The Science of Stress

Stress. Ah yes, what you may feel when you perceive that you’re in some form of danger or when you lose your cell phone for the umpteenth time. But, have you ever thought about the stress that is activated within your body when you first wake up and start going through your to-do list or the butterflies that suddenly set up shop in your stomach when you interact with a co-worker that doesn’t respect you?

Your brain cannot differentiate between real and imagined stress, and as such, once it hits you a host of things start to take over your body such as: an elevated heart rate, elevated blood pressure, adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol is released and your digestion shuts down. Granted, if you’re running from a lion, the above would definitely make sense to ensure you have a greater chance of surviving, but what about if you’re merely just navigating day-to-day activities? You’re able to see the negative effect this can have on both your mind and body.

It helps to understand the basic functions of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). I by no means want you to think this is a science class; however, you’d be amazed at how much of a role our internal make up can affect and impact our external responses.

Key things to note:

  • The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is responsible for turning on stress, shutting off digestion and even causes emotional impairment. This creates a host of negative effects on the body as pointed out above.
  • The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is responsible for turning off stress, turning digestion on and stimulating the vagus nerve which leads one to feel warmer, happier and allows the immune system to operate at its full potential.

Which are you looking to activate? Of course, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) would be the choice. Yet, life presents a host of challenges that can make this difficult, and once you start to factor in the stresses that come within the workplace, it can seem almost impossible to avoid.

I encourage you to reflect on the above further and begin to notice when you are activating either the SNS or the PNS. Take inventory of how you’re feeling, what’s causing or creating your reactions or emotions to take form and what drives you back to a positive, calming place. A few suggestions to help you reduce stress once you’re already in activation mode:

  • Practice mindfulness – this starts with first recognizing what you may be thinking or feeling
    • Other mindful activities include: Yoga, light physical exercise (think walking) or meditation.
  • Have fun! – yes, playfulness is a great way to get you back into a positive space.

These simple tips can be practiced wherever you are and puts you one step closer towards understanding and managing stress.