October 4, 2013
The Dichotomy of Stress: Is It Your Fault?

Welcome to part 3 of this 5-part series on the brain and health. Let’s do a quick run through what we discussed in the past 2 weeks. In week one (is your brain an enemy or a friend), we spoke about the reward center and how levels of dopamine and serotonin affect your motivation to find food. We also spoke of how finding hyperpalatable (very tasty) foods create an intense feeling of reward and sets you up to want more.   The following week (your survival system needs a software update), we discussed your survival system and how it uses pain and reward signals to teach you what is bad and what is good for survival. But remember, this system evolved a very long time ago and we now live in a much different environment. Even though we live in the modern age, our brains will react to potential threats and rewards the same way it would have a millennia ago.

Today, we will be discussing stress: what it is, how we get it, how does it affect the body, and what can we do about it.

Stress is simply a pain signal. It is a signal that warns you about danger ahead, and that you need to do something to fix it. Not only does it give you this feeling of, “oh crap I have to do something about this,” it also motivates you to action and primes your body for battle. Let’s break this down into a specific order of events so we can address them one by one:

1. You perceive a threat.

2. Stress signals are sent through the brain and body to motivate you to action.

3. You take action and the perceived threat is gone.

When stress occurs, it is because you perceive a threat. It does not have to be a physical threat! The work stress you feel is not due to physical dangers, but your perception of the potential consequences of failing. That is stressful! We expect to be safe in our work and lives. As humans, we live on our expectations. We expect our house to be standing when we get home. We expect that we will have access to food, shelter, and the basic necessities of life. We expect that we will be safe. We expect, we expect, we expect. When an expectation is not met we experience pain, and we call that pain “stress!” If you expect that your house is going be where you left it, and then I tell you there was a fire that consumed some houses in your neighborhood, what would happen? I will be disturbing your expectation and you will get stressed. This new bit of info goes against your expectation of your house being there when you leave work. If you don’t have a house, where will you go? Will you be safe? Will you have food? Your brain perceives this as a threat to your survival and sends pain signals (in the form of anxiety) to move you to action. Then I tell you, “no, not today. That fire was years ago and they rebuilt all those homes.” Your expectation will be restored, and your stress will disappear.

The fact that stress is perception is a key point. This is the point you have control over. Stress comes from your own perception and assessment of your ability to handle the challenges / demands placed in front of you. There is no such thing as a universal stressor. Something that causes you a little stress may not cause any stress in another person, but may totally crush someone else. Why is this? Because stress is a perception: a perception of danger and a perception of your ability to handle it. Shall we look at a couple of examples?

Example one – your perception of your own ability: You are walking down the street at night with your friend or spouse. You hear a drunk and belligerent man coming up behind you. How do you feel?

… Ponder this for a moment… this situation surely violates your expectations…. Are you stressed?

Now, what if your friend or spouse was Chuck Norris? Now how stressed would you feel? I don’t know about you but I would feel just fine having a 10th degree black belt by my side. This is soon to be an unhappy drunk guy.


Example 2 – your perception of the situation: Imagine you are up at a ski lodge. You rented a cabin and are ready to go to bed. You hear some ruckus outside… someone or something is digging through your garbage cans. Thinking it is a raccoon you and your spouse (or friend) get up and go outside with a flashlight. You shine the light on the garbage can to find a gigantic Sasquatch eating your leftovers. Sasquatch!!! 

…. How stressed would you be? Not every day you run into Sasquatch….

What if your spouse or buddy stayed out for a bit longer after you ran inside to hide. They come back in and say, “that was a small black bear, not sasquatch, and it ran away as soon as it heard you scream.”

Would you feel relieved? The interesting thing here is the reaction that you (hypothetically) had. Even if it was a harmless black bear, you perceived it as Sasquatch and had an intense stress response. So, no matter what actually happened, your perception of what was happening dictated your response.

Let’s continue to how your body is prepped for action. When you feel stress (which is a sign of impending danger) your body starts prepping for action. The feeling of stress is initiated from a release of corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) in your hypothalamus. From there, the CRH stimulates your pituitary to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This then floats in the blood until it runs into the adrenal glands on your kidneys where it stimulates the production of cortisol. Also, when you feel stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is engaged. This means your blood pressure goes up, your blood is shunted from your digestive system to your muscles, and blood is rerouted from your prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) to your hindbrain (where the survival system is housed.) Stress hormones are not a bad thing. If you are in danger, they prep you for taking action to get out of danger! The purpose of these are to ready you for action. Your stress system is not meant to run on high gear all the time. Chronic stress leads to sickness, weight gain (due to increased eating), tissue breakdown, memory loss, and other bad things. Acute stress is awesome. Chronic stress is bad news! Now remember what causes stress in the first place: your perception of your ability to handle the demands placed upon you.

Let’s look at the third component: Action. When you get a painful feeling of stress, your body is saying, “Ahhh! If you continue on this path, you could die! Fix it! Do something to fix it!” So it preps you by changing your hormones to mobilize energy, and by moving blood to your muscles and survival-oriented brain structures. Then you need to act! If you run into a pack of zombies, your stress response will tell you to flee. Run the other way! If a zombie backs you into a corner, your stress response will tell you to fight! If your boss asks you to take on a project, you buck up and start acting (accomplishing tasks.) If your boss asks you to manage all the projects, and start a new company on the side, and then you need to pick up your kids from school so they aren’t left alone, and you need to go to the store so your family has food to eat, and your car needs gas because you are running on empty, and…… oh crap. Can you handle that? Now what do you do to fix it? If you think the above tasks are within your ability to manage then you might feel pressure or slight stress, but nothing crushing. If you feel like your plate is more than full and the pressure is ever-present and you are not sure if you can do it all… the stress may be too much. In the second case your body will still be prepped for action and searching for a way to relieve the stress! While we know that action is required to relieve the stress, our minds may find this overwhelming and search for a quick fix: food. Hyperpalatable food, at that.

When the stress response is engaged, your brain is motivating you with pain moving you towards action so you can regain your feeling of safety and feel better. Fix it, and you will feel better. Because foods that are sweet and fattening make us feel good, they provide a temporary relief from the pain of stress. When we should be TAKING ACTION to relieve our stress, we end up EATING to feel better. Eating is not a fix to our stress, but it feels like a fix. At least for the moment. This is why stress eating is bad news. It is a temporary mask for the real problem. And in the beginning it all comes down to how we feel we can manage the demands placed upon us. In a culture where stress is everywhere, so too is the coping mechanism of food. This is a perfect storm for weight gain and unhealthiness.

So why is stress our fault? Because we control our perceptions. Please don’t mistake this as being easy. Being able to control your mind takes practice. However, at the end of the day, the perceptions are on us.

Why is stress not our fault? You cannot control everything that happens to you. Sometimes, life will hand you a giant serving of crap. Even though our response to the said serving is within our control, our brains will recognize what is dangerous and threatening and will initiate the stress response. 

If you are stressed, you are in luck. Next week we will talk about a few major stress fighters and how we can use them to take control of our stress and manage it in a healthy manner!

Stay Mindful. 

Written by Clark Masterson

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