The mention of the word 'Stress' itself spouts out feelings of pressure, tension, strain, etc. However, as per the Hungarian Scientist Hans Seyle, the first person to recognise the results of Chronic Stress– “Stress itself is neither good nor bad; it is simply challenging.” He believed that without stress, life would be so unexciting, a monotonous routine of the same things over and over again. He has written a book on how to enjoy stress. Yes, you read it right– Enjoy Stress!!
On the contrary, what happens with us? Due to stress, we suffer badly at both– the physical and psychological dimensions. How? Throw a glance at some of the symptoms listed below and see if you are able to correlate with them…
1. You feel tired when you wake up in the morning even if you've taken a good night's sleep
2. You have difficulty sinking into sleep and subsequently staying asleep
3. You feel both stimulated and drained
4. If you have to sit and wait for some time maybe in a doctor's clinic– you immediately feel debilitated
5. You have an inclination to gain weight around your waistline. You are losing muscle mass and gaining fat. You can't tolerate exercise much. You feel unhealthy most of the time
6. You frequently feel exhausted; your blood pressure is often low or oscillates between high and low
7. You often have headaches; you retain water; have under-eye dark circles
8. You need constant supply of coffee/tea and starchy or high salty snacks
1. You are easily offended
2. You are habituated to road rage; make a fuss at the least thing
3. You feel dull and depressed
4. You often have nightmares. You sometimes have an intense longing to cry
5. You find it difficult to concentrate
In the present day world, the word 'Stress' has taken on such negative meaning. However, from the body's point of view it only implies a demand requiring extra energy to be fulfilled. Like running is a minor stressor as compared to walking as it requires some more effort.
As a matter of fact, the response to stress was never meant to be a lasting, imperishable state. Our body is designed to acknowledge and respond promptly to challenges and then to calm down or unwind. We have two complementary divisions of our autonomic nervous system– the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system's essential job is to stir up the body's fight or flight response. Through various glands and organs, including the adrenals, it stimulates our heart beat, pumping the blood forcefully, causing the blood pressure to rise and subsequently leading to faster breathing. All these effects are designed to assist us deal with any challenging situation.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system causes the body to 'rest and digest'. It causes our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing to calm down. It also supports the digestive and immune systems, so that our bodies are in prime conditions next time life tosses up a challenge.
Our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are designed to run in tandem. If you feel too stimulated, drained and stimulated, or just exhausted, it's enough of an indication that you're consuming too much time in challenge meeting 'sympathetic' mode, not allowing enough time for 'parasympathetic' restoration.
In earlier times people worked hard during the day but incorporated time for meals, prayers, etc. As a result, at night, the parasympathetic nervous system had the opportunity to take charge. But today life seems to be more like a 24 hours emergency. Meetings, home, kids, neighbours, assignments, traffic, etc. etc. …non-stop work…non-stop tensions!
When stress becomes chronic, there is no relaxed state. The stress hormones always stay in your system and keep telling your body parts to act as if there is an exigency or urgency. After all, if you are going to fight or flee, you don't have leisure time to stop and eat. Hence digestion takes a back seat than getting blood to the muscles, your stomach under stress has a harder time contracting and emptying, leading you to feel bloated. Your colon, by contrast, swiftly empties itself– no use of carrying that extra waste during a fight or flight. So, nutrients and water aren't absorbed very well, and the over activity by the colon causes your bowel to become inflated. This might lead to diarrhoea. Again, these were OK if temporary. But if stress continues, your body begins to protest. The balance between the sympathetic nervous system and the relaxing parasympathetic nervous system is disrupted, and this leads to bowel dysfunction, diabetes, blood pressure problems, exhaustion, colds, flu, infections, etc. The list seems to be unending...
But Hans Seyle feels stress can be enjoyed. By enjoying, he basically means having courage and wit to meet the special demands of a situation. Rising to the occasion is an essential part of what makes life fulfilling and enthralling. For stress to feel like an enlivening challenge instead of crippling drain, the solution lies in BALANCE, i.e. to allow our parasympathetic nervous system to rejuvenate us. How can this be done? Let's see.
Since stress begins in the brain, scientists started experiments in psychotherapy. But when they observed that results were not long lasting and the relapse rate was high, a new wing of therapeutic approach called transpersonal psychotherapy got appended to the science of psychotherapy. This is also called psycho-spiritual discipline. Generally speaking, 'trans' is a Latin prefix that means 'beyond'. The word 'personal' is derived from 'persona', having the Latin root related to theatrical mask. Thus 'transpersonal' implies 'going beyond masks', implying surpassing individuality. The strategy followed by transpersonal psychotherapists is the blend of psychology and spirituality by utilising the gateway of meditation. Hence experiments on meditation were done. It was found that meditation increases cerebral cortex thickness, increasing the amount of grey matter in key areas of our brain related to how we perceive the outside world.
In a study by Harvard affiliated researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital, 16 subjects meditated for 8 weeks. Their MRI scans indicated increased grey matter density in the hippocampus, a cortex part essentially known for learning, memory, emotion regulation, and heightened self-awareness. In fact, in this study and another one by Boston University, it has been found that meditation leads to decrease in the activation of the amygdalas, which are blameable for anxiety and our impulsive response to stressful events and negative thoughts.
In the Health section of Time magazine, an article by Laura Schwecher– 'Can Meditation Make You Smarter?' was published. It mentions that meditation enhances cortical folding. This leads to the speedy processing of information, better decision making, better memory forming, and improved attention.
Hence with a more active cerebral cortex and reduced activity of the amygdalas, we take decisions rationally…pushing the button of the sympathetic nervous system only when needed, i.e. in real emergencies.