We are stressed out beyond belief. In fact, there has never been a time when we were this stressed! And stress is killing us—literally. Science has proven that stress is the direct or indirect cause of more than 90% of today’s diseases. We usually blame external circumstances for how stressed we are: the economy, our parents, our boss, the corporate culture of our organization.
But I have some news for you:
- Our relationship to stress—how our body responds to demands from our environment—actually originates in the architecture of our nervous system, which begins to form approximately twenty-eight days after our father’s sperm fertilizes our mom’s egg!
- The plasticity of our brain, called neuroplasticity, means our brain can change based on experience. This offers an amazing opportunity to use our mind to change our brain to better manage any negative symptoms of stress we experience.
Stress almost killed me, and when it happened, it did not make any sense cognitively. At that point in my life, I had checked off most of the status quo expectations. I enjoyed financial security. I had a lovely family, a decent social life, an overall healthy lifestyle, and a career many would die for. Why was I so stressed out, and what was the discord that was making me sick? Like the good scientist that I am, I decided to get to the bottom of this, once and for all, and learn everything I could about this insidious obstacle to my health, happiness, and productivity, known as stress.
Stress is a state.
Stress is a physiological state, affecting biological functions like our heart rate. It is psychological, affecting our mental and emotional state. And stress is behavioral, because it drives our behavior. The state of stress is triggered by perceived or actual threats to our well-being and survival.
Stress includes all the things our body does to cope with an adverse or unexpected situation. Interestingly, all the changes our body makes to cope with an adverse situation (including arousal, autonomic, and neuroendocrine activation) will be the same whether we are mugged in a New York city back-street alley, or our boss tells us we have to stand up in front of a group and make a presentation and we are terrified of public speaking.
So, one of the best ways we can mitigate the negative effects of stress on our lives is by increasing our awareness as to why we respond to demands from the environment in ways that impede our health, happiness, and performance.
In the beginning there was one cell.
Vulnerability to over-activation of our stress response originates from predisposing factors that are the consequences of our genetic makeup and of the experiences we have had.
The structure, and hence, function of our brain and nervous system is in a constant flow of re-organization based on stimuli from the environment.
In the moment that a sperm meets an egg two cells called gametes, each containing half the genetic material of each parent, form one cell—a zygote.
The encoded information in the genes we inherited from our parents will be traits that will determine how we are predisposed to respond to things in life, like whether we get agitated in busy, loud places like the mall, or if we feel more anxious than the average person with novelty.
It is, of course, important to note that not all genes we inherit will be expressed, and we now know that genes actually have to become activated. How each cell functions depends on gene activation and expression. This is part of a whole new branch of science called epigenetics.
Additionally, beyond the genes we inherited from our parents, we begin to learn how safe the world is during the time in our mother’s womb by the way our mother returns to baseline after something worries or scares her. Our nervous system follows our mother’s nervous system in utero, establishing a blueprint of how resilient, or able to bounce back to our calm, balanced state we are going to be later on in our life. This will also play a role in how stressed out we will feel later by the ups and downs of life.
Who is to blame for our stress?
As it turns out, our early experiences greatly impact our development, from a biological as well as an emotional development perspective.
However, instead of choosing to blame someone for what took place in the past, we can let go of the past and leverage the ability of our brain to change based on experience, if we want to completely transform our relationship with stress today.
For example, shame forms the core of low self esteem, which is an outcome of not being responded to (or even worse, traumatized) in childhood. On the other hand, shame is based on an inaccurate belief, which is “I am not good enough.”
By redefining the terms of our life, we can identify many obstacles to optimal living regardless of how our nervous system was sculpted in our early development, and we can change the narrative of that story.
What we think, how we feel, how we behave, what matters to us—these are all outcomes of our nervous system’s functioning.
But we can reshape the functioning of our nervous system. “Where attention goes, neural connection grows.” Neurons are the basic cells of our immaculate nervous systems, and when they consume energy they strengthen the circuits of the brain in the areas where we direct our attention and focus.
We have the ability to be a scientist in our own life by paying attention to our mental activity. We can re-wire or induce structural changes of our brain so that it becomes a brain that will work with us and not against us.
You are a scientific marvel and more amazing than you ever realized!
The fact of how incredibly complex you are on the inside may not at first seem like a portal of potential relief from the incredible amount of stress we are living with today.
But the magical part of our brain is that it learns from what we attend to, so if we attend to the positive in our life, our brain constantly re-organizes itself and grows new circuits in brain regions that give us the most positive life experiences.
We have abundant research at our disposal that illuminates the path to building a healthier brain.
I am so excited to research, review, and share with you both the most profound and the most simple ways toward that outcome. You can join my community http://bit.ly/JoinMyndZen so you never miss a practice, a thought, or a tip.
In the meantime, I invite you to make a simple choice today—choose your thoughts wisely!