The stress response starts in the brain. When the brain detects a threat – whether real or imagined – the hypothalamus, amygdala and pituitary glands go on alert. They exchange information and then send signaling hormones and nerve impulses to the rest of the body to prepare to respond to this thread. This is often referred to as the flight or fight response. It’s a natural and necessary survival response of the involuntary sympathetic nervous system.
The problem is, the brain cannot distinguish between a “real” threat (someone chasing us with a machine gun!) and a thought that we create or perception we may have about a situation in our lives (“I just know I’m going to fail that test!”)
The body then unleashes a flood of hormones. The adrenal glands react to the alert by releasing adrenaline; adrenaline causes the heart to pump faster and the lungs to work harder so as to deliver more oxygen to the brain and body. The adrenal glands also release extra cortisol and other glucocorticoids, which help the body convert sugars into the extra energy needed to respond to the threat. Nerve cells release norepinephrine, which tenses muscles and sharpens the senses to prepare for action. The eyes dilate, hearing becomes more acute, even the sense of taste and smell increase; all to take in more information regarding this impending and/or perceived threat. Functions considered unnecessary for immediate survival, such as digestion, fighting infections and even feeding an incubating fetus, are all put on hold in order to rally forces to deal with the situation at hand.
When the threat passes, epinephrine and norepinephrine levels drop. If the occurrence of (real or perceived) danger presents too often, continued high levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine damage the arteries, which can lead to a host of health problems. Chronic low-level stress – a condition that many North Americans live in – keeps the glucocorticoids in circulation, leading to a weakened immune system, loss of bone mass, suppression of the reproductive system and problems with memory retention. The statement that stress kills is not too far off.
There’s nothing wrong with this fight-or-flight response; in fact we are hard-wired to have it jump into action when needed. But annoyance with the subway or traffic is not the place. If you want to undo or reduce the effects of perceived and/or thought-induced stress, call on the parasympathetic state to induce the rest and repair state. Stay calm. Relax. Your life depends on it.
Relaxation is the basis of health. There are many ways in which to teach your nervous system to respond to unwanted situations with calm. Reflexology, of course, is one. It naturally shifts the autonomic nervous system from the sympathetic (flight or fight) to the parasympathetic state (rest and repair). The experience of receiving reflexology allows you to feel yourself in a relaxed state; without that experience, it is impossible to induce it yourself at will.
What do you do on a regular basis to teach your brain and body to function from a basis of relaxation?