain of events is called the fight or flight response.

Today most of us are experiencing this fight or flight response chronically. Negative thoughts lead to negative physical responses in the body. There is even a term for it: allostatic load strain.

Courtesy of Wikipedia:
"The allostatic load is "the wear and tear on the body" which grows over time when the individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress.[1] It represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response that results from repeated or chronic stress.[2] The term was coined by McEwen and Stellar in 1993.[3]
It is used to explain how frequent activation of the body's stress response, essential for managing acute threats, can in fact damage the body in the long run. Allostatic load is generally measured through a composite index of indicators of cumulative strain on several organs and tissues, but especially on the cardiovascular system."
What's really happening in your body while your brain is running amok?

Your sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused and your body goes into a protective state. I think of Star Trek and a red alert here, flashing lights and blaring alarm sounding off. Three hormones/neurotransmitters are released from the endocrine system: epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Each has it's own little job to perform and unless you are trying to outrun a hippopotamus none of it will do a damn thing for you while you are sitting worrying about paying your rent or car payment, what he or she thinks of you, if you will look good enough in a bathing suit this summer, or if you are going to mess up your presentation in work.

Epinephrine pulls blood from capillaries, fingertips, nose, ears, and extremities and sends it to your larger arm muscles so you can fight. Norepinephrine does the same thing in the lower body and sends the blood to your larger leg muscles so you can take flight. Your brain now has less blood and closes all non-essential neural circuits. Cortisol suspends the immune system making us more susceptible to disease,  inhibits neurogenesis (the growth of new gray matter) and renders older neurons useless by over exciting them. These neurotransmitters are also vasoconstrictors which increase your blood pressure. Your pulse goes up too. Digestion slows down, peristalsis is decreased. Which makes sense because if all the blood is going to your arms and legs, how can you possibly digest food? No wonder so many people are chronically constipated.

Not an ideal environment for feeling healthy, experiencing rational thought or being open and receptive to other people or ideas. This is cranky city here.

I eat healthy, exercise diligently, pursue sleep with a gusto and take supplements. I have gotten sick several times this year and each time I have been completely befuddled. Stunned that it could even happen when I am so proactive about maintaining a healthy immune system. I have blamed it on my menstrual cycle which, due to an increase in cortisol production in the latter two weeks of the cycle, possibly does contribute. The real culprit though is my lack of chronic stress management. I had not associated stress with a suspended immune system until I began this course. Throw that stress switch on and turn your immune system off. That is what I am getting the picture of, finally.

While we cannot avoid stress completely and stimulating the sympathetic nervous system is a natural and protective result of it, we can learn to avoid our own participation in creating chronic stress. One big one that comes to mind for me is re-living an experience, refining it mentally, discussing it with others to gain support, worrying about the future and creating "what if's" about something that has not even happened. We have a lot of control should we choose to use it.

I now understand my thoughts result in a physical response, the body cannot separate what happens in the brain from reality. A thought is real to the body. So it isn't a situation per se that causes stress, it is my thoughts about it and my physical response to them. Since we cannot run from our thoughts or reactions, it may be a good time to consider ways to control them. Or, accepting that I cannot always control my thoughts, to cultivate ways in which to renew myself, ways to recover from the effects of stress.

One way to create a state of renewal is through meditation. During meditation the parasympathetic nervous system becomes engaged. Here we are calm, the immune system functions at peak performance. Neurotransmitters are released to lower blood pressure through vasodilation, your pulse lowers, breathing is easier, and the ideal environment for neurogenesis is created. Neurogenesis leads to learning new things. New gray matter, new connections. All it takes is 15-20 minutes three times a week. Every time we meditate we change the brain. It becomes easier with repetition, as do all things.

Driving was once a challenge, now I arrive at a destination without ever needing to consciously focus on the mechanics of driving. I want to get to that point with meditation. Practice, practice, practice.

Meditation is not the only way to renew yourself though. Yoga, tai-chi, praying to a benevolent God also have the effect of renewal. Showing compassion for others, being in a loving relationship, having a pet you can stroke, having hope for the future, experiencing joy and playfulness. Choose a method that suits you and pursue it. Your immune system will thank you for it!

-Nicola Byrne


  1. Nicola, you may be getting sick because you are exposed to so many different viruses at the gym. The air there must be almost as bad for you as the air on an airplane.

  2. I am working on my meditation efforts as I am easily distracted to say the least; however, I have now become aware of my 'fight or flight' moments and can more easily tackle the situations. Germs? Sure, they're there but I truly believe stress has more of a profound effect than any cootie can emit. Ohm....

  3. Mary, I think you have an iPhone? there is a great app. called Omvana and I have found a meditation on it (both the app. and the meditation are free) called Shift your Paradigm by Bob Proctor. I find I WANT to meditate now, that is a big change for me. Try it out! Omvana, Bob Proctor!
    Gayla, I truly believe that our immune system, when probably cared for as the important system it is, is at it's full potential, handles the germs we are exposed effortlessly. Due to many different things (lack of sleep, poor stress management, poor food choices, lack of fresh air, insufficient exercise) though our immune system does not function optimally and we end up succumbing to the germs we encounter.
    ... ohm ...

  4. That was supposed to read "when properly" not "probably" ... More coffee anyone?