The Power in the way we Think

Posts tagged ‘neuroscience’

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 Glorious Food

What is food to you?

Many people would respond with words such as nutrition, fuel, sustenance, energy, life force, nourishment.

Others would say comfort, stress reduction, safety, security, crutch, solace, home.

Which would you choose? I know that for much of my life I have been the second.

The school you feel you belong to says a lot about your beliefs around food and how you use it in your life. I know it does for me

There is one thing for certain in this. Without food to eat, we would not survive. Every system we possess requires the nutrients in food to function effectively. Breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, nervous system, skeletal system, reproductive system, thought and reasoning system, learning system. Etcetera.

And for this reason we have inbuilt systems to attract us to food to make sure we want to eat.

Every time we eat our brain signals the release of dopamine, one of our feel good hormones. This means that every time we eat we feel pleasure, which is another of those inbuilt programs.

We all have a biological need for pleasure (and on the other side of the coin, to avoid pain). This process is quite complex in terms of the brain structures and functions involved, and much of that is irrelevant for our purposes.

The key point we need to make is this: when we have painful life experiences we will always seek to avoid that pain and to gain some pleasure.

And food is often the go-to method we choose because we have the dopamine released every time we eat and therefore we subconsciously know that it’s sure to make us feel good.

dopamine release

If that is not complicated enough, let’s add another layer …

Everything we learn results in our brains laying down pathways of neurons (called neural pathways, funnily enough) to help us to perform. This includes absolutely everything. Walking, talking, making a sandwich, having a shower, driving a car, thinking, coping, dancing. Everything. If we think about driving a car, for example, the first time we do it we feel pretty awkward, wondering where to look, where to put our hands and feet, trying to remember everything we need to do. As we practice over and over, our neural pathways are layed down and the actions become automatic. Pretty soon we are able to drive through a traffic light and once we’re through, we think, “holy crap, was that light red or green?!”

This is the process that is laying down neural pathways.

The way we cope with stress is no different. As children we learn different ways of coping from the example we have from the adults in our lives. If our example is a healthy one, with positive thinking and an ability to bounce back, this is the pattern that we learn. However, if you are anything like my family (which is very common), we are offered cakes and biscuits (and lots of similar yummy foods) to comfort and ease our boo boo’s. Which can lead to us running for the sweets whenever we are stressed. Can you relate to this as much as I can?

A couple of notes to keep in mind. Firstly, these pathways don’t have to begin in childhood. They can be layed down at any age (which means we cannot blame our parents, sorry lol). And secondly, the types of foods we usually choose to indulge in, whilst it isn’t always the case, commonly contain sugar. We are usually drawn to sugary foods as these produce those pleasurable feelings most easily. And our brain becomes addicted to sugar. Go figure, right?

So what does all this mean for our stress?

In many of our previous posts we have discovered that stress doesn’t feel nice! There are so many things that stress does to us that are detrimental to our body, mind and emotions.

So, since we have this hardwired programming to avoid this kind of pain, we will automatically seek to find something pleasurable to counteract and replace it.

And often that is food, particularly given the programming we have to eat for survival.

Can we change all this programming?

No, unfortunately we cannot. It is hardwired.

Does this mean we are stuck with the habit of stuffing our faces each time we’re stressed?

Again, the answer is no. There are things we can do. And these begin with managing the underlying reason for the stress we are experiencing. Now I understand that sometimes we can’t change the circumstances. However we can manage it by going back to our favourite coping strategy – breathing. Remember Linda’s article on the role of breathing? This simple technique does not just down-regulate the stress response. It engages the relaxation response. It allows us to think more rationally (and therefore consider whether we really need/want the chocolate we’ve been craving), and it also allows us to actively take control of the way we feel. I’d say that is a win-win, wouldn’t you?

One more note to finish with. One of the most important things to understand about the brain is its ability to change. In neurobiological terms this is called neuroplasticity. We need to know though, that these changes take time. You can build new pathways by practicing new skills over and over again, whilst allowing the old ones to remain unused. But trying to learn how not to use food to relieve stress does not happen overnight. We need to practice these skills consistently for months for them to become more automatic. As we work on it, it can be helpful to be gentle with ourselves each time we mess up. We deserve compassion, after all.

Stress and emotions

We’ve already talked about the Limbic region in the brain and its function in regulating our emotions. And we’ve also discussed the role of the amygdala in assessing potential threatening situations.

You’ve probably gathered by now how the amygdala plays a key role in our survival. It helps us to recognise when our life is in danger and sets off a chain reaction to get us out of that situation. Our body is flooded with hormones to get us moving (either fighting or fleeing), and also to completely focus our attention on the threat so that we aren’t distracted from it, again in order to increase our chances of survival.

We have also learned that sometimes our amygdala makes the assessment that we are at threat when we really aren’t. If you recall, this is because our brains haven’t evolved enough to keep up with the huge advances in technology we have experienced over the years.

So we are activating the stress response for things like finances, screaming kids, work pressures, time pressures, physical illnesses or injuries, and so on. None of these are likely to threaten your survival.

When you think about the neurobiology behind the stress response, and our slower evolutionary processes, it makes sense that our brain responds in the way it does. But what happens to our emotions on the occasions where our life isn’t actually at risk?

Can you imagine how you’d feel if you had a lot of work deadlines to meet, were dealing with repeated issues with your children and also had some recent, pricy unexpected bills?

I’m guessing the experiences of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, dread and overwhelm would be high, amongst others.

And very likely they would come and go in unpredictable patterns, which could make those emotions worse and more intense.

And this would likely lead to behaviour that you’re probably not always going to be proud of. Irritability, snapping at your loved ones, yelling, uncharacteristic urges to run away and hide, not wanting to face the day, fatigue. And what about the arguments about irrelevant things?

The bottom line is that your emotions go haywire and they become unpredictable.

And this leaves you feeling unsure of yourself and wondering why the hell you can’t just keep it together and get through it like everyone else does. Am I right? I think if I had one dollar for every person who came into my counselling room asking, “why can’t I do this right? I should be able to cope better”, I would be well on the way to being a millionaire! Well, almost.

But as we’ve already discussed (several times), when you know the processes that the brain goes through, hopefully you’ll see that appearances can be deceiving. I don’t know anyone that could cope with all these things and still be “coping well”. On the outside it may look like they have it together, but it’s almost guaranteed that they feel just like you do on the inside.

That said, I need to acknowledge that each of us has a “coping capacity” that is different from anyone else on the planet. Yes, we all have the same processes occurring in the brain. However each of us has had different experiences throughout our lives, which has given us different memory systems and ultimately, different ways of coping.

This is why some of us love scaring ourselves silly with horror movies and others, like me, won’t go near them. It’s why some of us can’t wait to ride the scariest, most windy and daring rollercoasters, or jump out of perfectly good airplanes (why, I ask, would anyone choose to jump out of a fully functioning plane?!?!)

Remember too, that there are plenty of parents who absolutely thrive on having their house choc full of kids running amok. They thrive on the chaos and feed off the energy. And there are others (again, like me), who prefer peace and quiet after they get home.

2012-02-05-ALBERT-EINSTEIN-everybody-is-a-genius

These differences are natural based on our life experiences, family background and so on. So please, do yourselves a favour and stop comparing yourselves with the people around you.

And when you feel those emotions swirling around and bringing you down, try going back to our simple belly breathing technique that Linda talked about in her article on the role of breathing.

I have a challenge for you …

For the next 7 days, I want you to take time out each morning and evening to do 10 deep belly breaths, as described by Linda. Before you get out of bed and right before you go to sleep are perfect times. It only takes about 30 seconds, so no excuses!

At the end of the 7 days, report back here to let us know how you went. Have you noticed a difference in your day and your emotional state?

Stress and Children

Kids experience stress just as much as the rest of us.

And sometimes more intensely than the rest of us.

I hope you’re all wondering why this is, because I’m about to share it with you.

It all originates in the field of child development. Or more specifically, brain development. When I began this series on stress we talked about the Triune Brain. We discussed how the brain processes stress and a little bit about the ages at which the different parts of the brain develop.

I’d like to discuss these age differences in a little more detail.

When we are born the only part of the brain to be fully developed is the brain stem, which is responsible for our physiological responses such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. If this part of the brain is damaged in some way, your survival may be threatened and it is possible that you would be looking at support from machines to stay alive. The brain stem is also responsible for the physiological aspects of the stress response – elevating the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.

The limbic region is the next part of the brain to develop, usually completed at around 3-5 years of age. This controls our emotions. The amygdala lives in the limbic region and if you remember back to my previous post on this, its job is to make an assessment about whether your life is at threat. So when we perceive our life to be in danger, our emotions, such as fear and anxiety, are activated.

The final part of the brain to develop is the neocortex, which is responsible for our ability to think, reason and solve problems. This begins to develop properly in our teens but isn’t completely developed until we reach our mid 20’s. When our stress response is activated, the blood flow to the neocortex is reduced, and therefore our ability to think is impaired.

Here is a simple diagram that shows this relationship.

triune brain 4

Let’s think about these facts in relation to children. As adults, when we become stressed we can sometimes use our reasoning ability to calm this response and get back to our balanced state (homeostasis). Remember though, by the time we reach our mid 20’s, all 3 areas of the brain are fully developed. This means that the sizes of the limbic region and the neocortex are somewhat even, thereby making it easier to reason things out when we’re stressed.

Children, however, do not have this. Because of their brain development, their limbic region and neocortex are different sizes, which means that their emotions have much more control than their thinking and reasoning ability. So when their stress response is activated, they are unable to down-regulate, or calm the response. This is not only due to the size difference, but also because the blood flow to the neocortex is diminished. So they have all these emotions running through their mind and body, but are unable to use logic to bring themselves back to a place of balance.

I hope this makes sense, because it is an integral part of why children’s behaviour can become volatile at the smallest things.

Sometimes their parents or another adult is able to “talk them down”, particularly if they combine some simple breathing techniques with ‘loaning’ out some logic or reasoning power. But sometimes the stress response is engaged to such an extent that the only way to calm it is to allow it to burn itself out. In this way kids are able to burn off any adrenalin with physical activity. Most of the time you’ll probably find this happen with the use of some pretty intense tantrums, complete with throwing things, yelling, hitting and so on.

The key to helping your kids to manage their response comes by making them more aware of their body and the signals it gives out to indicate stress. Look for a post on this in the next few days. In the meantime, try reviewing an article I wrote back in August about some secret kids business. In it I discuss how kids can learn to manage their own self-care by creating a box in which to keep some special things to help them calm down.

A special note for children who have experienced trauma or abuse, particularly at an early age. Neurobiological research has found that these kids often have an amygdala that is enlarged. This means that it is much more easily activated. And this in turn means that there is a larger difference in size between the limbic region and the neocortex, making it even more difficult to regulate their emotions. For these kids (well, for all kids, but especially for these ones), the key is safety and security. More than anything else, they need to understand that they are safe. So the best thing you can do is to remain calm, firm and completely sure in your attempts to support them. As you work at calming their response, regulate your own breathing using the belly breathing techniques we have already discussed. We all know that children pick up on our energy and moods, so the calmer you become, the easier it will be to help regulate them. And please consider seeking psychological support for these kids. Not only can a professional teach them how to regulate their emotions, they can work with you on specific strategies to use with them.

mirror neurons

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.

Real life experience of stress

For today’s post I thought I’d break things up a little. We’ve been pretty focused on the more technical aspects of stress and it’s probably a good idea to give you a general picture of how all this looks in the real world. So I’m sharing a personal story of one woman’s experience of stress. Julia is a wife and a mother of two boys, one of whom has special needs. She shares one of the biggest stressors she faces in providing the extra care her son’s needs demand, and some of the strategies she has discovered that work for her. Julia is about to launch her own brand new blog at the end of this week and would love to connect with some new readers. Below her article you’ll find a short bio and the link to her blog, which you can access this Saturday, November 15!

As you read, see if you can apply some of the theory we have been discussing over the past 11 days by identifying how Julia’s limbic system reacts to the stressful experience. If you can identify some of Julia’s stress responses, we’d love to hear your comments!

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What better time to write about stress than when I’m right in the middle of a stressful situation.

Every Saturday night it happens. My husband goes to work at 4.30pm and comes home around 1am… This means I have to get my son to bed and asleep on my own. Let me just say IT IS NOT A FUN EXPERIENCE. Remy who is 8 in 2 weeks has Autism, ADHD and a moderate global developmental delay and he is a classic Autism/ADHD kid when it comes to sleep time. His brother, Xavier is 10 in a month and is quite good with the whole bed time thing although does like to try it on when I have to deal with it all by myself.

I myself have issues with stress and anxiety anyway and this situation really doesn’t help the matter. I’m not very good at handling stress although I am trying to learn some ways to cope better. If I don’t I think my head will explode.

So anyway, back to bed time. Remy is a night owl at the best of times but he can play quietly most nights until he falls asleep on his own or we just switch everything off and he has no choice but to close his eyes. Then there are other nights, and it always happens on a Saturday night, where he is absolutely beside himself with hyperactivity. He’s non-stop talking, walking around the house, kicking, moving things, you name it, if it’s annoying and keeping people awake he’ll be doing it. I try everything to get him to listen and get to bed or to be calm and try to get him to understand that its quiet time now but he carries on regardless.

It’s partly bad behaviour and partly having no control over his body once he’s gone past a certain point, and partly not fully understanding how to or why he needs to calm down and sleep. No matter what it is, by the end of the night I’m usually in tears, heart beating rapidly, yelling, and calling my husband begging him to come home early from work.

What do I do to cope? Well, not much at the moment. When I’m in the heat of a stress attack I can’t even think of anything else. However, here are some things I’ve tried to implement into my life to help me be a calmer person in general

  1. Stretch and core exercises each morning for about 10 minutes. It’s like my version of meditation. I’m not good at sitting still for long but stretching relaxes me and I love doing it. I feel energised afterwards as well which helps.
  2. Box breathing, the problem with this one is that my concentration span is quite short so I get over it pretty quickly. I am trying to train myself to be relaxed and just be still for about five minutes at a time.
  3. When I’m in the heat of a stressful situation I try to take deep breaths and really think about whether or not this is something to get so worked up about. If he’s sitting at the computer at 10pm is it really a bother if he’s occupied and quiet. I am learning to pick my battles. It helps.
  4. I am learning that if I am calm then he responds differently. It’s very hard to do but I’m practicing.
  5. I have been reading a little bit about being ‘present’, in the moment. It’s difficult in this very busy life we all have and my ADHD brain but it’s definitely worth practicing.

Things we’ve tried in the past to get him to go to sleep

  1. Melatonin, a natural medication that mimics the natural hormone the body produces to signal that it’s tired and needs rest. This worked but only sometimes. It wasn’t consistent enough.
  2. Bedtime routine: This has been hard because Remy is set in his ways and if we try to introduce something he doesn’t like then he gets very worked up and makes things worse anyway.
  3. Classical music. Remy loves music but when I tried to introduce classical music for bed time he would sob uncontrollably. I found out pretty quickly that he has a very emotional response to music. He said to me one day “no music bed time, so sad song mummy”
  4. Magnesium and herbal tea in juice. This one is still in experiment mode. I have to make sure the tea is cold then mix it into the juice with the magnesium powder. He has to drink it out of a drink bottle because he won’t drink it if he can smell it. It does relax him a little bit but we haven’t been using it long enough to know if it will be consistent or not.
  5. Tranquiliser gun…. Just kidding, put down the phone, but don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind once or twice.

It is very hard to stay angry and upset when, once he starts to calm down, he looks up at me with his big brown eyes and says “mum, I sowwy I be naughty for you” awwww, melts my heart! NOT GOOD, have to stay strong and not cave in.  Sometimes calmness doesn’t kick in until 2 in the morning.

Bed time isn’t our only stressful situation when it comes to caring for Remy but it has to be the one that affects me the most.

Julia and Remy detour ahead

Those big brown eyes I can’t say no to. “I sowwy I be naughty for you”

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Julia detour ahead I am a Mum of 2 boys. Remy who is 8 has ADHD, Autism and a moderate global developmental delay (thats what they call it when they don’t know what else to call it). He’s amazing and sees the world in a different way, we learn from him all the time. My oldest is 10, Xavier, my little sports star and all round good kid. My husband of 8 years and myself are doing life together trying to figure this whole thing out.

One day I was sitting with a group of Mums from Remy’s support class and we laughed and cried and told stories for hours. We needed it, needed someone else to say, yes I feel like that too, yes my kid does that too, and then it hit me… other families need to hear this stuff too. Not everyone has other people around them to talk to or make them feel like their thoughts and feelings are valid and valued.

So that’s why I’ve decided to start this blog and put together a book for families just like ours. So check out my site and if you would like to share your story then let me know via the site and send me your email address. You can find me at http://www.detourahead.info/ 

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.

Down-regulating stress

Are you getting tired of me talking about the amygdala yet? That little pea-size thing located in the limbic region (emotion centre) of the brain is responsible for our entire survival. After all, it’s the thing that makes the assessment about whether we need to be on the alert for threat. It tells us when we need to focus our entire attention on getting out of a particular situation, whether by fighting for our lives or fleeing for it. The fight/flight response, otherwise known as the stress response.

Like we’ve talked about in previous posts, the amygdala sends signals to different parts of the brain that releases neurochemicals (a fancy word for hormones) that ready our body for that fight or flight. Adrenalin and cortisol provide extra strength for our muscles, and elevated heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. When you combine this with the lack of blood flow to the neocortex, or thinking centre, our emotions are truly activated and our ability to reason out the problem at hand becomes impaired.

stress is

As we discovered yesterday, this process is called up-regulation. It occurs every time we perceive something as a threat. I say it’s a perception because these days it’s not often that we get confronted by saber-tooth tigers outside our cave. Instead we’re confronted by all the things we discussed in the first 4 days of our focus month on stress. Everything that impacts on our bodies, mind and emotions.

Some of these are real threats to our survival, such as the trauma of abuse, but others are not. How many people have died when their kids don’t clean up their room after being asked 300 times? I’m guessing not many. But as we’ve already established, our amygdala doesn’t know the difference, so it makes the assessment regardless.

So we know how it becomes up-regulated.

Do we know how we can down-regulate it?

Don’t be overwhelmed by the terms I’m using. Up-regulation. Down-regulation. They sound technical but we can simplify them.

Up-regulation is to activate the stress response. To set it in motion and to put us on alert.

Down-regulation is the opposite. To calm us down. To ease our emotions, support the adrenalin and cortisol leaving out body, to calm our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. And to re-introduce the blood flow to the thinking centre of the brain so we can reason and problem solve again.

I know the process sounds complex, but as I hinted yesterday, it truly is simple to do. And it comes down to one word.

Breathe.

Yup, that’s it. We need to breathe.

Breathing promotes the flow of oxygen. And this in turn promotes the flow of blood. The more oxygen we take into our lungs the more we will have going through our brain. And that’s where we need it, to down-regulate the entire process.

Think about it. When we feel stressed how do we breathe? Shallowly. We breathe into our chest. And when we feel completely relaxed and chilled out, how does our breathing work then? Deeper. Complete breaths. From the diaphragm. This is the type of breathing that really supports the down-regulation.

I’d like you to try something.

While you’re reading this, I want you to either lay down or sit up straight. Place your hand on the front of your rib cage. Take a breath in and just notice what happens to your tummy. Does it rise up or sink in? observe it for a few seconds without trying to change it.

Now, try to get your tummy to rise up as you breathe in and sink down as you breathe out. Repeat, as you slow your breathing. Spend about 20 seconds simply focusing on this process.

And then check in with your body and mind about how you feel. Let us know what kind of difference you felt in the comments below.

breathe

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.

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