Stress: two systems between mind and body
Updated: Jan 17, 2020
Have you ever felt, during the challenges of your daily life, those little unpleasant sensations, like having cold and sweaty hands just when you are about to meet the general manager? Or the heart beating so hard to confuse your thoughts, before an important speech during a meeting? Or the cracking voice during a public conference?
Well, if this happened to you it means that you are human, that you having a stress response and that your body works as it was programmed to do.
Because these "unpleasant" sensations are nothing more than the sign of the activation of a system of our body, which allowed us, as a human race, to survive.
It is the Sympathetic Autonomous Nervous System.
This system is programmed to activate when we perceive a threat and its activation, which modulates part of our "stress response", is evolutionarily programmed to put our body in the conditions to fight or flight, the only valid options when we are facing a threat to our survival.
The pupils widen, to allow us to better visualize the field and identify the escape routes, sweat increases to lower the temperature and better withstand the effort, the heart beats faster to pump blood to the muscles, which in turn tend to facilitate twitch.
The stomach and intestines freeze and try to "discharge" as much as possible to facilitate escape, the muscles of the throat tighten to emit shrill and inarticulate sounds that can go as far as possible, we are less lucid because the blood is concentrated in the muscles and not in the brain as during an alarm you have to run away and get to safety, you’ll take later the time to think and analyze.
This activation is scheduled to be short-term. To light up, take us to safety and turn off. It was originally like that.
In the "flat" life of a Homo Neanderthalensis (or even of any mammal), the threats were relatively few, external, clearly visible, and well-matched with a burst of activation that, once the danger avoided, would have been switched off.
Thanks to the activation of another system, mirroring the first one, which touches and wraps the same organs and functions.
The Parasympathetic Autonomous Nervous System.
This other system is the one that, when activated, allows our body to slow down, digest, be "tender" and friendly.
When activated, the pupils tighten, to allow you to look better and more deeply at those around you, the heart slows down because it has to pump only the blood necessary for regular physiological processes, the stomach and intestines take time to digest, the muscles relax because there is no need to be ready to twitch, the throat loosens, to modulate low and sweet sounds, the blood reaches the brain and with this exchanges oxygen, allowing us to think in the long term, interpret, to design.
These two systems, when at their full capacity, engage in an “activation dance” of one and then of the other, in a magical dynamic balance which translates into "feeling good".
So, if this is the original plan, what is it that is jamming the mechanism and causing us discomfort, making us feel stressed?
The answer lies in the absence of this "dance".
In our daily lives, the stimuli that we perceive as threatening have increased exponentially.
The external ones come and upset our day: a dispute with the boss, an email that arrives just before dinner, the ATM that withdraws the card during withdrawal and the toll-free number that is not active.
But far more central are the reactions we have in front of these stimuli.
Negative thoughts that slip in at all times, especially when we are under pressure and we have a goal to achieve, images that come up again, concerns about the consequences of our actions and those of others, feelings of guilt, sense of duty, frustration, anger, helplessness.
A flock of predators that attack us continuously, without giving us time to rest, to feel safe.
This pushes our body to stay in a defensive position and, in turn, this is read by our brain as proof of the tangible presence of the threat which, coming from within, is impossible to fight and escape.
And here starts the circle.
It is precisely this circle the part of the stress that makes us feel bad, that drains our energies and makes us feel empty.
The most important journey that we can undertake, is the one that will allow us to interrupt this circle, bringing stress back to its original role: keeping us alive, preparing for action, giving us the right push to better achieve the goals we have set.