Anyone living in the 80’s will vividly remember the commercials where an egg was cracked and then fried in a pool of bubbling butter while a caption read, “your brain on drugs”. I know I’m dating myself with my reminiscence of these commercials but they will forever be imprinted in my mind as the anti-drug campaign that they were meant to be.
As you watched the egg frying in the pan, it was easy to recognize it as a metaphor for what happens when you choose to allow a foreign chemical, like drugs, to enter your body. What we might not be aware of is that our bodies also have a chemical response, or reaction, to the stress we experience in our lives.
Our brains – and bodies – on stress react in a protective way because of the unfamiliar experience we are having, or becuase we are worried about being in danger. We have been conditioned over time to kick into survival mode any time we feel threatened. Although our threats used to be things that caused us real danger, now our threats are often deadlines at work, that last email that needs to be sent off, or the pressures we feel as parents, friends, and family members. Our threats, or stressors, have changed over time but the way that our bodies react has not.
After our stress response is triggered our sympathetic nervous system takes over and our body thinks it’s job is now to protect us from danger. Therefore all of your energy goes into saving your vital organs, like your heart and brain, and not your other (less important when faced with a life or death situation) organs like your immune or digestive system.
Have you ever noticed how you might get sick or catch a cold right after a stressful event?
Do you ever have stomach aches or digestive issues during or after you’ve experienced great stress?
That’s because you have been working so hard to stay afloat that only your vital organs are getting the love from your blood, oxygen, and energy. The other parts of your body, like your limbs, reproductive organs, and digestive system, are seeminly unimportant during this time of stress.
What happens then when we are under stress all-the-time (chronic stress)?
Usually our bodies will begin to tell us in subtle ways like nervousness, belly aches, shortness of breath, or other minor cues. If we don’t listen and continue to allow our brains and bodies to be overcome with stress, the cues will start to become not-so-subtle. You might begin to experience anxiety or panic attacks, auto-immune disease, insomnia, depression, and other distubrning ailments.
The best way thing you can do to counter your stress response and the triggering of your sympathetic nervous sytem (SNS) is to help your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) kick in. Our PNS is responsible for bringing our bodies back into balance. That balanced state is called homestasis and is where nature intended us to be most of the time (before chronic stress) so that our bodies could work properly.
One of the easiest ways to message our brains to send our bodies into the PNS state is through our Vagus Nerve. The Vagus Nerve runs from our abdomen to the brain stem and sends the message that we can enter into the “rest and digest” state, more officially known as the PNS. When we are in this state our bodies are no longer in survival mode and can operate efficiently and effectively. Our entire body receives nourishment, not just our vital organs, when we are in this place. That’s why our bodies heal best when we are resting and relaxing.
Our brains on stress impact our entire body. You can learn how to control the unwanted chemicals from being released in your body by training yourself to breath deeply. As you breath into your belly you tone the vagus nerve – the receptor that travels up to your brain stem and let’s your nervous system know that it’s time to relax. Breathing deeply into your belly is one of the best things you can do for your overall stress management, so that your brain on stress doesn’t end up looking a lot like your brain on drugs.