The Power in the way we Think

Posts tagged ‘cortisol’

Celebrating Stress

Celebrations and stress are not usually words we see together. However today they are. Because today, we made it!

It is officially November 30, 2014. Which means that this is the final day of the NaBloPoMo challenge, and our series on stress.

And the National Blog Posting Month has definitely been a challenge! Probably not in the way most people would think, though. I had no trouble at all coming up with the post ideas and writing the material. Stress is such a huge topic that we could easily go for another month without too much trouble!

Instead, the challenge for me was finding the time to get it all done with the other responsibilities in my life. But I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to do it. The experience has stretched me to think about some things (including my own stress) in a different way.

It has drawn lots of new readers to our small corner of the internet and as they share their stories I find my passion for The Mindset Effect renewed. It’s people like you guys who keep me doing what I do. I love sharing my knowledge with the aim of supporting all of you to make positive, healthy changes in your life. At the end of this post, as a special something for all of you who have stuck with me throughout the month, I have a very special treat. I won’t tell you what it is right now (and no cheating by scrolling!); it will be waiting for you when you get to the end. 🙂

After such an intense month and 29 different articles on stress, I’d like to revisit some of the main concepts and bring it all together for you. I know that sometimes receiving so much information can be a little overwhelming and difficult to understand. So let’s see what we can do …

managing stress

We began the month with a few simple definitions of the different types of stress before we discussed the pretty grim impacts it has on our mind, body and emotions. With any type of force, strain or pressure, and the possibility of conditions such as weight gain, heart issues, diabetes and blood pressure, it becomes really important to be aware of your stress and to learn to manage it effectively.

I believe it’s equally important to understand how stress works. If you understand it, you’ll be armed with heaps of knowledge that supports you to implement the simple management strategies that we know really work. You’ll have the science behind why you do things like reach for the chocolate bar, cry for seemingly no reason or snap at your partner. And you’ll also have the reasons behind why you feel some pretty mean neck and shoulder tension or why you crash at the end of the day or week and can’t bring yourself to even get out of the chair.

The neurobiology behind stress is extremely complex. I won’t go into that here but you can go back and read any of those earlier posts on the Triune brain, trauma, hormones and the amygdala. Between them, they explain the workings of our inbuilt survival mechanism and why many of our reactions occur.

The stress response, or our fight/flight mechanism, is activated easily and frequently by all manner of life events, from watching someone you love draw their last breath, to dealing with screaming kids or seeing the bills pile up when you have a limited income. And with the buildup of hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, managing the fallout from these events becomes even more important.

Children are also impacted by stress in the same way we are, but their experience is different due to the development of their brains being incomplete. They need guidance in some of the same simple techniques we use.

Probably the most important and effective management strategy is the use of breathing. My friend and colleague, Linda, did a great job of explaining how to utilise belly breathing to down-regulate the stress response.

We’ve also explored sleep, movement, food and laughter and how these are all related to or impact our stress. And we learned how simple routines and small changes can make a big difference in the way we experience it.

With such a complex system and so many things feeding into the impacts we feel, it’s important that we are able to break it all down into bite size pieces and make the way we manage stress work for us in our day to day life. Learning to listen to our mind and body and understanding the meaning of the signals they give out, means we can become more aware of how we respond to stress and this assists us to figure out how to manage it.

As a special treat to you all for your support this past month I would like to provide you with a bonus. I know from first-hand experience that listening to those stress signals is not always easy. In fact, it can be a downright nightmare! Especially given how chaotic our minds can be when we are in the midst of it all. So I would like to provide for you an audio file with 2 of the simple techniques we have discussed previously. This is called guided imagery. I’ll first take you through a simple breathing strategy similar to the belly breathing Linda talked about. I’ll then extend on this and guide you through a body scan, which will help you listen to, connect with and become more aware of the signals your body gives you.

To prepare to listen, find a quiet place and make yourself comfortable, preferably lying flat on your back with your hands loosely by your sides.

calm scenery picnic point

I’d love to hear how you go with it when you try it! Please feel free to let me know below.

Before I close up this series, I’d like to thank a few people. Firstly to my friend and colleague Linda, for sharing her passion and skill in the articles she provided on sleep and the role of breathing. I’d like to thank my friend Libby, for helping me brainstorm for the post on listening to our bodies. I’d also like to thank Julia and Carlie who provided articles on their personal experiences with stress. Hearing personal stories can help us understand that other people feel the way we do. We aren’t alone in feeling stressed. Lastly, I’d like to thank all of you who read my words and stick around to read more! Without you, there would be no point me writing and sharing all the stuff in my brain.

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Stress and Movement

Movement.

Moving your body.

Do you do it? How often and what kind do you do? What kinds of movement are there?

In no particular order, let’s list just a few things as they come into my head …

Walking, running, sex, yoga, tai chi, weight lifting, boxing, self-defense, dancing, gardening, swimming, ball games, playing chasey, creating a snow angel.

Do you do any of these activities? Any different ones? Do you have a favourite?

Let’s talk about hormones again for a moment. You might remember some information about cortisol, one of the major hormones the body creates in response to stress. It’s the job of cortisol to calm the inflammation caused by stress. So in effect, to calm the stress response and help bring us out of it.

Many people find it helpful to go for a run when they feel antsy. Physical exercise helps burn off the energy caused by adrenalin. It reduces the urge to run away or fight, and helps us to relax. It can also help us to feel centred and to improve our mental wellbeing. It can lift our mood and reduce depression and anxiety.

However, we need to be careful. Exercise causes inflammation. The main job of cortisol is to reduce inflammation. So as you do more exercise, you produce more cortisol, which ultimately impacts your body’s ability to heal and reduce stress.

This cortisol production also leads to weight gain, particularly around the belly, face and neck. Now most of us, when we gain weight, tend to lean toward more exercise to reduce it, right? Can you see a pattern?

When you are already highly stressed, this will lead to a vicious cycle:

Intense exercise = cortisol production = weight gain = more exercise.

See the cycle?

For those of you who already struggle with your weight and believe the best thing you can do to drop it is to push your body to its limits, check out this video blog from a very well respected personal trainer who has experience with neuroscience and several other areas. Let me introduce you to Emma. I’ve been working with her for a couple of years and I trust her implicitly. She gets it. She knows what she is talking about.

So, when you are super stressed the best thing you can do is to go easy on the exercise. At least the exercise that is intense and of long duration. Let me be clear here. I’m not suggesting that you ditch your training. Nor am I suggesting that you become a couch potato. As someone who has been there, I can attest to the fact that the couch potato status can be just as stressful as the intense training.

There are types of movement that will support your body reaching the state of balance/homeostasis that Emma refers to.

Gentle movements such as tai chi, yoga or simple stretching will help. As will combining your movement with play. Have fun running around the yard with the kids. Throw a Frisbee together. Play hide and seek. Laugh together.

Relax.

I’ve already talked about engaging the relaxation response to reduce stress. When Emma talks about taking her clients through a meditation activity at the end of her training sessions, she elicits this response, while at the same time, helping the brain to lock in new neural networks that reinforce the learning you’ve just done in training.

Ok. So now we’ve covered all that, let’s talk about how you can tell which type of movement you need to be doing.

Your body will tell you. So listen to the signals it gives you. Do you know what it’s saying?

Go with the urges that you get. If you have a feeling of deep down fatigue and the thought of getting out to exercise hard fills you with dread, it’s likely that your body is telling you it needs something different. If you feel the urge to get up and go hard, then by all means listen to that and take action to give your body what it needs. If you feel like dancing around your lounge with music at full volume, go for it!

Bottom line is this. Nobody can make up the rules for you. In any given moment your body will need different things to create and maintain that balance. Sometimes that means going full out and other times it means pulling back and resting. If you can learn the signals your body gives out, you will know what to do. How do you learn those signs? By listening to and connecting with your body.

Keep an eye out for a post on this soon.

As always, I’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to share your thoughts or questions below!

Acute and Chronic Stress

How did you enjoy Linda’s guest posts over the last 4 days? She was very kind to help me out as I have been attending a conference and have been incredibly busy. Those conferences certainly take a lot out of you! Three full-on, amazing days of connecting, talking, listening and thinking. Oh, and eating huge quantities of food! They fed us literally every 2 hours! Seriously scrummy though. Delish to the N-th degree! And the view from my room was just as scrummy. Let me tease you with a few photos. The first 2 are taken from the balcony of my room and the 3rd was served at the gala dinner we attended on the first night …

view 2

Just after sunrise

Afternoon view

Afternoon view

Concoction with marshmallow, turkish delight and what tasted like icecream but wasn't because it didn't melt. Super delicious!

Concoction with marshmallow, turkish delight and what tasted like icecream but wasn’t because it didn’t melt. Super delicious!

Put all that together and out walks one incredibly tired and frazzled Ali! I have 2 more days before I get to take 3 days to do nothing but sleep, recoup my energy and write more blog posts for you guys!

So I guess today’s post is somewhat timely given my life for the past 3-4 days. We’re talking about acute versus chronic stress. What are they and how do they work?

Let’s break them down like we have in our earlier definitions on physical, emotional and mental stress. When I look at the word “acute” I think of grade 9 mathematics classes at school. Angles. Acute angles in fact. Those that measure less than 90 degrees with a compass. They’re small.

If we consider this word paired with stress, it makes sense that the stress would be small too. Or, more accurately, short. Acute stress lasts only a short time. If you think about the time right before you make a speech, or almost being in a car accident, you would have your heart beating right out of your chest, you’re feeling hyper-vigilant (easily startled) and so on.

This is where your amygdala does its thing, makes the assessment that you’re in danger and activates the stress response. But since the situation is over pretty quickly, the response also settles quickly and you can go about your day.

However, when the stress is repetitive, or when things happen in quick succession, your stress response is activated again and again. And this is when your stress becomes chronic. Or long lasting. A little like diabetes is classed as a chronic illness. It just keeps on giving and giving.

You may have picked up on the fact that the majority of our posts this month have been focused on chronic stress. This is because it has such dire consequences. When our body releases all those stress hormones, the impact can be huge. As we already mentioned, it puts us at risk for all kinds of lifestyle illnesses; heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and so on. you might like to refresh your memory on those by re-reading that post.

So, when it comes to my attendance at this 3 day conference (which was added to 2 full on days of travel and other work related activities), would you say my stress was chronic or acute?

Rather than give you the answer (my opinion), I’d like to give you a test to see how much you’ve all learned by reading the series so far. Tricky of me, isn’t it?

In the comments below, tell me which type of stress you believe my experiences to be, and to challenge you a little more, add what you believe would be great for me to do in order to reduce that stress.

Stress and Sleep, Part 3

We made it! Here is Linda’s final article on stress and sleep. She explores some strategies to help you regulate your sleep patterns and ultimately reduce your stress levels by lowering the cortisol in your system. As always, if you have any questions or comments for Linda or I, please feel free to comment below!

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“I’m not a very good sleeper. But you know what? I’m willing to put in a few extra hours every day to get better. That’s just the kind of hard worker I am.” – Jarod Kintz

In our 3 part series so far we have covered a great deal of information about sleep; what happens during sleep, the healthy sleep cycle, why we need sleep, and how sleep interacts with stress.

Because stress and sleep can interact to keep you trapped in the stress cycle, the first thing you need to do when you are stressed is work on improving your sleep to down-regulate your stress response.

Today I have provided you with a list of strategies for improving your sleep.

How can you improve sleep?

Good ‘sleep hygiene’ is really about making sure that you do as much as you can to improve your chances at achieving quality sleep by developing healthy sleep habits.

Some of the strategies you might like to try include:

  • Routine, routine, routine: going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time every morning helps to regulate your biological clock. Most people need roughly 7 – 10 hours of sleep each night. Any less than 6.5 hours and your body starts to produce more cortisol!
  • Bright lights!: remember how we talked about your biological clock? Well it turns out that light is actually the most effective time-cue for your biological clock. To help your sleep-wake cycle stay regular make sure that you get plenty of natural light during the day, exposing yourself briefly to sunlight from around 9am and reducing your exposure to unnatural lighting in the evening. This means not watching television, computer, i-pad or mobile phone screens for at least two hours prior to going to bed.
  • Spend less time at the local coffee house: we previously explored a special chemical made by your brain to induce sleepiness, called adenosine. Caffeine and nicotine disrupt the sleep-wake cycle by blocking adenosine. Stimulants will also reduce stage 3 and 4 sleep and cause you to cycle more frequently between the stages of sleep. Try to eliminate using any stimulants after around noon.
  • Party season is over: Alcohol is also a no-no if you are having trouble sleeping. While it may make you drowsy initially it also inhibits stage 3 and 4 sleep as well as causing you to wake throughout the night and move frequently between the sleep stages.
  • Power up your nap time: napping throughout the day will only confuse your biological clock so it is best to avoid hour long naps when you are struggling with sleep. Having said that, a brief ‘power nap’ of no more than 20 minutes prior to 3pm may help you to get through the day until bed-time. Initially you may struggle to wake before 20 minutes however you can train your body by using an alarm clock to wake you after 20 minutes of napping.
  • Worship bedtime: by creating rituals you can help your body recognize when it is time to go to sleep. You may choose to do things like read a book prior to sleep, drink a caffeine-free cup of tea, take a warm bath, or practice breathing exercises. Check out the post on ‘Stress and the Role of Breathing’ to learn how to use diaphragm breathing.
  • Midnight munchies: grab a snack before heading off to bed. Yes you read right! If you are waking in the early hours of the morning try having a healthy snack such as a banana, half a slice of whole grain bread with peanut butter, a slice of cheese on a whole-grain cracker. Remember that stress messes with your body’s ability to store and use energy. Many people wake at 2am because their body mistakenly believes that they need an energy hit.
  • Trip into tryptophan: any foods that contain tryptophan are helpful in encouraging sleep. Melatonin is made from serotonin which is made from tryptophan. Melatonin is one of the hormones that help to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Tryptophan rich foods include poultry, organ meat, sea food, cheese, milk, yoghurt, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, legumes, and bananas.
  • Who turned out the lights: make sure that your bedroom is completely dark, as this sends a signal to your biological clock that it is time to sleep. This means no illuminated alarm clocks or pesky LED lights.
  • Chuck the clocks: most of the people I meet describe how when they are unable to sleep they find themselves constantly glancing at the clock and then worrying even more about how much sleep they are not getting, and how soon they will have to be climbing back out of bed. Get rid of your clock. If you need to have an alarm find something that is not illuminated and that you won’t be able to see easily. As you are lying in your bed, rather than focusing on not being able to sleep and increasing your worry, remind yourself that any rest is good for your body. You may even find it helpful to practice a progressive muscle relaxation or a mindfulness activity, or even diaphragm breathing to engage the relaxation response.
  • Get up, get out there, and get active: activity during the day can also help to regulate your biological clock and keep your circadian rhythms on track. Be aware of extensive cardiovascular exercise if you are stressed – this means no more than 20 minutes in any one session and no more than twice a week. Your body will benefit more from gentle walks, interval training, strength training or yoga and tai chi if you are experiencing high levels of stress.
  • Become a socialite: believe it or not social interaction actually regulates your biological clock! Strange but true. For best results you need to engage in social activity throughout the day. If you have any group functions these are best done during the day and then as evening approaches you will benefit from reducing social contact to smaller numbers towards the evening.
  • Stress busting: of course wherever possible it is important to work on reducing or eliminating your stress. This may involve talking to a professional such as a counsellor or psychologist to work out how to reduce worry, engaging in active problem solving, and using mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
  • Bin the Benzo’s: sleeping tablets will only increase your sleep problems in the long run and will more than likely trigger anxiety throughout the day. These medications are also addictive, creating an extra problem on top of the stress you are already experiencing. If you feel as though you are so exhausted that you need to take something try natural alternatives first. Always consult your medical practitioner.
  • Nightmares: if you have experienced trauma you may be worried about having nightmares when you go to sleep. There are some steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of bad dreams and to reorient yourself when you do have nightmares. Imagining the bad dream prior to sleep sounds counterintuitive, however it appears that if you work on imagining a different, more pleasant ending to the dream you can change your dreams. Rehearse the different ending many times before going to sleep. If you do wake from a bad dream, reorient yourself to the present by touching a familiar object, moving your body, getting up and looking out of the window to remind yourself where you are, remind yourself that you are home and that you are safe, visualize your surroundings: your bedroom, your home, the street outside your room, your neighborhood.

This article provides some information on the HPA axis, cortisol and sleep along with some healthy alternatives to reduce cortisol production and improve sleep: http://naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2010-06/role-cortisol-sleep.

sleep wide awake

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Lindas bioLinda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.

Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brains potential.

You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.

Stress and Sleep, Part 2

Today Linda is back to cover part 2 of her 3 articles on stress and sleep. Today she will discuss why sleep is so important and its relationship with stress. Remember yesterday, she talked about the sleep cycle and some technical aspects of how the brain processes it. While this information is a little technical, it’s important stuff to know so that you can then learn how to regulate your sleep. If you have any questions or comments to share, I’m sure Linda would love to help me address them for you! Hope you enjoy. 

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Why do we need sleep?

As you saw in the explanation of the sleep stages above, the simplest way to think about why we need sleep is in terms of healing and repair. It’s almost as though getting a good night’s sleep is akin to regularly taking your car into the mechanic for servicing. While you are sleeping your brain becomes a mechanic, tinkering with processes that are important during your day-to-day functioning and require fine-tuning or repair.

For example, any damage to your heart or blood vessels is repaired while you are sleeping. Hormone production, metabolism, cognitive functioning and immune function are all processes that rely on a healthy night’s sleep, every night. Physical growth and the stimulation of new brain cells and neural networks take place while you sleep.

Sleep is actually a very involved process. If you are interested in understanding more about the sleep cycle I came across one of the most detailed and interesting descriptions here:

https://science.education.nih.gov/supplements/nih3/sleep/guide/info-sleep.htm

How does stress impact on sleep?

In an earlier post titled ‘Stress Hormones’ you learned about a very important part of your brain directly responsible for many of the processes in your body including your immune functioning, your mood levels and emotions, your digestion, your energy production and storage, your sexuality, and the stress response. This system is known as the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis. You may like to go back to this post and check out the diagram explaining the functioning of the HPA axis.

Sleep only occurs when the HPA axis is calm and inactive. So when the HPA axis is active, as is the case with stress, sleep will be affected. And conversely, when you don’t sleep well, the HPA axis becomes activated. And on it goes.

When the HPA axis has been activated through ongoing stress, you are also more likely to wake either through the night or first thing in the morning feeling anxious. I have met many people who have described waking in the middle of the night or early mornings with panic-attacks, and a disturbed sleep cycle could explain why.

So already we are beginning to see how disturbed sleep can trap you into a negative cycle: you don’t sleep well, you feel stressed. When you feel stressed, your biological clock becomes disrupted and you struggle to sleep well.

This process occurs in part because when we don’t get enough sleep (less than 6.5 hours) our body increases it’s production and release of the stress hormone cortisol. Remember from previous posts that when you are experiencing ongoing stress your body is already pumping out excessive levels of this toxic substance. Usually in the early evening cortisol is decreasing however with chronic sleep loss these levels will elevate resulting in a chain reaction including increased insulin resistance and decreased glucose tolerance.

Sleep is actually really important for regulating appetite and food intake. One of the hormones, letpin, which is responsible for appetite suppression, actually decreases with a lack of sleep. At the same time the body increases it’s production of ghrelin, a peptide that stimulates appetite. This means that when we experience disturbed sleep our appetite actually increases and we are more likely to eat larger amounts of food than what we would normally need to get through a day. We are also more likely to crave foods that are high in carbohydrates. Increased cortisol makes you store fat in your tummy, your neck and your face, so if you are eating more carbohydrates you are more likely to gain weight. A spare tire belly is a good indicator of stress, and for many of us it creates further stress as we begin worrying about our weight gain.

Sleep deprivation has also been related to impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance. If you find yourself waking between 1am and 3am, a common feature of stress, it may be because your body is not using glucose properly and is signaling that you need to re-fuel already. This is why having a snack prior to bed can be helpful.

Even if you are young and relatively healthy, these hormonal changes can leave you in a pre-diabetic state following less than one week of sleep deprivation. This is an alarmingly short time frame! At the moment we are seeing an increase in sleep deprivation, an increase in diabetes, and an increase in Alzhiemer’s disease, which in some research circles has been labeled diabetes type 3.

Disturbed sleep can also leave you with confusion, impaired memory, headaches, impaired judgment and decision making ability, increased irritability, clumsiness, hallucinations, seizures, and even mania.

With ongoing stress and sleep disturbance your adrenal functioning may become impaired and this can be a factor in conditions like fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, chronic fatigue syndrome, Cushing syndrome, arthritis, depression and premature menopause. Scary stuff! So what can you do about it?

Hang around and check out Tuesday’s blog post to learn how you can improve your sleep. As you can see, when you are stressed sleep is really the first step in attempting to help your system to down-regulate.

sleep deprivation

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Lindas bioLinda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.

Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brains potential.

You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.

Stress and Sleep, Part 1

Sleep. Do you get enough of it? In all likelihood, probably not. At least not if you’re anything like me!

I’m excited to have Linda back with us as she has some amazing insight and skills. She has graciously offered to share a series of articles over the next 3 days on sleep, while I am attending a conference (and probably not getting much of it!).

The first article will provide some technical information on how the sleep process works. The second will cover why sleep is so important and its relationship with stress. Finally, the third article will discuss some very practical tips on how you can gain control, better regulate your sleep and  support your wellness. I hope you enjoy them and learn a lot. 🙂 

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“And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower, then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created” – D.H. Lawrence

Did you know that we spend approximately one third of our lives sleeping? Sleep is another one of those amazing functions that many of us take for granted, until we find ourselves unable to get to sleep or waking at 2am every morning.

Unfortunately stress can have a very negative impact on your ability to sleep well and when you don’t sleep well you are more likely to feel stressed!

Today we are going to have a look at what happens inside your body when you sleep and the healthy sleep cycle.  In part 2 tomorrow we will outline why sleep is important, and how stress effects sleep. And the day after we’ll look at a bunch of strategies for you to improve your sleep.

The human brain is a complex organism, so some of what we are talking about here is going to be technical. I have tried my best to simplify explanations as much as possible to make it easier for you to understand, however it is still quite a long piece, my apologies in advance.

I have also included some links to other websites that provide even more detailed explanations for those of you who relish the details and love to sink your teeth into the technical workings of the brain and body.

What happens during sleep?

Did you know that some parts of the brain actually work harder when you are sleeping than during waking hours?

When I talk to people about relaxation often they will say that they relax when they are asleep. This is not actually true because your brain does most of the important work during sleep. And this is why deliberately engaging the relaxation response while you are awake is essential. You can learn more about engaging the relaxation response in the post on ‘Stress and the Role of Breathing’.

Sleep is actually quite a complex process involving at least two systems in your body.

The Biological Clock and Circadian Rhythms

In terms of sleep, each and every cell in your body has its own little clock, a cellular clock, how neat is that? Each cellular clock is regulated by a master biological clock sitting in the region of the brain called the hypothalamus. Your cellular clocks drive your circadian rhythm, a 24 hour cycle of physiological and behavioural processes.

Circadian rhythms are responsible for all kinds of essential functions in your body including body temperature regulation, the sleep-wake cycle, and hormone production and release. Remember that hormones are just like chemical couriers, they travel throughout your body delivering essential messages for optimum functioning.

Your circadian rhythms are very easily disrupted, especially by stress. When your circadian rhythms become disrupted, your hormone production and your sleep-wake cycle will be impacted.

Sleep-Wake Homeostasis

At the same time you have something called sleep-wake homeostasis going on. In this process throughout the day the body produces sleep-regulating substances that drive you to want to sleep. The longer you are awake the stronger your desire to sleep. One of the better understood sleep substances produced by your brain is called Adenosine. This is important as we know that stimulants like caffeine and nicotine actually block Adenosine from working.

While researching sleep I came across a terrific, easy to understand site that explains the science of sleep in more depth if you would like to further your learning http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters

What does healthy sleep look like?

Understanding the ‘sleep architecture’, or the pattern of healthy sleep, has always seemed confusing to me. However it is important to grasp, particularly if you are experiencing sleep disturbance as disrupted sleep does appear to underlie many other problems including depression.

I have tried to make this as easy as possible for you to make sense of, although you may need to read through it a few times to really understand what goes on in the nocturnal hours.

We have two types of sleep: non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and REM sleep.

REM sleep - sign series for medical health care, fitness, wellbeing - R.E.M.

In non-REM sleep there are four different stages:

Stage 1

During this stage your transition into sleep begins, usually lasting around 5 minutes.

Stage 2 or light sleep

Now your eye movements stop, your body becomes still, this stage lasts anywhere from 10-25 minutes.

Stages 3 & 4 deep sleep, or slow wave sleep

In these stages it becomes difficult for someone else to wake you and you will feel groggy and disoriented if you are woken. Your brain waves become quite slow as the blood flow is directed away from your brain towards your muscles. Stage 3 & 4 sleep is absolutely essential as this is the time when your body is working on healing and repairing anything physical that isn’t functioning properly. If you have injuries or illness, then your body needs to experience these stages properly.

And finally, during REM sleep, or dream sleep, many of your physiological responses actually increase. Your brain waves speed up, your eyes move rapidly, your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow and your blood pressure increases. During REM sleep for most of us our arm and leg muscles become paralyzed. Ever felt physically trapped in a dream? Well now you know why, for most of us during this stage your body is trapped. REM sleep can last for around 70-90 minutes. Most importantly, during REM sleep, your brain is actually repairing the mind while also consolidating memories and new learning from that day. Amazing stuff, hey?

In one night you may cycle between these stages anywhere from 4 – 6 times while you are sleeping.

A word on sleeping tablets:

While every single stage in the sleep cycle is important, Stage 3 & 4 sleep and REM sleep are clearly essential for healing, repair, and cognitive functioning. And this is where sleep medications cause problems and why they often do more harm than good. Sleeping tablets actually prevent you from entering Stage 3 & 4 sleep and REM sleep.

The most common form of sleep medication is the benzodiazepine, you may be more familiar with the brand names Valium, Xanax, Temaze, Rohypnol, Serapax, Ativan, Mogadon, or Rivotril.

Also, benzodiazepine use is more likely to result in what is known as rebound day-time anxiety, meaning that your HPA axis has been stimulated, increasing the likelihood that you will be caught up in that negative stress cycle. And it is highly addictive.

Avoid the use of sleeping medication if you can, if you really need to take it do so sparingly, maybe for 2 to 3 nights only and then have a few days break. If you are already taking sleep medication DO NOT suddenly stop taking it as this can also cause dangerous reactions. Always discuss medical options with your general practitioner or medical specialist.

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Lindas bioLinda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.

Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brains potential.

You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.

Stress and Trauma

Day 11 of our series on stress.

Wow, it feels like we’ve done heaps in such a short amount of time! But there is still so much to cover that it also feels like it will take forever to reach the end of the month! I have faith that we’ll get there though. We’re a resilient lot, really! We’re almost half way through the month and if you’re reading this, I’d like to thank you for sticking with us and hope you’re enjoying the series.

Today is all about trauma. Like we did in the first few days of the series, it’s probably a good idea to define what we’re dealing with here. So, according to the free dictionary, trauma is a noun:

    1. A body wound or shock produced by physical injury, as from an accident.
    2. The condition produced by this.
  1. Psychiatry. Psychological shock or severe distress from experiencing a disastrous event outside the range of usual experience, as rape or military combat.
  2. Any wrenching or distressing experience, esp. one causing a disturbance in normal functioning.

When I read this definition I am reminded of the simple definition that we learned about earlier in the month – stress is a force, pressure or strain.

Though it seems like it is an extreme form.

So, I’m going to connect the dots for you here and state that trauma is an extreme level of stress.

Like we did with our definition posts, let’s explore those things that create trauma. You’ll notice that many of the things on this list were also on the lists for physical, mental and emotional stress.

  • Abuse – physical, sexual, emotional/mental, financial etc
  • Bullying
  • Car accidents
  • Medical crises
  • Muggings
  • Physical fights
  • War
  • Yelling
  • Injury
  • Pregnancy or birth difficulties
  • Illness or medical crisis
  • Rape
  • Animal bites
  • Poisoning
  • Seeing a distressing news article
  • Drug taking
  • Watching a distressing movie (I won’t go near horror movies for this reason!!)
  • Witnessing someone else experience trauma
  • Hearing a story about someone else experiencing trauma

I’ll come back to these final two items as they deserve special mention.

Once again, this list is not exhaustive in its content. There are plenty of other items that need to be added but right now my brain isn’t providing me with what I need. And like stress, trauma is a very individual experience. One person will be impacted by watching a specific movie and another won’t. One person will be impacted by witnessing a car accident and another won’t. There are a lot of factors that come into play.

I feel that the majority of it comes down to the neurobiological stress response that we have already discussed in several posts. We introduced it with Stress and the Triune Brain and continued it with Stress and the Amygdala.

If we’ve identified that trauma is an extreme stress response, doesn’t it make sense that its impacts also come from the stress response?

Except that since trauma is an extreme level of stress, so too are the impacts. In addition to those mentioned previously, people who have been traumatised may also experience items from this list, which has been taken from the Beyond Blue site.

  • Re-living the traumatic event – The person relives the event through unwanted and recurring memories, often in the form of vivid images and nightmares. There may be intense emotional or physical reactions, such as sweating, heart palpitations or panic when reminded of the event.
  • Being overly alert or wound up – The person experiences sleeping difficulties, irritability and lack of concentration, becoming easily startled and constantly on the lookout for signs of danger.
  • Avoiding reminders of the event – The person deliberately avoids activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the event because they bring back painful memories.
  • Feeling emotionally numb – The person loses interest in day-to-day activities, feels cut off and detached from friends and family, or feels emotionally flat and numb.

trauma response

You’ll notice that some of these items are the same as those we came up with for stress, while others are different. One of the key things to remember about traumatic experiences is that these reactions are an absolutely normal response to a horrid, not normal event (or series of events). And it is possible that these responses can persist for a long period of time and can be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

This is a serious mental health concern that can be treated, and yet often isn’t due to stigma and a fear of being thought of as weak. If you have been traumatised and recognise these symptoms as things you have experienced, please, please, please seek support from a medical or mental health professional. And if you come across a professional who doesn’t want to know, find another one who is willing to listen. If you know a friend or family member who has been exposed to trauma and who is not receiving any support, please encourage them to read this post.

It’s important that everyone understands that this response comes about from the violation of our in-built, biological need for survival. It’s not something we can control. That sense of safety can be regained – with support from professionals who understand where it comes from and who have the skills to treat it. If you or someone you know needs some guidance on finding professional support, you can email me at mindseteffect@optusnet.com.au

One more note I’d like to make here. Trauma doesn’t have to be experienced to occur. Witnessing it or simply hearing about it can produce the same results. It’s real and it has a name – vicarious trauma. Many emergency personnel and mental health professionals or those in other helping professions (nurses, social workers, doctors etc) experience it, as do family members caring for someone with a disability, illness or mental health condition. There is support available.

I’d like to leave you with one final thought. There is no shame in reaching out for help.

Warning: If reading this post triggers your stress response, please consider seeking support from your team of professionals.

Stress Hormones

In the last several posts I’ve mentioned the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. I did a little research yesterday and found a great site that explains their function in stress. This site also talks about a third hormone, norepinephrine. I’ve heard of this one obviously, but had little knowledge of how it works. I’ll consider myself educated!

So, I’ve explained the stress response and the link these hormones play in our survival. If we didn’t have adrenalin we wouldn’t be able to run away from danger or fight for our lives. And if we didn’t have cortisol, we wouldn’t be able to regulate some body functions while we are in the stress response. And as I’ve just found out, if we didn’t have norepinephrine we wouldn’t be able to remain alert to look for potential threats.

I’d encourage you to have a read of this article on The Huffington Post. It’s easy to read and explains things well.

HPA axis diagram

What this article doesn’t really go into are the impacts of these hormones over the long term. As I’ve mentioned previously, the fight/flight response is designed for use only during a crisis. For the minutes or hours the crisis exists. After it’s resolved, our bodies are designed to release the hormones so they aren’t being held on to. However, many of us are caught in a cycle of stress. We get hit with a new crisis before the last one dissipates. And when these hormones take days to leave our systems, it’s easy to get caught in the cycle.

So we need to understand exactly what the impact of this long term stress is. What exactly happens to our bodies when they are holding on to these hormones for long periods? I covered some of this in the previous post on the impacts of stress just the other day, but I want to draw your attention to another article written by a friend and colleague of mine. In this article Linda paints a pretty grim picture of having these hormones remain in our systems.

cortisol_stress diagram

I’d love to start some discussion on your experiences of dealing with these hormones. Do these articles resonate with you? What do you think? Can you see how they translate to your life? Comment below.

Stress and the amygdala

Did you read yesterday’s post on the stress response? I know it was lengthy and a little technical, but if you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to go back and do it, because today’s post will make much more sense if you have.

So yesterday we learned about how the brain processes stress. We looked at the 3 parts of the Triune Brain, as shown in my very artistic diagram.

triune brain 3

And we discovered that little thing in the limbic region called the amygdala.

If you’d like to read more about the neuroscience of the amygdala try this site. It’s pretty technical but it shows how the different parts of the brain feed into the amygdala and how the amygdala feeds into other parts, which then impact on our emotions.

Remember, the amygdala has just one job of making the assessment about whether a situation is life threatening.

As I explained yesterday, when the answer is yes, the stress response is activated. And the amygdala is what we call “up-regulated”. Signals are sent to the brain stem to increase heart rate, breathing, blood pressure. They’re also sent to the neocortex to shut down the non-essential ability to think, reason and problem solve (see diagram above).

And by doing this we are able to respond effectively to the risk to our survival.

But what if we aren’t really at risk? Remember me saying yesterday that the amygdala can’t tell the difference between a saber-tooth tiger and finances? There really isn’t any bill on the planet, no matter how large, that threatens our existence. Promise.

So we’ve got this up-regulation going on, where our bodies are flooded with adrenalin and cortisol. We feel out of control, like nothing is going to go right. We have emotions galore running over us and through us. And all we can think about is the thing that activated the response in the first place. In this case, the bills.

Which is the other thing I neglected to mention yesterday. Part of the stress response is the complete focus on the thing that places us under threat. Do you think it would help us survive if we took our eyes off the tiger and forgot it was sitting on the rock? No way! It would immediately take its opportunity to pounce and attack. Kind of self-explanatory, right?

When it comes to the bills the reaction is the same. Our focus is complete. We worry, we mull it over, wonder what we are going to do. And because our neocortex isn’t working due to the lack of blood flow, we aren’t thinking clearly about it. We can’t problem solve it.

So we have a body full of adrenalin and cortisol, we feel antsy and restless, out of control, we have a racing heart and lots of muscle tension, and all we can think about is the bills (or whatever activated the response).

We need to find a way to reverse the process. To re-engage the neocortex so we can think and figure a way out of the situation. To calm our emotions, our heart rate. To ease the muscle tension and release the adrenalin and cortisol.

For such a complex system it feels like the solution needs to be just as complex, right? After all, this up-regulation feels completely horrid, so it must be complicated. Right?

Wrong.

The solution is so simple it seems like it won’t have any chance of working. Surprisingly though, it does.

I find that the simplest solutions work the best.

Breathing.

That’s it. Just breathe.

Physical Stress

I thought I’d continue our focus on stress by expanding on our definition of it. In yesterday’s post we discussed what you’d find in the dictionary if you looked it up, and we found that stress, in its simplified form, is pressure, strain or force.

So let’s look at some different types of stress that are commonly encountered in everyday life; emotional, mental and physical. We’ll cover emotional and mental stress over the next two days, and today we’ll look at physical stress and what it entails.

If we consider our earlier definition of “stress” being pressure, strain or force, and “physical” as being about the human body (since we’re talking about stress and its impact on humans), it seems to make logical sense that physical stress is anything that places strain, force or pressure on the human body.

stress increases load

So what kinds of things in our lives place strain, force or pressure on the body?

  • Injury
  • Illness
  • Disability
  • Movement (bending, stretching, twisting, running, jumping, and so on)
  • Pregnancy
  • Sex (doing it, thinking about it, and even not doing it)
  • Sleep deprivation or disruption (such as from nightmares or insomnia)
  • Fighting
  • Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional)
  • Sitting for long periods
  • Babysitting/child care
  • Lifting weights
  • Walking
  • Lack of water
  • Shift work (which messes with your natural circadian rhythms)
  • Eating food
  • Processed foods
  • Loud noises and bright lights
  • Poisons
  • Animal bites
  • Gravity (i.e., the force holding us on the earth)
  • Carrying extra fat
  • Standing in one place
  • Adventure sports
  • Sports in general
  • Working out
  • Temperature (either hot or cold)
  • Cleaning/housework
  • Being frightened/startled
  • Experiencing any kind of emotion (all emotions have a physical component)
  • Ingesting addictive substances (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc)
  • Menopause/puberty (which cause some pretty major hormone fluctuations)
  • Crying, laughing, screaming, yelling, talking, singing
  • Growing (watch any child and you’ll know that growing takes a lot of energy!)
  • Coughing, sneezing
  • Travel

Wow, look at that list! It seems pretty long, and I’m sure if you really thought about it, you could add a lot more to it!

Some of the things on this list are pretty self-explanatory. It’s fairly obvious that illness or injury places stress on our bodies, right? But there are other things that may need a little explanation. They seem like they’re positive things, and we all know that “positive” stuff is supposed to be good for us. Right?

Well of course positive things are good for us.

Let’s take movement and exercise, for example. Our bodies are designed to move. We are meant to run, jump, twist, turn, lift weights, play sports, and so on. We thrive when we move. We gain fitness, endurance and stamina. We become faster and stronger. And we can do more, for longer. All positive things.

What most people don’t realise, however, is that movement is inflammatory. Intense exercise releases cortisol into the blood stream. A primary stress hormone, it is one of the most destructive natural substances to the human body. It’s quite ironic that it’s also produced by the body. If it remains unmanaged, cortisol can have some seriously disastrous impacts. We’ll discuss this more in future posts throughout the month, but for now the main concept we need to understand is that sometimes, exercise can be harmful. Particularly if it is intense and for long periods of time.

Any fitness expert or personal trainer will tell you that when you place strain on your body by exercising you need to give it rest time to repair itself. It’s during this recovery time that the body makes gains in fitness, stamina and endurance. But if you push the body too long, too far, too fast, and don’t allow it to repair, it will end up damaged in some way.

And this is the point for all types of stress, regardless of the cause. Whether it’s sex, cleaning, food or laughter, recovery time is essential for managing stress.

Recovery and repair are imperative for wellness.

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