How many people do you know who feel that living with daily irritations, anger, frustration, low-grade anxiety, and even hopelessness is normal?
You’ve probably tried many approaches in the past to deal with your stress. Perhaps you felt you didn’t have the time to stick with them, or maybe you felt a temporary relief but the stress soon returned. Either way, you may have unwittingly resigned yourself to believing that in today’s world stress is a condition you just have to accept.
The correlation between stress and your emotional reactions is one of the real causes for this stress epidemic. Studies show you can significantly reduce and even prevent the stress you experience by understanding your emotions. Acknowledging and working with them rather than suppressing or denying them is key. And it involves some ground-breaking neuroscience.
Dr. Rollin McCraty, director of research for the Institute of HeartMath, says, “Ongoing low-grade stress can do more harm to the body [and] mind than one large stressful event . . . The body is responding more strongly to what the person really feels; the body registers even the subtler everyday irks and frustrations as stress.”
It’s important to understand that stress accumulates when we hold onto unsettled or negative feelings instead of resolving them. Often the more subtle everyday emotional reactions tend to go unnoticed while releasing small amounts of stress hormones that create the perfect environment for inflammation and disease. Experts say this accumulated stress eventually leads to our feelings of resignation, low-grade anxiety, and low-grade depression.
According to Dr Paul Grossman, Director of Research at the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine, in Switzerland’s University of Basel Hospital, 70% of Westerners aged just 55 years have one chronic illness such as High Blood Pressure, Diabetes or Arthritis. This increases to 90% of Westerners at age 65 having one chronic illness, while a staggering 70% suffer from two chronic illnesses.
It doesn’t have to be this way!
Stress As Habit
Your brain is designed to form habits and make it easier to perform tasks without you having to think much about them. Each time you repeat a habit, whether it be an attitude, a behaviour, or a repetitive task like driving a car, it becomes more reinforced and automatic. The same is true with stress.
For instance, if as a child, you were bitten by a dog you may find yourself feeling hesitant or anxious every time you are around dogs. If you have experienced a certain colleague or boss treating you with disrespect, then each time you have contact with that person, a feeling of dislike gets triggered and you experience not just the original feelings of distrust and uncertainty, but all the accumulated stress as well. The very sight of that person or just the mention of their name may trigger emotional discomfort.
This is due to a very important cognitive function of the brain called associative memory. Our brain tracks all our experiences from the moment of birth, and in particular our interpretations and emotional reactions to them, recording them as memories.
The brain is a brilliant pattern-matcher. When we face a challenge or uncertainty, our brain instantly accesses our associative memories to determine if and how we dealt with such a situation in the pat. These associative memories unconsciously influence how we react each and every time we face similar situations, keeping us repeatedly reacting (and feeling) the same way.
These repeated reactions become automatic and habitual, often occurring unconsciously and creating an undercurrent of chronic stress within the body. We become resigned to this harmful undercurrent because we haven’t been taught how, or even that we can, change it.
Stress Impacts Thinking
If we continue to add to those memories, we make our emotional reactions ever stronger with new frustrations, hurts and resentments, real or imagined. Learning to disrupt old thought patterns and behaviours using the brain’s own neuroplasticity, and reframing memories breaks these habits and frees us of the continuous, damaging under-current of accumulated stress.
Whether you feel frustration or irritation triggered by a relative or co-worker, or low-grade anxiety triggered by current news events, research shows that stress significantly restricts access to the prefrontal cortex where executive-type functions occur. We can’t think as clearly or as creatively and we have a harder time making decisions and planning strategies.
Becoming more aware of your subtle, everyday stressors while actively engaging proven tools and techniques that foster positive emotions and form new associative memories, is the only way to release stress and reclaim your vitality and power.