The Power in the way we Think

Posts tagged ‘survival’

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.

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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.

Emotional Stress

emotional stress

Welcome to our third (and final) post in defining stress and really getting in and examining where our stress comes from.

Over the last two days we’ve discussed physical and mental stress and the types of things that influence them. On both days we’ve noticed a number of items on the lists that were a bit unexpected. I believe that today will be no different. There are many things that impact on our emotional stress. Emotions are fickle. They come and go with no rhyme or reason. Or at least we think there’s no rhyme or reason. The fact is, if we understand the mechanics of how our emotions work, we can often recognise the reason and therefore acknowledge where they originate. This of course makes them much easier to manage. So, keep an eye on our blog over the coming week for posts (that may be slightly technical) that will hopefully provide some insight for you.

So, let’s get down to our list. The formula we used yesterday and the day before seemed to work quite well, so following the same routine, we can deduce that emotional stress may be defined as anything that places pressure, strain or force on our emotions.

  • Illness/injury (ever been cranky after stubbing your toe or walking on Lego?)
  • Shock/accident
  • Life challenges (marriage, death, buying a house etc)
  • Work
  • Parenting
  • Beliefs
  • Values
  • Attitudes
  • Seeing other people emotional
  • Disagreements/fights with others
  • Injustice
  • Animals
  • Relationships (partners, ex’s, kids, friends, colleagues etc)
  • Finances
  • Trying to fit in
  • Keeping up with societies expectations
  • Time – too much or not enough
  • Success, procrastination
  • Pleasing others
  • Not having anything meaningful to do
  • Others’ perceptions/opinions
  • Not speaking your opinion/bottling up your emotions
  • Threats to your life (either real or perceived)
  • Abuse (physical, sexual, emotional)
  • Criticisms/put downs
  • Bullying
  • Inability to do something (problem solving)
  • Emotions (one emotion can trigger another or escalate what you’re already feeling)
  • Confusion
  • Responsibility (too much or not enough)
  • Thinking, ruminating or dwelling on problems

There are so many more things that need to be on this list and as I type my brain isn’t providing them. So I’m putting the call out for additions. Comment below and I’ll add them to the list.

The thing with emotions is that it is very easy for them to become overwhelming. Events trigger the emotion, you start thinking and ruminating on the event, which triggers more emotion. It becomes an uncontrollable cycle very quickly, leaving you feeling confused, overwhelmed and out of control. Not a pleasant place to be.

Think about this though. Our brains are pre-programmed to feel emotion. It’s a built-in survival system. Fear tells us when our environment is unsafe and we need to remove ourselves. Shock tells us that something has happened that our brain cannot process, so it helps to shut down the system for a while. And overwhelm tells us that our brains are a bit full and it needs a break to recover and process the things inside.

And given the fact that our current lifestyles continuously place more expectations on us, our brains and bodies really need something that helps us to manage everything.

The bottom line is this. Emotions are normal. Everyone feels them. They serve a purpose. And denying their existence just creates extra pressure that our systems need to manage, placing even more stress on us.

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